Easily Chromecast local media from your PC with Plex

I've had a full Windows 7 HTPC connected to my main TV for over five years now. It was the best way to watch anything and everything with the least amount of fuss or limitations. Recently however, the Google Chromecast has changed the game. The devices are so cheap, I have one connected to each TV throughout the house, which has now got me hooked to a whole new level of convenience - being able to start watching something on one TV, and switching over to a different room to resume playing from exactly the same spot. Chromecasts are also dead-simple to use - they pass the significant-other test.

This got me thinking I no longer need my media PC connected to the TV. I can just have it sitting somewhere else in the house, connected to a normal PC monitor, where I can use it to download stuff, manage media, do the occasional web-browsing, and even use it for some development and other stuff that I could/would never do while it was connected to the TV.

So I set off to find the best way to enable Casting all my local media from this PC to any Chromecast in the house. There are two issues here. First, the Chromecast is designed to stream from a web resource, so there's no native support for just selecting a file from your local folders. There are some apps that enable this sort of thing however. The second issue is that the Chromecast only supports a small range of video codecs, meaning most .mkv and other stuff you've downloaded over the years will likely not work, so you need a server app on your PC to do on-the-fly transcoding (converting your video files from whatever crazy format to something the Chromecast understands, as you're casting). For this to work, you also need a fairly decent CPU, at least a Core i3 or equivalent.

I tried the following apps to get this working (all on Win8):

  • BubbleUPNP Server to do the transcoding, and BubbleUPNP for Android to act as the client to browse the files and Cast them. I never managed to get the Server part working though, the UI and instructions were pretty rough and I have up after 30 min of messing around. 
  • PS3 Media Server to do the transcoding, and Avia player on Android to connect and do the Casting. I also couldn't get these to work - Avia connected but most files could not be played to the Chromecast. I messed around for 20 min before giving up on this too. Maybe with the right forced rendering profile on PS3 Media Server this could work, but there was no obvious one in the list.
  • Serviio + Avia - same as above, got the connections working, but most mkvs still didn't play.
Then I installed Plex and was awesomely surprised. The PC server component is free, easy to install, has a nice UI, and quite intuitive. Makes it very easy to configure your setup, point it to your media files and be ready to transcode away. On top of this, Plex seems to have awesome integration with online databases - so it detects your movie files, and automatically downloads posters, ratings, subtitles, and the works. You can then browse/filter/search your media in a nice UI - basically turns your local files into something like browsing the Play store or iTunes store. 

Next comes the Plex for Android app. This costs ~$5, but it recognized my server right away, let me browse all the movies on it via a similarly slick UI, and integrates perfectly with Chromecast. I had no issue with 3 .mkv movies I tried. They played back smoothly, with 5.1 sound (connected through my A/V receiver) and good HD quality. 

I couldn't ask for more really... Plex solves the local content for Chromecast issue (and I didn't even get into advanced streaming over 3G from anywhere in the world, local offline caching to your Android device for offline play, hooking in to online media, etc). And for $5, that's less than the cost of a single Play Store movie rental.

UPDATE:A few days later, and even more praise for Plex...this thing is the shizzle. The Android UI is a pleasure to use, remembers what episode of a show you were up to and automatically recommends the next one. Shows recently added content. Plays a slide show of your images on the Chromecast idle screen in-between shows, etc. 

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