Streaming Media: Direct Play and Direct Stream

Plex is designed to let many Apps play media from a central Server. You can playback media on your local network, stream it over the internet, or physically sync media to a mobile device. This flexibility isn't hassle-free, though. Can a device handle this format? Is it powerful enough to playback this high-resolution file?

The Server has been designed to remove these complexities so you don’t have to worry about the geeky stuff. There are 3 types of possible outcomes and some Apps have options that let you control how they are used.

Direct Play

Media can be Direct Played on a device if the source media is compatible with the client's playback capabilities, meaning that the source media:

  • Is stored in a compatible file container
  • Is encoded in a compatible bitrate
  • Is encoded with compatible codecs
  • Is a compatible resolution

Basically, the file is 100% compatible with your device. To find these requirements for your device, you should consult your device's documentation.

When a media item is Direct Played on an App, the file is sent directly to the device without being changed.

Note: Subtitles can introduce a wrinkle here sometimes. Even if a file's audio, video, and container are all compatible with a Plex App, if a subtitle stream is selected and is not compatible with the Plex App, then the Server will "burn in" the subtitle text within the video. This requires a full transcode of the video stream.

Multi-version media

If you have two devices on which you commonly watch your media (e.g. a powerful HTPC and a tablet) you might have a high-bitrate, full-HD file but would like to avoid transcoding it on the Server for playback on the tablet. In this case:

  • Use a conversion tool like Handbrake to create a version compatible with your mobile device;
  • Name both files according the Media Preparation guides; and
  • Update the Library.

When playing content, the Plex App will use a series of heuristics to determine which file version to play. The decision may include things like connection type, resolution, device audio configuration, device capabilities, and more.

Disabling Direct Play

Most Plex Apps allow you to enable or disable Direct Play within their settings. Disabling Direct Play forces every item played on the App to be transcoded. This is useful sometimes if you're having trouble with media playback on a particular device.

Most people will want to leave the Direct Play setting enabled.

Direct Stream

You may have some media that is compatible with your device regarding resolution and media type (H.264, AC3, etc.), but is in an incompatible file container (.mkv, .avi, .wmv, etc.). In this case, the file can be Direct Streamed to your device. This means:

  • The video and audio tracks are extracted from the original file;
  • The streams are saved back into a compatible file container; and
  • The Plex Media Server repackages the content on-the-fly before streaming it.

Direct Streaming a file uses very little processing power without any loss in video quality.

Note: Subtitles can introduce a wrinkle here sometimes. Even if a file's audio, video, and container are all compatible with a Plex App, if a subtitle stream is selected and is not compatible with the Plex App, then the Server will "burn in" the subtitle text within the video. This requires a full transcode of the video stream.

Partially-Transcoded Direct Stream

You might have a file that has a stream-compatible video track, but an audio track that needs transcoding. For example, your playback device cannot handle DTS tracks, but works with AC3. In this case:

  • The Audio track will be transcoded from the standard DTS core audio track to AC3;
  • The original Video track will not be touched; and
  • The transcoded audio track is sent with the unaltered video track to your device.

Disabling Direct Stream

Most Apps allow you to enable or disable Direct Stream within their settings. Disabling Direct Stream forces every item played on the client to be transcoded. This is useful sometimes if you're having trouble playing back media on a particular device.

Most people will want to leave the Direct Stream setting enabled.