Greetings RV enthusiasts, Today’s post is about entertainment while camping — more specifically, how to use Plex Media Server without an internet connection. (note: a chronological account of my experiences with the Western Digital My Passport Wireless Pro, is found in this post).
Full-featured, full-time capable RVs with built-in entertainment centers present an interesting “first world problem”, if you will: You’re in a State or National Park, for example, because you want to get away from work and closer to nature. Mobile coverage is spotty or non-existent, and you don’t want the expense of a mobile data plan that would be required to stream live content. There’s no WiFi, and that TV antenna on your roof just isn’t picking up any thing useful. You’re a “cord cutter” back home, and so you’re not about to haul around a satellite dish — the trees and surrounding hills are probably blocking the line-of-sight to the satellite anyway.
But it’s a late evening, and you wouldn’t mind watching one of your favorite movies on the TV!
There some fun ways to solve this problem, but just to properly set the stage for this post, I’m going to concentrate on what it takes to bring Plex Media Server with you on the road, so that you can (locally) stream content to one or more TVs in your RV just like you do at home. By way of background, this post is for those who are moderately capable, technically, but not too geeky (translation: we’re not setting up a raspberry pi).
My first solution
After considerable research I landed on a solution that checked all the right boxes: Put a Roku streaming stick on the TV, and connect it (via WiFI) to a (portable) PLEX server. Yes, both PLEX and Roku will work without a live internet connection — you just have to set things up carefully at home, before you leave. But what functions as my PLEX server?
The Western Digital My Passport Wireless Pro (When it works, that is)
Essentially a Linux machine running on the slowest hardware known to man, the My Passport Wireless Pro provides the bare essentials for local streaming in your RV: A local Wifi hotspot that a streaming device can connect to, a local instance of Plex Media Server, and a 4 TB disk drive for content. There is even an on-board battery in case you run into problems with your shore power. Having the onboard battery also means you can move the device around in your RV while it is still streaming, perhaps to position it for better WiFi signal strength.
Why Plex? First and foremost, Plex is a very capable media server and streaming platform. I use Plex at home on a Synology NAS — I’m even a Plex Pass subscriber so this was a natural step for me. The Wireless Pro device does run Plex Media Server — kinda sorta — if you hold mouth right and give homage to the slow hardware gods. Seriously, this device requires epic amounts of patience.
One reviewer I came across (havecamerawilltravel.com) has stated that the PLEX server in the Wireless Pro is “stripped down”, which is technically not true: The device runs plain ordinary full-featured Plex — its the hardware that isn’t capable of doing all that Plex does, such a transcoding: If you try transcoding, Plex will make the attempt but the Wireless Pro will simply fall over, and Plex will tell you that your server is not powerful enough. Boy, is that ever an understatement.
My 4TB “spinner” version of the My Passport Wireless Pro worked great on paper: A self-contained PLEX media server exposed via a Wifi hot spot with “Wifi-as-WAN” capability — that means you can set everything up at home, get PLEX working while connected to the internet, and then shut down internet access with a single click, while you test everything “off the grid”. It even worked ok a few times in my fifth wheel, but just wasn’t reliable: One day it would work fine, and the next day I’d have to bounce the media streaming server, and even the entire unit one or more times. I even gave it every advantage I could: every piece of content was pre-transcoded/downsized to 480p, occupying about half of the available space in my Wireless Pro. I didn’t even generate video thumbnails, just to reduce the number of actual files on the disk.
But it was not to be: Sadly, the 4TB My Passport Wireless Pro is not a reliable solution. Western Digital even agrees, implicitly that is.
However, for the benefit of those who might have smaller flavors (or even the SSD version), and/or perhaps smaller libraries that the system can handle, I’ll first describe how I set up my Wireless Pro to be as workable as possible. Be warned, however: You may get lucky, but this is not a reliable piece of hardware for PLEX Media Server.
