Best FREE home media server – easy to set up
Wayne Williams explores Emby, a media server and streamer combo that can play your media files across your network and beyond
Emby ( emby.media) is a free, open-source media server that offers an alternative to Plex ( www.plex.tv). With the software installed, you can store your movies, music and photos in a central location and stream them to other connected devices, such as an Amazon Fire TV Stick, Chromecast, Android device, iphone or ipad. You can stream live TV, sync personal media to mobile devices for offline access, schedule tasks, create user accounts for friends and family, and much more.
A simple web-based wizard makes Emby incredibly easy to set up. Install the server on the computer you use to store your media, and you can then connect to it using an app or web browser. You can stream content over your local network or the internet. We show you how to set up the server in our Mini Workshop, opposite.
Emby’s dashboard provides all the information and tools you need to use the server and configure it the way you want. From here, you can view the addresses you need to access the server over a network or the internet, restart or shut down the server, and view all the devices that are currently connected to it. A ‘recent activity’ column tells you when a device or browser connects or disconnects, and when it starts or stops streaming something. There’s also a news section to keep you up to date with the latest Emby happenings, including the addition of new themes and features.
The sidebar on the left lets you access the settings and add new user accounts. You can also scan existing libraries for changes, add new locations, download subtitles, enable Cinema Mode (which shows you trailers and custom intros before the main movie) and control ‘transcoding’, so you can watch videos in formats that aren’t supported.
On top of that, you can view and remove connected devices, upload photos and videos to the server from a phone or tablet, connect to devices that support DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance), such as a games console, add a TV tuner for live viewing and recording, manage notifications and more.
Finally, the expert section lets you change ports, enable automatic port mapping and schedule tasks such as checking for application updates.
Stream to Emby apps
Mobile apps are availabe for IOS, Android, Windows 10 and Windows Phone, and there are also apps for Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast, Kodi, Xbox One and PS4.
The mobile apps offer a host of benefits and let you stream content from your server, but if you want to watch a movie or TV show on your device, you’ll need to unlock that feature with a one-off purchase (£4.99) or an active Emby Premiere subscription (£4.99 a month, or £119 for a lifetime). Premiere features include Emby DVR support (so you can schedule live TV recordings and series links), Cinema Mode and Cloud Sync.
You can stream one minute of your media to the apps for free, so at least you can get a taste of the quality and playback features. However, if you’d rather not pay to use an app, you can still watch streams through a device’s browser. We show you how in our Mini Workshop on page 61.
All good media centre software supports plugins – Kodi wouldn’t be anywhere near as popular as it is without its add-ons – and Emby is no exception. You can install server plugins directly from the sidebar. Simply click the Plugins button on the left and browse the selection on the right. They are sorted into categories such as Top Plugins, Channels, Content Providers, General, Live TV, Metadata, Notifications and Sync. Select one to find out more about it and install it. Bear in mind that not all of the plugins listed are available for free. Some, such as Cover Art, require a Premiere subscription to use. Once you’ve installed a plugin, you must restart the server to use it.
Set up user accounts
Emby lets you create separate user accounts for friends and family members, each with its own permissions, library access and parental controls. To create a new account, find the Server section in the left-hand bar and click Users, then the Add button. By default, all users have
access to all libraries, but you can untick this option and choose which libraries are available to individual users. Enter a name for the new user and click Save.
Now you can choose whether the user is allowed to manage the server, and which features they can access, such as media deletion, live TV access and live recording. You can also set which media playback features are allowed, and whether or not downloads are permitted. The bar at the top lets you tweak the access options, enable parental controls and password protect the account. If you enable parental controls, you can block content that lacks a recognised rating or uses specific tags, and also create a schedule to limit access to certain hours.
Subtitles are obviously useful for films made in a foreign language, but they can also help if you’re hard of hearing or you want to watch a video quietly with the sound switched off. Emby can find and download matching subtitles for movies and TV shows in whatever language you choose. Click Subtitles in the server’s sidebar, then choose which items you want to download subtitles for. Select the language you require from the list.
By default, Emby only downloads subtitles that are a perfect match for your video, and will ignore any subtitles that are in the same language as the audio track, although you can override this setting. If the video already contains embedded subtitles, Emby won’t download any additional ones unless you specifically ask it to.
Watch live TV
If you have a TV tuner installed on your PC, you can use Emby to watch live television broadcasts. Click the Live TV option in the Extras column, then click the Add button to detect your installed TV tuner. You can also add a guide provider to help you find and record programmes. Emby offers a choice of two by default – Schedules Direct and Xml TV – but you can add your own if you have a preference.
The server’s dashboard gives you access to all the information and features that Emby offers
Emby’s apps are similar to using a web browser, but without an address bar getting in the way
Emby supports a wide range of completely legal plugins
Emby can download subtitles in any language you choose
Tap on a streaming video to view info and skip to any point
You can connect your app to the server by signing in or entering its IP address