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Best Media Server for Plex: 7 Awesome Pre-built, NAS, and DIY options

Best Media Server for Plex

written by Anand February 11, 2020

Choosing the right media server for Plex can be challenging, especially for a beginner. How about we make it a little bit easier for you? Here is a list of a few great NAS, DIY, and pre-built options for media server with Plex support.

Plex media server allows streaming your locally owned digital media content to various devices inside or outside your home. Simply put, it is a DIY Netflix. Plex recently added support for free movies. In addition, it is also possible to play IPTV on Plex. For these reasons, Plex media server is a key component of my smart home setup.

I was an avid Kodi user but slowly transitioned to Plex in 2018 and I am very happy. The biggest benefits of Kodi were addons and customizability. But Plex was easier to maintain on client devices, remotely available during travel, sharable with friends, and easier library sync. [Read: Plex vs Kodi – The Ultimate Comparison Guide for Beginners]

My move to Plex was a bit bumpy but these Kodi to Plex migration tips helped. The biggest hurdle was finding a media server for Plex that could support my streaming needs: multiple streams, multiple transcodes, and 4k support when needed in the future. Based on my research and the last two years of personal experience, here are some awesome options for media server with Plex support.

Before we delve into Plex server hardware, here is a brief intro to Plex media server.

How does Plex media server work?

Briefly, Plex media server catalogs your media and makes them available to Plex app on client devices that play them. Successfully using Plex requires at least 2 components:

  1. Plex server - A media server with Plex running constantly and ready to serve media at the request of Plex clients.
  2. Plex client - A client device (eg. Amazon Fire TV, Roku devices, etc.) with Plex app that plays the media from your Plex server. [Read: 10 Best Plex client devices: Pre-built and DIY options]

In addition, you will need locally stored content on a media server for Plex to catalog. There are several different ways to store local media for streaming to Plex (or Emby, Kodi, and Jellyfin).

Is Plex Media Server free?

Plex media server itself is free for use with the web app for viewing. However, viewing media content on Plex mobile client apps require an in-app purchase (~$5) per device. A lifetime Plex pass is highly recommended. It allows usage of unlimited Plex client apps, Live TV and DVR, multiple users, parental controls, hardware acceleration, etc.

Best Media Server for Plex

As mentioned earlier, Plex requires a server capable of handling multiple streams and transcoding when required. The ability to transcode is the biggest limitation of most network-attached storage devices. Self-built Plex servers typically outperform any pre-built Plex server hardware.

In my opinion, transcoding capability is one of the top Plex server requirements and skimping on media server hardware can result in buffering issues and unsatisfactory media streaming experience. [Read: Troubleshooting Plex buffering – Solutions for when Plex keeps pausing]

However, NAS devices have made significant progress in this area and many newer ones come with hardware transcoding capability.

What devices can Plex media server run on?

Most devices can run Plex media server. However, simultaneous streams and transcoding may be limited by CPU and GPU of the plex server hardware. Here is a rough guideline for CPU requirements for Plex:

  • CPU PassMark >1500: One 720p (4Mbps, H.264) video transcode
  • CPU PassMark >2000: One 1080p (10Mbps, H.264) video transcode
  • CPU PassMark >12000: One 4k SDR (40Mbps, 8-bit HEVC) video transcoded to 1080p
  • CPU PassMark >17000: One 4k HDR (50Mbps, 10-bit HEVC) video transcoded to 1080p

Note that, a hardware transcoding capable GPU/CPU can reduce PassMark requirements and having media files in one of the Plex supported formats and a capable client can minimize transcoding by direct-playing content.

Without further ado, let's look at a few top DIY, NAS, and Pre-built media server with Plex support.

Note that most NASes do not have CPUs capable of software-transcoding 4K video. It is not a good value to pay up for those that do. Therefore, only those models that offer good value with hardware transcoding 1080p and 4k (H.264) capability are listed below. Only decoding is supported by all NASes for HEVC 4k videos, at this time.

1. Synology - NAS for Plex Media Server

Synology is known for making some of the best NAS devices for Plex media server. Most NAS devices do not have a CPU capable of handling UHD videos. However, Synology recognized that there is a demand for being able to use NAS devices as Plex media servers and upped the CPUs a little but more importantly upgraded the hardware to handle hardware video transcoding.

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This is one reason why I invested in a Synology DS918+ last year. It is it now a core component of my smart home setup that not only runs Plex media server but also handles several other duties such as security video storage, media storage, database server, etc. [Read: 5 Most common NAS or Home Server uses]

Almost all recent Synology NAS models support software transcoding of 480p (SD) and 720p (HD) streams. Only some support 1080p software transcoding. But here is a list of recent Synology NAS models that support hardware transcoding of up to H.264 2160p (4k) videos.