Building the My Passport Wireless Pro for Plex
The way to optimize the Wireless Pro device for Plex is to meticulously follow the Western Digital “best practices” documentation. I call them heroics. Here’s an overview, along with a few tips they don’t mention:
- Don’t use the device “out of the box” — format the drive itself to NTFS or MAC OS (depending on the computer you will use to copy content via USB). The device ships with exFAT file system on the drive, which makes it visible to both Windows and MAC, but this is not a very good file system for media streaming. In particular, it does not handle file fragmentation well, which makes it very difficult for media servers trying to serve up a continuous, non-interrupted stream of content splattered all over the disk!
- Bonus tip: What they don’t tell you is that none of the essential code that runs the Wireless Pro itself lives on the disk! The disk is reserved for your content, which is good. So relax — formatting the drive won’t brick the system. To be safe, I copied all of the WD content to another drive, before formatting it, but I’m convinced that was not an essential step.
- Remember that this is the slowest, weakest hardware known to man (its designed for battery life, after all). It barely has enough horsepower to spin up a WiFi server and serve up the administrative UI. That means it is only capable of reading whatever is on the disk and delivering that to your Plex client, because it’s not powerful enough to do anything more. This is easy enough to solve, however — just run your content through Handbrake or similar transcoding application beforehand. Make sure that full length movies are less than approximately 1GB, for example. Yes, that is some serious size reduction! I ended up transcoding most of my content to 480p. You’re camping, after all, not in a theater, but this fact summarizes the key to being pleased with the Wireless Pro: lower your expectations :-).
- Copy all your content by connecting it directly to your computer via USB. Don’t even consider WiFi transfers. If you treat it just like any other USB portable drive, you can access the disk directly, which works just fine.
- Use best practice folder names like “TV”, “Movies”, and “Music” all at the root level (that’s a plex thing). These folders can have sub-folders: For example Movies/RomCom or Movies/Drama
- When you fire up the device for the first time, connect your computer’s WiFi to the default SSID. Then point your browser to the administrative UI at 192.168.60.1 to set up the the two WiFi radios the way you want. At this point in time, turn Plex itself OFF.
- The Western Digital documentation doesn’t explain that “turn plex off” means you click something that isn’t labeled, “plex”. In the admin UI, however, there is button called, “streaming”: Click this one to turn off Plex. This allows the My Passport device itself to do some indexing work and even prepare some thumbnails from your content, although I have no idea what this has to do with Plex Media Server. They also don’t tell you that this step can take many hours — and there is no fuel gauge to show progress. You just have to watch the UI until it no longer says it is building thumbnails.
- When the above is finished, turn Plex back on (click the “streaming” button again), and then hit “configure”. From here on out, its just working with PLEX itself.
- Tips to avoid file system corruption:
- because the file system is fragile, or at least appears to be, shut down the Wireless Pro itself before accessing the disk via USB. Based on my experience, I don’t think the My Passport application itself (apart from Plex) manages things very well, and may even corrupt the disk over time.
- unmount, patiently wait for file transfers to complete, or otherwise find a way to gracefully disconnect the drive when using USB. I’m not convinced that portable drives can survive repeated USB disconnects. So treat your disk with kid gloves.
That’s pretty much it. Unfortunately its just not working well for me. As of this writing, the device will only serve up one media stream, and I have to “bounce” it (with the “streaming” button in the UI), to coax it into another streaming session. So, the simple motion of stopping a movie to watch something else requires a bounce. I even tested this at home, and found the same behavior, only in this test the system degraded, over time, to the point where none of the Plex content was even available. I had to restore the device to factory settings , reset the Plex database, and start all of the indexing work over again. This takes about 5 days, end-to-end, including the disk format, copying data around, etc.. The Plex database itself took 3 days to rebuild. Did I mention the hardware was slow?
The WD support Problem
I’ve elevated these concerns to Western Digital in hopes that I might have a bad copy (I’m still under warranty). Unfortunately, I discovered a great deal of what I call “polite, scripted arrogance”. Not only did they refuse to acknowledge that I might have a defective unit, they told me that “engineering” might produce a software update — if they can reproduce the problem. But they were very polite!
For more up-to-date chronology of my Plex experiences, please see this post.
So what now?
Yes, there are geekier, and maybe even more elegant ways to do this, but for those who want to mimic your home theater Plex experience while on the road — only without internet and without using a gaming console — check out this post where I describe my simple NAS and network solution.