Linux media servers clearly have their place.
Many users have their best Linux distro, and these days there are nearly endless things that we can do with Linux. It's basically everywhere, often seamlessly and out of the public eye. The same can be said with finding the best Linux media servers. Instead of running a media server that might decide to update and reboot during a show (looking at Windows 10), you can run a Linux distro that simply does what you tell it to do.
That said, what’s the best Linux media server?
Kodi (XBMC) – My first Linux media server was XMBC, later renamed Kodi. I loved the idea that I could enjoy my favorite videos on the fly from just about anywhere in my house. When I first started using Kodi, I simply connected a laptop to my TV via a VGA cable. Then I ran separate speakers to my laptop to provide audio. Once I got everything setup, I was in love with the experience.
Customization is the name of the game when it comes to Kodi. You can skin its appearance and install add-ons to extend Kodi functionality. At the time, Kodi (then XBMC) add-ons were ample. These days, due to various copyright crackdowns, you're better off sticking with official add-ons only.
The good: Kodi is lightweight, easy to use and can be run on just about anything, including ARM devices like a Raspberry Pi.
The bad: Transcoding isn't something Kodi does. You need to make sure your video files are in a format that is compatible with Kodi. There are various ways you can script this out yourself, however it can be a pain if you have an extensive video library.
Plex Media Center – Plex is my goto media server currently. I moved to Plex full time for a few reasons. My biggest reason for switching was Plex Pass and Roku compatibility. Plex is perfect for playing a variety of video formats. Additionally, you can enjoy your Plex media on Amazon Fire, and various android devices. It's also worth noting that Kodi provides an Android app. However Plex goes a step further by selling a premium service where remote viewing over the Internet is simple and secure.
Plex is fantastic since you only need to set it up once to enjoy it. While it lacks the customization options of other media servers, it has features like "on deck" and "playlists" to make your video viewing all the more enjoyable. In my opinion, Plex is in a class all its own. Plex offers their Plex Pass users access to remote viewing, parental controls, cloud synchronization and most recently a DVR function for those who wish to record live TV.
The good: Plex is available for free, is easy to setup and has a track record of outstanding reliability. Additionally, the built in transcoder is a real lifesaver when working with multiple video formats. Another must have feature Plex offers is being able to re-render a video into a lesser format for mobile viewing...on the fly.
The bad: Plex Pass isn't free. That’s a bummer, but it also ensures that Plex remains available for years to come. Plex also lacks a number of add-ons when compared to Kodi. And lastly, Plex isn't very customizable. For example, I dislike how limited my thumbnail display options are.
Emby – If Plex disappeared tomorrow, I'd switch to Emby without question. While Kodi might also be a fallback consideration, Emby offers Plex-like functionality such as robust transcoding and parental controls. Emby is also a bit faster than Plex in some cases, especially with transcoding. I've found some problematic videos work better with Emby than other media servers.
Perhaps the single biggest feature I love with Emby is the backup and restore functionality for Emby Premiere (subscription) users. Emby Premiere users can also enjoy DVR, offline syncing, cloud syncing and a podcast channel.
The good: Emby has many great features including a paid subscription service for advanced functionality. You'll also find Emby provides a great transcoding engine, can be managed from an Android app (other media servers are sometimes Web only) and has a reliable rating system using Rotten Tomatoes. You can also authenticate user accounts without a third party server. Lastly, Emby tends to handle the audio and video side of things more cleanly than Plex sometimes.
The bad: No built-in means of streaming your content securely over the Internet. This isn't to say it's impossible to do, just setup a SSL cert to get it going. But it's not for the faint of heart.
OpenFLIXR – I like to think of OpenFLIXR as a media server on steroids. Using Plex to manage your media, OpenFLIXR goes a step further by bundling advanced functionality not otherwise found in Plex or similar media servers. Now it's important to note that I have never tried installing this on a PC already running a media server. So I recommend starting from scratch or perhaps running it as a virtual machine for testing before committing to it.
Some of the tools provided with OpenFLIXR that impress me the most include Netdata, Mopidy, Let's Encrypt, PlexPy and PlexReqest. I run the latter two apps now for my Plex instance and having them included by default is a fantastic option.
The good: OpenFLIXR is easily the Swiss Army Knife of media center servers. From getting, managing to monitoring your content, this media server does it all.
The bad: It uses Plex only, rather than offering Emby or Kodi as an alternative to Plex. Having all three options would make this even better. I personally think this might be a bit "much" for casual media server users, however I can see this appealing to enthusiasts.
Subsonic – This music server software has a little known surprise – it can also play videos, too! To be fair, same can be said of Plex, etc, as they too can play music. Subsonic offers us a great fall-back alternative if none of the above options are meeting with your expectations.
Subsonic by nature, is geared toward those with a focus on music. But it's ability to handle your video library is nothing to scoff at! Personally I like using Subsonic for its rock solid music streaming capabilities.
The good: Transcode, stream and enjoy your music anywhere with an Internet connection thanks to their premium services. No limitations of how many users are using the Subsonic server. It also streams http friendly video. Premium service is $1 per month. Best value in the world for running your own streaming music server.
The bad: This is a music/audio streaming server first, all others second. So while it does stream video, it's not going have as much robustness as you might find with Kodi, Plex or Emby. Also, video streaming is only available for premium users. Totally worth it, but something to be aware of.
Best Linux Media server for yourself
Now for the big question of the day – which is the best Linux media server? To address this, let's break things down as follows:
The Newbie: This is someone who has little to zero experience with setting up a media server. I recommend Plex. It's well supported, works on just about anything. It also has extensive documentation should you get hung up with external drive ownership issues or permissions. For most people however, this is an easy win.
The Admin: Kodi all day long. Customization, control, the ability to theme and run the media server on any sort of Linux device you can imagine. Heck, you can run this on a Pi if you have your media files sorted out appropriately.
The All-in-one user: OpenFLIXR is likely going to make your day. Even if you prefer using Emby or Kodi, fact is that Plex is bundled up with some great offerings in one slick little package. Plus, the installers for each application can be a real time saver.
The Live TV User: If going old school with MythTV isn't your preferred approach and you would also like Plex/Kodi on demand media functionality, I think Emby makes the most sense. Emby does Live TV better than the other offerings I've found. Besides, if you dislike the Emby front end, you can use Kodi as the client with an Emby server. This provides you with a great transcoder/management server and the front end control afforded to us by Kodi.
What say you? What's your favorite Linux media server? Hit the comments and share your favorites!