Model Drive Bays 4k Support Price
DS218+ 2 Yes ~$300
DS718+ 2 (expandable to 7) Yes ~$400
DS418play 4 Yes ~$425
DS918+ editors pick 4 (expandable to 9) Yes ~$550
DS1019+ 5 (expandable to 10) Yes ~$650

The CPU, RAM and Networking capabilities of the above models can vary significantly and comparing them is out of the scope of this article. However, all of them are capable of being an excellent media server for Plex.

Recommended Model: DS918+

My recommendation is the DS918+ model if you can afford it because it allows several RAID options, expandability if needed, and hardware transcoding for Plex for just around $550. In addition, there is support for Docker and Virtualization, which can extend the number of available apps significantly.

A budget option at this point is the DS218+ model, which only costs about $300.

Best Plex Client Devices:
  1. NVIDIA SHIELD TV Pro Home Media Server - $199.99 editors pick
  2. Amazon Fire TV Streaming Media Player - $89.99
  3. Roku Premiere+ 4K UHD - $83.99
  4. CanaKit Raspberry Pi 3 Complete Starter Kit - $69.99
  5. Xbox One 500 GB Console - $264.99

2. QNAP - NAS for Plex Media Server

QNAP is another major player in the NAS business with several capable models and software support as good as Synology's. QNAP's offerings can be overwhelming. They have numerous models. In addition, they also released the high-performance TVS series that pack very powerful but efficient Intel Core i3, i5 or i7 processor with up to 32 GB of RAM.

Some of the models even include 10 Gbps networking interface, which is 10 times the bandwidth available in most commonly available consumer NASes at this point.

Another benefit of QNAP (over Synology) is the availability of HDMI port for video out. Synology NAS is only available through the web interface.

With that said, here are some of the QNAP media servers with Plex support for hardware transcoding 4k videos.

Model Drive Bays 4k Support Price
TS-253Be 2 Yes ~$340
TS-453Be editors pick 4 Yes ~$550
TS-453BU 4 Yes ~$880

Here are some high-performance TVS Series models that also support 4K video hardware transcoding.

Model Drive Bays 4k Support Price
TVS-472XT 4 Yes ~$1140
TVS-672N-i3 4 Yes ~$1280
TVS-882ST3-i7 6 Yes ~$2800

Recommended Model: TS-453BE

My recommendation is the QNAP TS-453BE model, which is comparable to the Synology DS918+ model recommended above. It comes with 4 bays that can be expanded to 9 bays. Dual GbE network interfaces. Unlike the DS918+, this QNAP model also features 2 HDMI ports and a PCIe expansion slot that offers a lot more upgradeability (including a 10GbE network adapter).

3. TerraMaster - NAS with Plex Media Streaming Server

TerraMaster has gained popularity as a budget NAS for Plex as well as a general-purpose NAS. Like Synology and QNAP, it is simple to setup, and supports Plex hardware transcoding for 4k videos.

TerraMaster is a recent player and there are not many variations/models, which makes it easy to pick and choose what one wants. Like QNAP, TerraMaster NASes also include HDMI port, so you can connect the NAS to a TV and use it as a media player.

TerraMaster provides a few models with variations of quad-core vs dual-core CPUs, 2 GB or more RAM, 2xGbE or better network, and more. Here are some models that can be great media servers with Plex hardware transcoding support. I recommend at least 4 GB of RAM and therefore only the 4GB or better models are listed below.

Model Drive Bays 4k Support Price
F2-421 2 Yes ~$330
F5-421 editors pick 5 Yes ~$500
F5-422 5 Yes ~$600

Recommended Model: F5-421

I recommend the TerraMaster F5-421 model that is comparable to QNAP TS-453BE and Synology DS918+. For $50 lesser than the latter two, the F5-421 model supports 4k video transcoding for Plex, while also serving as a great general-purpose NAS. In fact, if I were to redo things, I would probably go with one of the TerraMaster models listed above.

4. Nvidia Shield TV Pro - Pre-built with Plex Server Support

We have raved about the Nvidia Shield TV previously as the best Plex client. However, the Shield TV has decent Plex server hardware and can also function as a good Plex server.

Having said that, Shield TV has limitations and is not an ideal media server for Plex. It can probably do 2 concurrent transcoded 1080p streams. Any higher resolution or number of streams can cause streaming problems and slow down.

However, if you have videos encoded in one of the Plex direct play supported formats and a Plex client capable of directly play, then the Nvidia Shield TV can be a good Plex server - especially if you already have a Shield TV.

The Shield TV does not have enough storage onboard and the model with extra onboard storage is not good value in my opinion. Therefore, the best approach would be to store media on a USB storage device and use the Plex media server on Sheild TV for serving.

5. Raspberry Pi 4 Model B - DIY Server for Plex

Until 2019 Raspberry Pi was not a great option as a server for Plex media server. It could not transcode any video. That changed recently with the release of Raspberry Pi 4 Model B, which sports a quad-core ARM v8 64-bit SoC, up to 4 GB of RAM, Gigabit Ethernet, and USB 3.0 ports.

