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How to Use a Mac as a Media Centre With Plex


Physical media is dying; DVD sales are disappearing, Blockbuster is gone and Netflix is a streaming company. 

Outside of a few hardcore film fans buying Blu-ray disks to get the highest possible quality (and all the film’s extra features), people are making the transition to streaming. 

This is great if you want to get access to thousands of movies for only a couple of dollars a month, but what does it mean for the stack of DVDs sitting on your shelf?

No new Mac has a built in DVD drive so, while you still have an old one or a USB Superdrive lying around, now is the time to digitise your film collection and set up a Mac as a media centre. Storage is cheap—a few dozen films won’t put a dent in a one terabyte external hard drive. 

Digitising the media collection, however, is just the first step. There’s no point going to the effort of ripping your entire film collection to a hard drive and then just leaving the files sit there. Sure, you can connect the hard drive to a Mac, dig through the file system and maybe find what you’re looking for, but it’s not a nice experience. 

What you should do is set up a proper media centre with an app like Plex which is exactly what I'll show you in this tutorial.

Introducing Plex

Plex is the best media centre software available for MacOS. It uses a client-server model. On the media centre Mac you install the server app and then on every iOS device, Apple TV, Mac, games console, smart TV and other device you want to use, you install the client app. 

When you want to watch a film, you use the client app to browse your media collection and choose something. It then streams the film from the server, whether it’s in the next room or a different country. The server does all the heavy lifting. This split keeps Plex lightweight and available on a wide number of platforms. You can find the complete list of apps the Plex website.

plex apps
Some of the many Plex apps available.

Plex is free to use although the premium Plex Pass, which starts at $4.99 a month, adds some extra features such as offline synchronisation.

Preparing a Media Collection

For Plex to work well, you need to do a little bit of prep work on the media files you want to use. You can’t just have everything sitting, badly named in a folder and expect Plex to make head-or-tails of it.

Jacob Penderworth has written a great tutorial on how to import DVDs into iTunes. It covers how to use Handbrake and MetaZ to rip DVDs into well formatted media files. 

Follow along with Jacob's tutorial just instead of adding the films to iTunes, save them to a dedicated Movies folder.

Plex can also handle TV shows. Follow the same process for ripping them but instead of throwing them in the catchall Movies folder, add each TV show to it’s own dedicated folder inside a TV Shows folder. 

For example, all the episodes you have of the IT Crowd go in a folder called IT Crowd which is inside TV Shows.

Once your media collection is sorted, you can set up Plex.

Setting Up Plex on a Mac

On the Mac you want to be the media centre, head to the Plex website and sign up for an account. Download Plex Media Server and install it.

Go to Applications and open Plex Media Server. The server runs in the background but you control it from your web browser. The first time you open Plex Media Server it should automatically launch the web front end. If it doesn’t, select the menubar icon and click Open Plex…

If Plex Media Centre opens automatically, follow the Set Up Wizard until it prompts you to add libraries. If it hasn’t, click the Add Library button. Select the media type you want to add, for me it’s Movies, and click Next. Click Browse for Media Folder and select the folder where you stored all your movies. Click Save to add it.

adding library
Adding a new Movies library to Plex.

Now Plex will pull in all the metadata and download covers, descriptions and everything else from the internet. The process might take a few minutes, depending on the size of the media library, so leave it run.

my media collection
My media collection after Plex has downloaded the metadata.

Once Plex is done, repeat the same process with any other media kinds, like TV shows, that you want to add.

To finish setting up Plex Media Server, head to Settings, select Server and then login to your Plex Account if you didn’t do it during the set up. This will make it easier for client apps to find the server.

Enabling Remote Access

If you want to be able to access the media centre when you’re away from your home network, go to Settings > Server > Remote Access. Click Enable Remote Access. You will need to have a router set up for UPnP. If you run into difficulties, check out Plex’s troubleshooting guide.

Setting Up Plex on Other Devices

With Plex Media Server set up, the hard work is done. The media centre is now sharing all your movies and TV shows over the network. The next thing to do is set up all the client servers.

If you’re setting up a PC or Mac, go to Plex’s website and find the right app for a given OS. The Mac can run both the server and a client at the same time so it’s worth installing it on the media centre too.

plex ios
The media centre streaming to Plex on my iPhone.

For other devices like iPhone, Apple TV, Android, Smart TVs, Roku and games consoles, head to the devices app store and search for Plex. Download the client app.

Once you have Plex downloaded, make sure the device is connected to the same Wi-Fi network as the media centre. Open Plex and sign in to your account. Plex will automatically detect all the servers on the network. Select the media centre and wait while the client pulls all the media information.

With that done, the client is now set up and ready to use. Browse the media collection and select what you want to watch. It will be streamed directly from the media centre like your own private Netflix.

Wrapping Up

Plex is the best solution for setting up a Mac media centre. Whether you install it on a dedicated Mac Mini, an iMac or even just a MacBook, it’s a great way to share movies and TV shows to other devices. 

Using a computer is one of the worst ways to watch media. It’s far better to stream something to a TV so everyone can watch it in full resolution or to a tablet so you can curl up in bed and enjoy it yourself.

In this tutorial I’ve looked at how to set up Plex Media Server and the Plex client apps. If you’ve any questions about the process, ask away in the comments section below.

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