Why Plex? - Part 2

17. September 2019 13:09 by Cameron in   //  Tags: , ,   //   Comments

The online TV streaming market is becoming more fragmented as each company introduces their own service and gets exclusivity to several of our favorite TV shows that we used to watch on cable TV. I fully expect traditional cable to TV to be replaced by streaming in the next 5 to 10 years. The idea with streaming services was to "cut" the cord from the big cable companies. However, the reality is, the amount of money we pay hasn't really changed; It's just a matter of who we pay now.

With all of the new streaming services popping up to grab a piece of what used to be dominated by cable TV, I am glad to have my own Plex library which I have been slowly adding box sets of my favorite TV shows. It has become a bidding war of who gets to stream which show and it becomes too much to manage if you only subscribe to a couple of services. If it weren't for Netflix original content, I would probably drop them completely and continue building up my own TV library.

One of my favorite TV shows, The Big Bang Theory, is available on Netflix, but only in the UK. I have watched some of the show while visiting the UK, but while back in the US I've been using a VPN to get access to the show. Now that The Big Bang Theory is finished airing on live TV, I can purchase the box set for $200 on Amazon and not worry about who has the streaming rights to a particular show. If you usually pay $12-$15/month for Netflix, this works out to be about $144-$180 for the year. Yes, $200 for one show might seem like a lot, but it will save you the decision making of whether to keep a service or add a new service should the show you like switch streaming providers. Beginning next year, The Big Bang Theory is leaving Netflix to go to HBO Max streaming service. You will also be able to see it on TBS. However, I am just glad I won't have to worry about where I can watch going forward.

In the end, it's all about how you consume media. If you still have cable, then you can probably find the shows you like on your favorite networks. If you subscribe to streaming services, you can pick and choose which ones work for you for a given time frame. For me though, I mostly like to just subscribe and forget and not have to actively manage which ones to stay.

Why Plex?

2. August 2019 14:45 by Cameron in Plex  //  Tags: , , , , , , ,   //   Comments

In the modern age of streaming movies and TV, we are faced with a growing problem of media fragmentation. No longer can you watch all of your desired shows under one subscription as all of the big studios seem to be fighting for a piece of the pie when it comes to licensing movies and TV across streaming services. The challenge too is that at any given moment, a publishing company can revoke these licenses from a particular service and switch to another service. Also, if the new service is something you don't subscribe to, you then need to make a decision of whether the cost of a new subscription is worth it for still having access to your show.

All of these subscription services add up. You might not think much of one or two services, but if you subscribe to several services, then you are likely paying close to if not more than a comparable cable subscription. The only difference here is that everyone is getting more money for their content by bypassing cable licensing fees. Streaming has changed the way we consume content by cutting out the middle man and allowing us to watch on our own time. However, don't be fooled that it is always cheaper than cable.

If you enjoy certain TV series but don't want to pay a monthly subscription to watch, you can opt for Plex and purchasing box sets of your TV series. There is more of an upfront cost by getting compatible hardware for Plex, but the good thing is that you can start small and plan for expansion as your budget allows. The box sets tend to be pricey up front too, but one series box set (~$200) will have paid for itself in about a year's time.

With the digital codes that are distributed with new movies, they used to be redeemed with Ultraviolet, but has shifted to Movies Anywhere. With the recent closure of Ultraviolet, I'm reminded why I don't like DRM. I'm a huge fan of buying physical movies and ripping them to my Plex server. While I like the concept of Movies Anywhere, how do I know that this won't ultimately have the same fate as Ultraviolet? With my own library, I maintain the original discs in boxes and I have access to my hundreds of movies with a click of a button. I don't have to worry about a service going defunct.

I'm not boycotting streaming services altogether, but I don't like having content I enjoy watching tied up in DRM platforms. I plan to keep my streaming service subscriptions to a minimum. Of the few, I will stick with Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime (I mostly use for shipping) and probably Disney's streaming platform. As long as I can still buy physical media, that will be my preferred way of building a library for many years to come.

Home Lab Update

25. July 2019 12:48 by Cameron in Plex, server  //  Tags: , , , , ,   //   Comments

A couple of weeks ago, I expanded my server's RAID 6 array to 40TB, but in the process the RAID controller's write cache failed. I didn't know that this was the problem right away though. I had just told the array to expand the volume to 40TB and then the application froze and it seemed like that wasn't going to complete. I became impatient and force shutdown the server before the operation completed. However, when I went to restart the server, it would not recognize the write cache and it failed to boot. Then, I tried removing the external card and moving everything back to the onboard P410i.

