Geoffrey Wiseman

How We watch TV and Movies, 2013 Edition

I've been using Plex as the hub for my video consumption for so long that I almost forget what the alternatives are like.

I thought it would be a good idea to share what we're doing these days, both to record a snapshot for future reference and to help others enjoy some of the things that are working well for us.

Previous Alternatives

When we were a little younger and watched more TV, we had a fairly expansive cable package that covered movie channels, several packages of fringe cable stations and time shifting. We had a PVR that was constantly filling up despite being spacious.

After we'd begun to transition our music collection in earnest to a purely digical form (we were moving to a Squeezebox setup with a central home music server, which is now a Sonos setup), we started to experiment with doing the same for video. I tried using some of the digital integration available in my TV and DVD player through DLNA, but all that did was whet my appetite for something more capable.

After trying a few simple tests, I could see that the technology was basically sound, if rough around the edges. I picked up a Mac Mini that I could connect to the television over an HDMI cable, and put Plex on it.

That worked so well that I have had little occasion or interest to try much else, and although I've definitely added some new tools to the arsenal, as has Plex, the biggest difference was that first step.

Current Plex Setup

My current setup is a Mac Mini Server (mid-2011, aka Macmini5,3), with twin 750GB drives. Hooked up to that is a Drobo 5D with 4 3TB drives in it, resulting in >7TB of usable storage, some upgrade capacity and reasonable robustness to drive failure. It's hooked up to my TV over HDMI.

I have a lifetime plex pass, and an Apple wireless keyboard and magic trackpad. We also have a few old game consoles, an Apple TV and a DVD player, but these all see far less use than Plex. The AppleTV got a lot of use when we last had Netflix, but it's been a while.

I do have iTunes hooked upon that server as well, but I do use it less than I use Plex.

Sourcing Video

Sometimes we buy DVDs and rip the content and put it on plex so that we don't need to use the DVDs. Sometimes we buy video direct from iTunes and other similar providers or direct from the people who make the videos (where possible). We do watch some video direct from the web (TED talks, conference videos, streaming TV from the TV proivders). Often the simplest and most-effective way to get something is to torrent it, although I would actually like it if it were easiest to purchase it most times, but between geofenced content, timed releases and DRM hijinx, I do sometimes just bypass the legit systems for my own convenience.

Watching Video on the TV

When we're sitting in front of the TV, we have a lot of choices we can employ, but most of the time we turn on the TV, login to the mini, fire up Plex, and then navigate through our Plex library using the wireless keyboard.

When we're not using Plex, I shut it down. This is in part because it does sometimes run amok and heat up the machine, turn on the fans, and otherwise irritate me. Also, every once in a while if I've left Plex running on the mini and come back later, audio starts playing from the mini instead of the TV. I don't want that, and fixing it is a pain, so it's simplest just to shut down Plex.

This is a good example of the occasional rough edge you'll run into with this kind of setup, but it's nothing insurmountable, particularly if you're moderately technical.

If we're not watching Plex, the next most likely is probably something on the PVR, although that's trending into obsolescence for us. Third most likely is probably DVDs and Blu-Rays in the player, which is low but fairly stable. This is still the highest-quality source for the most part, since blu-ray beats most downloaded content unless the quality (and bandwidth) is exceptional. Accordingly, I use this for things I really want the best video quality for, like nature documentaries.

Watching video on the web is mildly in ascendence, although for the most part if I can download it and put it in Plex instead of watching it in a web browser, I tend to do so. iTunes makes an appearance here and there, although I'm not keen on DRM from a control perspective. There's a whole host of other applications (VLC, QuickTime Player, etc) and devices (DVD/Blu-Ray Player, AppleTV, consoles) that could be brought into play, but these are bit players in our house for the most part.

Watching Video Around the House

When I'm not sitting directly in front of the TV, the iPad is a close second. I doubt we watch 50% of our video on the iPad yet, but it could easily get there.

The iPad is personal, portable, and works in a variety of situations not ideally suited for a television. We have our elliptical trainer in the living room, and we don't want a TV mounted on the wall there, so we bring our iPads. I sometimes watch video after my wife is asleep, and I do so with my iPad in bed, with the brightness turned down.

Occasionally the iPhones stand in for an iPad here. This is most common with my son, who has one of our old iPhone 3Gs with the 3G turned off, and he will sometimes use it to watch some TV when we've given him permission to do so.

Again, Plex for iOS is the most common app here, but the YouTube app and other similar iOS video applications, including the WWDC app, are definitely making some headway.

