A few years ago, a home media server mainly consisted of an old computer hooked up to a nearby set of speakers and an S-video cable that snaked out to a TV set. If you wanted to watch a movie or listen to music, you navigated with a mouse via the Windows desktop and fired up Media Player, or maybe VLC, put the program into full-screen mode, selected your title from a subdirectory and trundled off.
While functional, this "office work meets entertainment" paradigm did little to inspire film and music enthusiasts, and it tied viewing to a locally connected set of systems and their installed codecs. It also required a PC to view the content, a somewhat cumbersome and expensive solution. Plex Media Server for Windows (free) changes this situation in a fundamental way, turning a home PC into a streaming media centre that's just as slick, appealing, and versatile as commercial services.
Setup is as simple as installing the 51MB download and specifying the folders you want Plex to index and share via its browser-based media centre control panel. The software automatically recognises most music and film titles and backfills the media catalogue with details, including cover art, cast, rating, and a full synopsis from a variety of online sources that you can specify. This allows you to go from a generic folder full of text file names to a lush database packed with imagery and information about your library without needing to type a single word. Accuracy is excellent as well, with only a few files incorrectly associated with the wrong film or TV show title out of the hundreds in my test database. Plug-ins interface with commercial streaming services like Pandora as well, consolidating all your media through a single unified interface.
Since it transcodes audio and video on the fly, Plex Media Server doesn't require destination devices to use special codecs or other low-level software alterations to function properly, only the Plex client, which is available for PCs, Macs, Android and iOS devices, and even Roku boxes. I tested Plex with a Roku 2 XS, a Galaxy S smartphone, and a Windows PC: All functioned with low latency and with good-to-excellent video/audio quality. Transcoding isn't easy on the server, however, and performing it will eat up a considerable amount of horsepower on even a high-end gaming rig. A dual-core system is a must on the back end, and the more RAM and CPU cycles you can provide, the better.
For the price, Plex Media Server is quite polished - though I did run into a few issues. Access over internet connections was spotty and the Android client would occasionally cause a server hang-up that required a full reboot to clear. Adding and removing media libraries from the browser-based interface window was a bit clunky as well, with some changes not properly registering until the server software was closed and reopened. Also, not every aspect of Plex is free - the Android client runs for £3.15, for example. These are fairly minor gripes, however, and given the version number I expected more problems than I found. Overall, Plex is a great way to share media over a home network and spice up the delivery and selection process.