How Plex can free up your old DVD shelf

If the shelf under your TV is groaning with the weight of all the DVD box sets you received for Christmas, or perhaps those you’ve accumulated over the years, you might be forgiven for wondering if there is an easier way to store them all.

Plex streams your old DVDs to any of your devices
Plex streams your old DVDs to any of your devices

In an age of streaming almost anything you want on demand, discs are becoming as redundant as VHS cassettes before them. They are not only cumbersome but also restrictive; you can generally view them only on a full-size TV with a disc player hooked up to it. Not even Windows PCs will play them any more without third-party software.

Wouldn’t it be better to store them all on a pocket-sized hard drive at the back of a cupboard somewhere and stream them to any phone, TV or tablet in the house? Here’s a way to do just that.

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Plex is not a set-top box but a piece of software that indexes all the titles in your collection and serves them up wherever you want. It does the same for photos and music, and comes with a range of its own TV channels. And although some of its own content comes at a premium, its basic service is free.

The software is in two parts, the more important of which is the server that maintains a database of your titles and plays them out to whichever device you want to watch them on, converting them if necessary to a compatible format.

The server is freely downloadable from www.plex.tv and can be installed on any modern PC. This needs to be left switched on for the content to remain available, so in a perfect world you’d have a machine especially for the purpose – but in practice one of your regular computers will do. It’s mostly preconfigured; all you need do is tell it where your video, music and photo collections are stored.

This could be any location on your network but the ideal choice is a portable hard drive plugged directly into the PC you’ve chosen as your server. These are readily available on the high street, at around £40 for a one-terabyte model – that’s enough for around 2,500 videos at standard definition – or just over £50 for one twice that size.

The second part of Plex is the “client”, which takes the form of an app on your phone, smart TV, tablet, Roku stick or similar device. This connects to the server and displays your collection in an attractive, library-style view complete with illustrations and information for each title. You just select what you want and it starts playing.

The fiddly part is putting your titles on to a hard drive in the first place. Your photos and songs are probably already on one but placing your DVDs alongside them requires each of them to be “ripped” on to a computer, in the same way as CDs when digital music came along. Unfortunately, video takes much longer to rip than audio, and if you have a large collection you will need to set some spare time aside. You’ll be glad when you’ve done it, though.

A piece of PC software called Handbrake will work its way through all your disks, ripping each title to an MP4 file in a folder of your choice. In the case of a TV series, there will be a file per episode – but it’s important that you give them names Plex can recognise. This is because it looks up information for each one on an internet database, which expects it to conform to a universal standard, the details of which are in the Plex online documentation.

Even commercial discs with copy protection can be ripped for your personal use, with the addition of a single file to your computer. Again, you will find the file and instructions online. Once all your discs have been transferred, you can get rid of the lot and reclaim the space for the next generation of transient technology.

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