Watching Video on the Go

When we're not at home, we do sometimes watch video on the go. This is occasionally me if I know I'm going to be stranded somewhere for an extended period and I want to bring something to watch, but it's mostly my son for long road trips when we're willing to let him watch some TV to pass the time. We don't have a DVD player mounted in the car, it's much simpler to use an iPad or iPhone.

This is made vastly simpler by Plex Sync, which comes with Plex for iOS and a Plex Pass. This allows me to set up some rules, like "Sync the next five unwatched episodes of Ben 10" and then just sync before going somewhere. Sync is slow and by no means bulletproof, so it does require a little babysitting, but it's still incredibly better than picking content, transcoding it for the phone, moving it into iTunes, doing a Wifi Sync, etc.

If I traveled for business, I'd probably be using Plex Sync more for myself, but I do my best to stay close to my family.

Streaming Video Remotely

I can also watch video streaming from my home plex server over the internet or over wifi somewhere else. I do this mostly when I'm off on a long trip. The quality isn't great unless the connection is really solid, but I'd rather watch content of my own choosing with mediocre quality than "whatever's on" at wherever I happen to be.

Incidentally, I had better results streaming over Telus' LTE (albeit at some cost to my data usage) than I did with the wifi at the cottage or at my in-laws in Moncton (both have sub-par wifi connections, though, so it's not a fair comparison).

What is Working

I really like this approach to video.

I like watching television shows in batches, maybe a season at a time (spread out over days/weeks, but not one week per episode).

I like the wider array of content choices that are available to me because I can choose tv and movies from the entire world and from any time frame. I like picking and choosing what I'm going to watch, rather than browsing from the meagre selection of a current provider who's mostly trying to satisfy current mainstream tastes.

I like being able to dig around for french content for my son, who is going to a french school and needs lots of language support since he's surrounded by English in Toronto.

I like seeing less advertising. I don't mind paying a little more for my video as a result of that (although sometimes 'a little more' is a little ridiculous).

We've had to up our internet bundle one or two tiers with our internet provider. I do think the bandwidth rules are a little draconian, and that means I need to watch the usage carefully sometimes, but it has mostly been pretty smooth. Given a few more years, I hope bandwidth caps will be generous and prices low enough to make this less of a concern.

What isn't Working

Managing the trackpad and keyboard on the couch can be a bit of pain. I tried the Magic Wand, but it didn't really make my life any easier.

Both the keyboard and trackpad have fallen a couple times and done some damage to the power button area, which makes them a little finnicky at times.

I'm still considering alternatives here, ranging from wooden trays to charging stations to alternate input devices so if you've got something that you really like, drop me a line.

The old world of media isn't really supporting me in this transition. I have to rely on pirated media more than I'd like to make this work. If video content owners were less keen on geofences, timed releases, DRM restrictions, content use restrictions and embedded advertising, not to mention overpricing, I would be spending more money with these people. Get it together, guys. You're losing your market and you're hardly trying to keep it.

Netflix is a good idea, but in practice, it's not quite good enough. The price is right, but the selection has too little of what I want to see, encourages me to watch things that I don't really want to, and it doesn't change often enough.

I love that they're getting into original content, and I wish them the best, but we're not currently Netflix subscribers. I gather the American selection is better.

Cutting Back

As we went further down the path of watching more and more video over the internet, we started to dial back our cable television subscription. We've been down to basic cable for more than a year and my wife recently called to cancel that. Our cable provider cut us a retention deal wherein we pay about the same amount as we would have without basic cable but we keep the basic cable. This makes their life a little easier, they said.

I don't mind -- having basic cable around is a nice convenience, it's just not one that's worth a lot of money to me.


I'd like to get an Over-the-Air antenna, but I haven't done that yet. I might also consider switching internet providers once we don't have Cable TV on-hand. (Another good reason for our provider to keep us on the basic cable, I guess -- it makes us feel a little more locked-in.)

I'm curious to try working around the US geofences to try American netflix and Hulu. This is more idle curiosity, because by the time you resort to working around geofences, why not just pirate the content off bittorrent? You're already refusing to respect the wishes of the content agreements, so why stop with a little networking?

I'm interested in seeing what new business models and content providers come up, and how they build an ecosystem. There's a little of this in Plex Channels already, but I'd like to see this continue to expand.

I'm also curious to see what Apple does with the TV space. It's ripe for disruption if the right player puts enough work into it and makes enough deals with the content owners or disrupts them sufficiently. Apple seems like the kind of company that could pull that off.