Raspberry Pi 4 can direct play 3-4 concurrent streams. However, transcoding is limited to about one 720p stream. This is not good and compares unfavorably to some of the pre-built NAS Plex servers listed above. Of course, the price of a Raspberry Pi is also nearly 5 to 10 times less.

Build a Low-Cost Raspberry Pi Media Center Price
Raspberry Pi 4B Starter Kit with case, power adapter, and heat sinks ~$82.00
Sandisk Ultra 32GB Micro SDHC UHS-I Card 98 MB/s ~$8.00
SANOXY Wireless USB PC Remote Control Mouse for PC ~$8.00

Is Raspberry Pi powerful enough for Plex?

With a decent Plex client that supports 4k direct play and a good cooling system for the Raspberry Pi, you should be able to get good use out of the Pi as a low-cost Plex server.

How to setup Plex Server on Raspberry Pi 4?

Previously, one could install Plex media server on Raspberry Pi as described here. The current method I recommend involves the following brief steps:

  1. Install Raspbian Stretch Lite OS
  2. Install Docker and Docker Compose - Docker Media Server Guide
  3. Install Plex Media Server using Docker

Unless the cost is an issue, my recommendation is not to go with a Raspberry Pi 4 as a media server with Plex. Just like the Nvidia Shield TV, it is not designed to transcode high-resolution videos that are common today. Even a 5 or 10-year-old laptop will perform better as a Plex media server.

6. Intel NUC i7 - Partially pre-built media server for Plex

I raved about the Synology DS918+ above as a good Plex media server with hardware transcoding capability. I was using the DS918+ as my primary Plex server for over a year since my move from an HTPC NAS Combo to a NAS + Home Server solution.

However, my media needs grew (number of streams, sharing with friends, video resolution, etc.) and sometimes I found the NAS to be struggling a bit. At this point, I decided to move Plex to my Docker media server on Intel NUC i7. You can read more about my smart home setup here.

My Intel NUC 8 uses an Intel Core i7-8559U processor, which has a PassMark score of 12,222. This is just enough to transcode one 4k SDR stream, without hardware transcoding enabled.

You may store your media in an external storage device or store it in a NAS like I do and mount the NAS drive remotely on NUC for Plex to pick up the media.

Intel NUCs offer no upgradeability and unfortunately are not future-proof. It is, however, a small, powerful, and energy-efficient media server for Plex.

7. Custom Built Plex Servers

Making a Plex server from individual components is not easy. However, none of the options listed above can match the performance/price ratio of custom Plex server build.

You will have to pick and choose the right parts that are compatible with each other to build your server. This requires knowledge and/or extensive research. Often times you might find compatible individual components for sale as a combo package, which can simplify your search for Plex server build.

Another option is to browse around PCPartsPicker for builds pre-made by other users.

Recommended HTPC / Home Server Builds:

If building a Plex server from scratch seems daunting, you may also opt for one of the pre-assembled Plex server builds such as the Dell PowerEdge line or the Lenovo ThinkSystem line.

Dell PowerEdge T30 - A good choice for Plex Server

Dell PowerEdge T30 - A good choice for Plex Server

FAQs

Are the options listed above the only NAS options for Plex server?

No. The NAS boxes listed above are good general-purpose NAS devices for home or small businesses that can also do 4k streaming on Plex. Plex has done a wonderful job of summarizing the bazillion makes and models of NAS devices in the market and their expected performance for Plex streaming.

Is Plex the best media server?

This is very subjective. Plex appears to be more polished (Emby a close second). Jellyfin is another option and is being actively developed. Both Emby and Jellyfin outperform Plex for IPTV streaming. However, with the free ad-supported movies, Plex appears to be a more complete home media streaming solution at this point. [Read: Plex vs Emby: A Comprehensive Comparison]

Final Thoughts on Best Media Server with Plex Support

As you can see there are quite a few routes you can take to setup a media server with Plex. The choice comes down to cost, time, ease of setup, streaming demand, etc. that suit your needs.

If you are a tinkerer and need flexibility for expansion/upgrade and want your Plex server to do more than just serving content, then definitely consider building your own system. This way, you also get to brag about what you built (do not discount this :p).

If you are looking for a device to store your media and serve it, and your streaming needs are humble (1-2 transcoded streams) then may be one of the NAS devices listed above would suffice. In my opinion, the Synology DS918+ is one of best NAS for Plex media server.

If you are just looking for a cheap way to setup a media server for Plex, have good Plex clients, and all your media is in Plex-friendly format then go with the Raspberry Pi 4 option. Alternatively, you could use one of your old laptops or even grab a used laptop/desktop from Craigslist or Ebay at a similar price point.

Finally, be sure to check out our Docker media server guide to setup some of the Plex companion apps such as Tautulli (monitoring Plex activity) and Ombi (take requests for Plex).

I hope that this guide helps you figure out what route to take in your quest to find a media server for Plex streaming.

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