The original reason for getting an expansion RAID card was to have RAID 6 support without the need for a license. The P410i requires a license and they're prohibitively expensive. The P812 expansion cards are $12 a piece and it was the right choice for my needs. After determining that the RAID card had failed along with the cache, I ordered another P812 and cache module. In the mean time, I was able to boot my server with the onboard P410i and backup the content from the array although there was no write cache. It took a couple of days, but now everything is backed up to two 8TB hard drives.

When my second P812 arrived, I was able to install the new card and get back up and running. I recreated the RAID 6 array at 40TB and have begun copying my files back over the network. The process is slow as I'm using 1Gbits at the moment and for some reason my USB 3.0 hard drives are only operating at 480Mbits. Though, it should be faster in the future with 10Gbits. I'll need to install an NVMe drive in my desktop to take full advantage of 10Gbit throughput. My server is limiting SATA drives to SATA II at 3Gbits and my desktop is capped at 6Gbits with SATA III. I've installed an NVMe SSD into my server and can get about 1600MB/s read/write or 12Gbits.

Next, my plan is to get an NVMe SSD for my desktop, two 10Gbe cards, and an SFP+ cable to connect them. I will also need to write some PowerShell to copy files from my HDD to the SSD and then over the network to my server. On the server, then watch the SSD for new files and copy to the RAID array. The end goal being that files are copied between SSDs on both ends.

Home Lab Update

2. July 2019 16:11 by Cameron in Plex  //  Tags: , , , , ,   //   Comments

Initially, I had thought I would transcode 4K to 1080p using my lab server, but I couldn't get great results with the Quadro P400. I fear it is a limitation of the processors and available bandwidth as well as the P400's GPU pipeline. Maybe I would get better results with a P2000, but instead, I will be hosting 1080p rips of all my 4K movies for viewing on the go.

My long term goal is to have my ripping PC be connected to my server with a 10Gbe connection and copy to an SSD cache on my server, but this will require patience as each 10Gbe NIC is ~$50 and the SFP+ cables aren't cheap either. I will likely get an SFP+ switch at some point too so I can enable 10Gbe on other devices as needed. To better saturate 10Gbe, I have since removed the GPU and replaced with a PCIe x16 NVMe adapter for a network cache drive. SATA, when paired with this server and the SAS backplane, is limited to SATA II speeds.

I had a spare older 256GB NVMe SSD from another computer, but it maxed out at 300MB/s write speeds and this isn't enough for 10Gbe. Therefore, I got an Inland 512GB NVMe SSD that maxes out at about 850-900MB/s or ~7Gb/s with the HP Proliant DL380 G7's PCIe gen 2 x16 slot. This gets me slightly better than SATA III speeds on a 10 year old server, of which I am happy. I am going to work on some sort of file watcher to move files from the cached location to my long-term Plex library. The idea will be to have a mirror of the folders present on my general Plex library and just copy the files over and remove the cached version when complete.

To support more expansion and redundancy, I bought a secondary RAID controller, the HP P812. This card is interesting because of RAID 6 support since the onboard RAID controller only supports up to RAID 5 without a license. Licenses are hard to find and likely expensive. The new RAID card was about $16. Transferring to the new controller was easy enough since the RAID information is stored on disk. The key is that these are all HP OEM RAID controllers and it was as simple as swapping cables for each backplane from the motherboard to the new RAID card.

When installing the new RAID card, I was given the option to change the RAID configuration to RAID 6. Note, this will take a while when you have a large array as the parity has to be redistributed. After a grueling week and a half of transitioning my RAID 5 to RAID 6, I now have about 30TB of usable space in RAID 6 on my lab server. Funnily enough, I am currently in the process of expanding my array to support 10TB more space, totaling in at 40TB of space. This will be worth the time investment as it will take a long time to fill up (hopefully).

Plex Setup Update

3. June 2019 22:33 by Cameron in   //  Tags: , , , ,   //   Comments

I now have all of my media in one place on my HP Proliant DL380 G7. It took a few days as the library consists of over 14TB of files.

