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April 27, 2018

Plex Media Server – a Retrospective

It’s been close to two years since we released Plex Media Server v1.0, and we figured it was time to highlight just a few of the things we’ve been working on since then. If you thought we’ve just been growing Laurus Nobilis trees and chilling on piles of their leaves, you’d be well mistaken. By the numbers alone, we’ve closed 2,281 issues (thanks, GitHub!) and made 3,456 commits to the code since then. We have a growing server team (if you know the difference between boost and a booster seat, drop us a line!). In that time, we’ve made the server faster, added some incredibly cool features, and fixed a ton of bugs. Let’s recap A FEW of the more exciting things we’ve added!

Collections: Noted in our satisfaction survey (yes, we have the feels for you!) as one of your favorite new features, we added this as a Christmas present last year. It allows you to group things together and add custom titles and artwork (even across libraries and media types—we’re especially proud of our Blade Runner collection: all the cuts plus the soundtrack!). We’re about to release a nice little update which adds frequently requested per-collection visibility settings, and we have another little treat planned as well. We know you love collecting and curating media, and we’re going to keep building the best way for you to do it!

Photos: Many of you might not know this, but the original design for the media server library was sketched on a napkin in coach class on a long flight from Korea to Hawaii. The library was designed to be generic, but it wasn’t until fairly recently that we really focused on making sure the Server was the best software in the world for organizing your prized digital photos. We added support for location tagging, favoriting, and some crazy auto-tagging magic for Plex Pass users, with beautiful new waterfall-style views, and more.

Music: It’s a brave new world for music these days on Plex! As part of Plex Labs, we released a little app called Plexamp to showcase a bunch of wicked cool new server-powered music features, including new Radio stations from tracks in your own library, visual seeking, smart crossfading, and more. Many of these features are making their way to other apps including our Alexa skill, the Roku app, and others. We also added a super powerful smart playlist builder to the web app. If you have a Plex Pass, here’s a really cool combination of smart playlists you can sync to your mobile devices:

  • Recently Added: This one is easy, just sort by addition date
  • Highly Rating, Haven’t Listened Recently: Make another playlist of highly rated tracks, and select ones which you haven’t listened to in—say—3 months

Next up, sync these two smart playlists to your mobile device; you can tweak the amount of each by setting an appropriate limit on the sync rule. Now you have a perfect collection with you at all times!

  • Your most recently added music in case you’re in the mood for new stuff.
  • Music you love but haven’t heard lately in case you’re in the mood for the familiar.
  • Shuffle all your synced music to get a great mix of new and old favorites!

Live TV and DVR: There are entire software packages devoted to just this functionality, but we were uniquely positioned to offer something incredible, which leverages all of the other aspects of Plex. Since first release we’ve added support for a ton of tuners, added Live TV support, and then full timeshifting. Stream Live TV or recorded media anywhere in the world, optimize it in place, remove commercials automatically, sync it to mobile devices, or share it with your Plex Home members. (And yes, program grids are coming… Soon™!)

Under the hood: Deep inside the Plex Media Server (second basement level, down the hall and third door on the left) is an incredibly sophisticated piece of software called the Streaming Brain. As promised, it keeps getting smarter. Along with the Plex Transcoder (based on the most advanced transcoder in the solar system), these two systems ensure you have the best experience no matter what hotel-, airplane-, or questionable cafe- WiFi is between you and your media.

Starting on the server, we’ve added extensive support for hardware-accelerated transcoding (in layperson’s terms: making your lazy-ass CPU or video card work harder for you). Practically speaking, it means you can stream more things at the same time. But regardless of how powerful a system you have (or how many sweet, sweet RGB LEDs you have on it — looking at you, Ian), you’re probably limited by your upstream bandwidth. This is where the Streaming Brain shines, as it now manages your bandwidth across multiple streams, and picks the optimal quality for each stream individually, modifying as needed on-the-fly. No hyperbole, this is the most sophisticated media server ever built.

Yes, this shirt is available, along with other fun Plex gear here.

Rapid Fire: We could go on for a while, but we’ll just leave you with a few other things which may have slipped through the cracks:

  • We added an advanced caching system to ensure dashboards and discovery screens load quickly, regardless of your library size. Speedups range from 4x to 100x.
  • We were annoyed that we didn’t even notice the new season of the Walking Dead had started, so we enhanced the On Deck feature to include season premieres.
  • We added powerful customization features so that you can automatically delete older TV episodes (or clean them up after watching), set sort order for a show or artist, or enable DVD order for shows.
  • Everyone loves torturing delighting shared users with custom pre-roll trailers. We recently enhanced the feature to give you more control over the trailers you serve up. Clearly you need to push that popcorn and then sell overpriced soda to your dry-mouthed audience.
  • For those of you a bit more technically inclined, we added support for Webhooks. We’ve seen them used to control home theater lighting, post movie and TV plays to Slack, and keep Slack status updated with current music track. Let us know if you’ve found a cool use for Webhooks!

In summary, we have a great (and growing) team hard at work on the Plex Media Server, the core of your Plex experience, and we’re excited to keep on making it better, faster, and even more powerful for you!

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