Greetings RV enthusiasts. In previous posts, you’ve probably read about the issues I’ve had with my Western Digital “My Passport Wireless Pro”, while attempting to use it (as advertised) as a Plex media server. Suffice to say the concept is really very good and I really wanted it to work (I even bought a nice carrying case for it) but the implementation is very poor. Frankly, the solution fell flat on its face in my trailer, and no amount of FAQs or best practices could make it better (believe me I’ve read them all). I even corresponded with Western Digital on the subject.
But now its the winter of 2021-2022, and time to build a real PLEX media server solution for next season. I’m not going to cut corners this time — I’m going for reliability and performance, because when it’s time to relax at night in front of the TV, I don’t want to spend an hour tinkering — that means a real media server behind a real network.
what does the current RV industry state-of-the-art have to do with Plex? read on 🙂
Background thoughts on the RV industry (and mobile internet)
Allow me to digress for a moment to make a few observations. The RV market right now is crazy: The international supply chain problem has made a huge impact, and the Biden price inflation to the point where its just not financially attractive to enter the RV market right now — unless of course you have a pile of money and wish to invest in building out an RV park or something. But plain ordinary retail RVing is just getting too difficult and expensive.
Had my wife and I not already invested in our fifthwheel, I’m not sure we would enter the RV market right now (December, 2021) for these reasons:
- RV manufacturers are building RVs as fast as they can, to meet the demand, and that means prices are rising and quality is falling — I’ll have another post on this subject later, but I’ll just say here that I have had about 20 different quality related issues in our fifth wheel since it was delivered, new, in the spring of 2021. The vast majority of these issues have little to do with the manufacturer — in fact, I would say that Alliance RV is really making an industry contribution in their own quality control, but their hands are tied by the quality of the components they source (we lost an air conditioner on the very first camping trip) and the workmanship of local dealers.
- Dealers and RV service shops are hammered with work right now, so everything is done in a hurry and everything requires waiting. For example, as much as I like my local dealer (Bishs RV) for the sales experience, the service experience hasn’t been good although I am told that it is just Industry state-of-the-art right now: In the process of replacing the theater seat (couch) which Lippert replaced under warranty, the repair tech scuffed up the vinyl floor so badly that it had to be replaced! In addition, with parts shortages and severe workloads, Bishs can’t even plan a repair with any scheduling confidence — RVs sit on their lot for weeks at a time, untouched, just to hold a place in the service line because “at any time, a tech may become available to work on yours”. Parts go weeks without getting ordered, because “the parts guy is overloaded. look at this stack of paper”. In short, todays’ RV repair business is stuck in the 1950s — they are capable of working with low-volume occasional repairs, but cannot handle modern workloads and high volumes.
I’m convinced that the only way to survive in today’s market is to do as many repairs as you possibly can yourself.
- Supply chain issues for computing and electronics components are causing a real squeeze. Pepwave routers, for example, one of the mot popular routers with embedded cellular modems, are sky-rocketing in price due to supply and demand, not to mention the surge of interest in 5G. In short, the technology side of RVing is getting really expensive. Pepwave’s most popular 4G mobile routers are actually being phased out in favor of more expensive ones — you only have to look at the various retailer to see this!
As I described in this post, one very effective way to build a network inside your RV is to use the Pepwave SURF SOHO router, and this is a very good choice if you have very little (or intermittant) need for mobile internet. Yes, the SOHO will accept USB modems (a feature that originally attracted me) but upon further investigation I determined that hanging the modem from one manufacturer onto the router from another, was not a recipe for reliability and frustration free networking.
And now, back to your regularly-scheduled programming
Here’s an inventory of what is needed to build a real plex solution:
- A router — one that will provide a local wireless network in the RV, has at least one ethernet LAN port, and provides “Wifi-as-WAN” capability as well. The local LAN (wireless and wired) must be functional without an internet connection (most routers do this). The Wifi-as-WAN part is so that you can connect to your home Wifi or even campground Wifi when possible (with all the hazards thereunto appertaining). If you can nab one of the discontinued pepwave routers, such as the CAT 6 BR1 MK2 or the Transit single CAT-18, you’re lucky. Of course, if money is no object or you really NEED the lastest and greatest, then spring for one of the new models. Still the SURF SOHO — if mobile internet is not that important to you — is a very attractive option, at one-third the cost of Pepwave’s lowly “CAT 6” BR1 MK2!
Note: At the time of this writing (Winter, 2021-2022) , cellular technology is changing rapidly so it might not be the best time to enter the celluar market, unless of course you have an immediate need. According the the Mobile Internet Resource Center, the suppliers of Wifi chipsets have stopped production, so when Pepwave’s existing inventory is gone — its gone.
- A streaming appliance that plugs directly into the TV — in particular, one that caches your WiFi credentials, runs a local copy of the Plex streaming client, and doesn’t fall over when there is no internet. These are important requirements — Plex won’t work “off the grid” without them! In particular, I tried running the plex client from the LG smart TV supplied with my trailer and came up empty: Not only does the TV itself loose its brains while you are without power (traveling), it requires an internet connection just to run Plex itelf. This is not a plex thing this is a Smart TV thing: The Plex client that lives on the LG TV is just a local stub, from which the TV downloads a fresh copy of the app upon every power-up. So that’s a non-starter. But the Roku Streaming Stick works well. Note that not all Roku solutions work! in particular, the Roku Ultra does NOT work for this — you gotta get the Roku Streaming Stick. I have no idea if the Amazon streaming stick will work — or the other Roku sticks for that matter — haven’t tested them.
- A computer/server of some sort that can live on your RV’s network, run Plex Media Server and has the necessary storage for your media library. A full-featured NAS (network attached storage) is perfect for this, but lesser solutions (such as a Raspberry Pi with an external disk) would work as well if you are technically inclined: I picked up the Synology DS 220+ because of the $300 price point (about what a 4TB Wireless Pro costs — if you can find one..) and because Western Digital supplied the bare drives for free, in exchange for my ailing Wireless Pro. Make no mistake about it: Plex likes Intel processors. In particular, the J4025 Celeron processor supplied in the 220+ has the same on-board Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) found in the $550 DS920+ (four bays) and the $700 DS1520+ (five bays). An on-board GPU is a requirement for transcoding “on the fly” (during the stream) — so don’t be fooled by those AMD “Ryzen” processors that look better on paper but will fall over the instant you try to transcode something bigger than a 480p TV show!
Note: The other reason I picked the DS 220+ is because it can provide other NAS goodies, such as a shared file server that I can use while on the road. This will expose the Plex content folder to a laptop computer for example — I’ll probably map a network drive to the Synology folder that contains all of my photos — that way I can work in Lightroom while on the road, push new photos (or videos from my phone) over to the Synology NAS and view them on the RV’s own TV — all without an internet connection.
Here is a rudimentary diagram of my solution, using the pepwave SURF SOHO. While on the road, “Wifi WAN” is not available but the Surf SOHO runs the local private network just fine. Plex throws a little fit at first startup, but once you ignore that, it will calm down, go into “offline” mode and stream beautifully.
For more detailed setup information for this solution please see this post