When I tried to install the Quadro P400 into the server, the system would crash on the driver installation and force the server to reboot. This would render Windows effectively bricked and I fought with this about 3-4 times before giving up on getting it to work. Plan B is to use a GTX 1050 single slot card in its place. I have a GTX 750 installed in my colo server so this should work too. The GTX 1050 has more shader units than the Quadro P400 and it is HP branded so hopefully the fan control will be softer. The memory bandwidth bus is 128bit vs 64bit too. I will need to use the driver nvenc unlock to get its full potential, but according to the attached matrix, I should be able to get 14 simultaneous transcodes. This has yet to be benchmarked by myself, but the numbers look promising. I will post an update shortly after I've had a chance to test these findings.

nVidia NVENC NVDEC Matrix.pdf (427.36 kb)

Getting HD-DVD movies into Plex

28. September 2018 09:31 by Cameron in Home Theater  //  Tags: , , ,   //   Comments

In order to get HD-DVD movies into Plex you need the following:
1. External/Internal HD-DVD drive (an Xbox 360 HD-DVD is cheap on eBay ~$10-15)

2. MakeMKV 

3. AnyDVD HD/DVDFab Passkey (used for decrypting HD-DVD discs)

4. Clown BD (used for converting decrypted HD-DVD movies to M2TS)

5. Plenty of hard drive space as movies can be on average 10-20GB a piece. I use a Synology DS918+ NAS with 12TB of space.

Method 1:

The easiest approach to getting HD-DVD rips is using MakeMKV and selecting the main feature to rip. The process is similar to ripping a standard DVD or Blu-Ray/UHD disc. Just insert the disc in the drive and wait for MakeMKV to recognize the disc. Then load up the title list and select the main feature (the largest title in the list). In terms of audio, most discs have Dolby Digital Plus. Some have TrueHD which is lossless and preferred if available.

Note 1: Some people have mentioned that using an older version of MakeMKV (1.9.9) has had better success than more recent versions. You can try this if you have read errors on some of your discs.

Note 2: The mkvs produced by MakeMKV do not remove the telecine pull-down flag so you are left with a 29.97 fps video. This may not be an issue, but if you want to remove this flag, you will need to demux the mkv using eac3to and then remux (replacing the original video) using something like MKVToolnix.

Method 2:

If MakeMKV can't read the disc, then you may need to try with AnyDVD HD/DVDFab Passkey and rip the entire video disc to a temporary location on your hard drive. Then you can use Clown BD to demux/remux into an M2TS.

Method 3:

Use AnyDVD HD/DVDFab Passkey to take a full ISO backup of your disc. Then mount the disc and attempt Method 1 or Method 2 (point Clown BD to your virtual drive instead).

If these methods are unsuccessful, you might have disc rot and be unable to fully read the disc. In this case, you can evaluate if you want to replace the damaged discs with their Blu-Ray release.

General Notes:

Audio in Plex is a bit finicky depending on your client. If you use the PC client, then nearly any format is supported via direct play. However, if you use a client such as Xbox One or PS4, these might need to transcode Dolby Digital Plus to AAC before being compatible for playback. I found that on my Synology DS918+, this can be troublesome because transcoding DD+ to AAC requires a lot of processing power and sometimes the movie buffers while the audio transcodes.

The bottom line for movie enthusiasts:

Be smart about adding HD-DVDs to your library. Warner Brothers titles are more risky and it's a bit of a mixed bag with them due to disc rot. I have had success with a few titles so far, but I'm not holding my breath on all of my Warner Brothers titles. Also consider that since HD-DVD has been out of commission for the last 10 years, movies will only be as new as 2008. However, there are dozens of titles from that era that are worth collecting.

Why I bought an HD-DVD player in 2018

28. September 2018 09:15 by Cameron in Home Theater, server  //  Tags: , , , , ,   //   Comments

I recently stumbled upon a video on YouTube about adding various upgrades/addons to an Xbox 360. Among these upgrades included the Xbox 360 HD-DVD drive. Since HD-DVD lost the format war against  Blu-Ray back in 2008, it is considered a dead format and likely any movies on the platform are cheaper than their Blu-Ray counterpart. That's when I had the thought to purchase this drive and some HD-DVDs to expand my HD movie collection. Because the drive communicates over USB, it can be used with a PC and you can either play the discs directly or rip them to play them on your media server. I went to eBay and found a 46 movie lot with two HD-DVD drives for $60 which is a huge discount on movies.

I am now in the process of converting these movies with MakeMKV and AnyDVD HD/Clown BD. Most of the discs I've tried have worked with MakeMKV, but a few might need a different approach. I've been able to rip most of my library so far without issue, but some of the Warner Brothers titles are more difficult to rip due to their impending disc rot. Luckily, I was able to rip "A Clockwork Orange", "I am Legend", and "Constantine" so far and there doesn't appear to be any disc rot on these. I have about 10-15 more Warner Brothers titles to assess, but hopefully I can get through most of them. Disc rot is inevitable on Warner Brothers HD-DVDs so if you have any of these still, get them backed up ASAP!

I will be looking for single movies or smaller lots that don't contain Warner Brothers movies in the future. However, even if only 20-30 movies out of the 46 are good in this lot, it still is a heck of a deal on all of the movies.

