When your aging laptop or desktop computer is slowing to a crawl to get through day-to-day tasks, you don’t necessarily have to recycle it or hand it off to someone else. Your old machine can be turned into a media streaming device in its retirement, taking it easy as it serves up videos, music, photos, and more to the rest of the gadgets you’ve got in your home. Here’s how it’s done.
Perhaps the best tool for the job is Plex. It’s simple to use, the basics are all free, and it works on just about all hardware. Besides the media streaming functionality that we’re going to cover here, Plex also includes options for watching live TV, watching free streaming video content, and even playing retro games.
It’s slick and straightforward, and a lot of the functionality comes with no charge attached. There is a Plex Pass premium tier, which will set you back $5 per month or $40 per year and gets you extras such as offline syncing to your mobile devices, more comprehensive sharing controls, extra settings for bandwidth use, and a few other handy bonus features.
There are two components to Plex: You need the server software on your old computer, which does the job of cataloging your media files and getting ready to serve them up over your home wifi. Then there are the apps you use on your other computers, your phones, your tablets, your set-top boxes and so on, which find the server you’ve set up and stream across whatever content you request.
And it’s not just computers that can be media servers for Plex. You can also use a NAS drive if you want—which is handy, as it’ll already be plugged directly into your router—and most popular drives have dedicated Plex server apps available. Some Nvidia Shield TV models can also work as Plex servers too.
There are several Plex-like alternatives to Plex you can try out. The most widely used one is the open source and very versatile Kodi, which offers a lot of the same functionality as Plex does. There are also limited media server features built right into Windows and macOS that you can look into, while VLC Media Player offers some simple network streaming options too.
Once you’ve decided that you really do want to turn your old computer into a media streamer and have picked Plex as the best option, you need to download the server software for Windows or macOS. Head to the Plex website, click Sign Up to create a free account, then follow the prompts to download the desktop software (you can also find the media server downloads here).
Much of the Plex media server experience happens inside a web browser tab: From here you can configure all of your various media libraries, update the core Plex software and more. Once you launch the application, you should see a Plex icon down in the notification area (on Windows) or up on the menu bar (on macOS).
Now is a good time to make sure the movies, music, and photos on your ancient computer are well organized. You don’t have to have everything neatly arranged in folders for Plex to be able to use it, but it certainly helps both you and Plex keep track of what’s what. How you arrange everything is up to you, as long as you have a logical system.
During the server software setup process, you’ll be asked to give the server a name (so you can identify it later). You’ll also see a box labeled Allow me to access my media outside my home, which needs to be checked if you want to access your audio and video files from anywhere other than your local home wifi network (it just means Plex will make a few adjustments to your network settings so this can happen).
The next step is setting up your media library, the files that you want Plex to be able to serve up to your other devices. You can add numerous folders to the list here, and everything inside them is made part of your library—all of the common file formats across video, audio, and images are supported, though if you do run into problems with Plex identifying files, check out the support documentation.
With your media server up and running, all you need to do is install Plex on your other devices. Remember that the old computer you have converted into a server is going to have to stay switched on and connected to the internet at all times, otherwise you’re not going to be able to see the media files on it.
Plex apps are available across platforms, from Android to the Apple TV. If you’ve got a gadget with a screen, then chances are there’s a Plex app for it. You can stream your media files to games consoles, smart TVs, and even (in the case of audio) smart speakers. If you’re streaming to a laptop or desktop computer, you only need to open the Plex interface in your web browser and sign in.
Once you’re signed into Plex on whatever device you’re streaming content to, you should be able to see the server that you’ve previously set up. Plex will categorize and organize the media that you’ve added—bear in mind that it might take a while for the library to be built up initially, and for new content to be added later on.
Like any good streaming service, Plex keeps track of what you’re currently watching and listening to, so you can pick up where you left off (even if it’s on another device). The edit buttons on the media files themselves enable you to make changes to any inaccurate metadata, and in some cases you’ll have the option to download the files as well as stream them (on mobile devices, this requires a Plex Pass).
Delve into the settings for Plex on your device, and you’ll find options for managing streaming quality, adjusting notifications, syncing media files between devices, and more. There are plenty of useful features and extras hidden throughout, such as the ability to watch videos in real time with other people in other locations.