HTPC Upgrade/Rebuild!

28. July 2018 22:55 by Cameron in Home Theater  //  Tags: , , , , , ,   //   Comments

I've upgraded and nearly completely rebuilt my HTPC for better long term usability and more moderate gaming. I swapped out the motherboard with an HP Elite 8300 motherboard, upgraded the RAM to 16GB, upgraded the CPU to an i7 3770, upgraded the SSD to 240GB, upgraded the hard drive to 4TB, and upgraded the GPU to a GTX 1050 Ti.

Originally, the upgrades were inspired by high CPU usage when playing H.265 content from Plex. I noticed this when playing back 4K H.265 content from Plex on my i5 2500. With the i7 3770, I am able to play back 4K H.265 movies with roughly 30-40% CPU usage. Adding a GTX 1050 Ti also helped with the decoding via its CUDA cores. The GT 1030 simply didn't have the power to help with H.265 so everything was CPU bound. I needed to swap motherboards because the HP 6200 Pro doesn't supply the needed 75W for the GTX 1050 Ti. Since I was swapping motherboards, I went for the HP Elite 8300 so I could get Ivy Bridge CPU support. Naturally, I needed to get the best i7 available. The larger SSD was just so I could install a couple of higher demanding games such as Rise of the Tomb Raider and Just Cause 3. I outfitted the rig with a 4TB drive to accommodate installing more Steam games and support recording TV shows/movies from Plex DVR.

As a result of these upgrades, the only thing original to the PC I first bought is the chassis. Now, I am happily using this machine as a more moderate gaming machine and my home theater workhorse. I will likely upgrade the low profile GPU as needed in the future, but the GTX 1050 Ti should suit me for a while.

Plex with Synology DS918+ NAS for home media

28. July 2018 22:19 by Cameron in NAS  //  Tags: , , ,   //   Comments

I realized that I was going to quickly outgrow my desktop PC's storage for use with Plex once I started ripping my 4K UHD Blu-ray disks. To remedy this, I recently purchased a Synology DS918+ NAS for handling storage of my files and TV/movie collection. I purchased the DS918+ because of it supporting four drives, expandability options (expand up to 5 more drives), and its processor for Plex transcoding.

To start, I installed three 4TB Seagate IronWolf NAS hard drives and configured to use Synology's hybrid RAID. I will be adding a fourth 4TB hard drive later this summer. With the hybrid RAID option, I can have mixed hard drive sizes in my array and upgrade the disks gradually. The main requirement is that I have two of the largest disks in the array. I will probably upgrade all of these drives to 8TB at some point, but it shouldn't be right away.

I have been thoroughly enjoying Plex and having my TV shows, movies, and music available anywhere in the world. I ripped all of my audio CDs with iTunes and copied over all of the albums I bought on iTunes too. I also bought an HDHomerun Prime to record cable TV and save to the NAS. I record with my home theater PC and strip out commercials with MCEBuddy and Comskip. After recording, MCEBuddy copies the files to my NAS for archiving.

I am strongly considering cancelling Hulu and Spotify in favor of my own libraries. I think Hulu is less necessary when you can record your own TV shows and watch them at your own leisure. In regards to Spotify, I hardly listen to much of the new stuff out there and it would be cheaper to buy an album on occasion to support individual artists. Spotify doesn't pay artists very much for music played.

It takes a bit of patience to rip a large movie collection. However, all you need is a PC with a Blu-ray drive and MakeMKV to save the rips directly to your NAS. You can rip everything from DVD to UHD Blu-ray with MakeMKV. Ripping UHD Blu-ray is more challenging as it requires specific drives with specific firmware. However, the process isn't too bad after you've patched your drive's firmware (assuming you have a newer drive). Ripping audio CDs is very quick since they contain at most 700MB of data.

With Plex for Windows, I am able to play UHD mkvs on my 4K SDR TV with HDR to SDR tone mapping. As far as I know, the Windows application is the only client capable of tone mapping. Most UHD releases also come with 1080p releases, but I must say that the tone mapped colors are much more vivid than their 1080p SDR equivalents. I jumped on the 4K TV bandwagon before HDR was readily available, but I will be getting an HDR10/Dolby Vision TV at some point in the near future. At that point,tone mapping will not be needed.

Since getting all of this setup, I have been extremely happy with my purchases. There is a bit of an upfront cost with all of the equipment, but the features in Plex make this worth every penny. Whether you're just beginning to build a movie library or you've been collecting a while, Plex is a good way to get your collection preserved and make it available anywhere in the world.

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