You don’t need Plex Pass to use Plex Media Server, but it includes significant upgrades like hardware transcoding and user accounts.
If you’re a fan of Plex, you might have wondered if you really need Plex Pass, the premium upgrade to the popular free home media server platform. Let’s take a look at the major and minor benefits that come with upgrading.
What Is Plex Pass?
It’s been around so long and grown so much that it’s easy to forget Plex was an offshoot of XBMC (Xbox Media Center, now called Kodi) started as a hobby project by Elan Feingold in late 2007. After continued development and collaboration, Feingold, along with Cayce Ullman and Scott Olechowski founded the Plex company in 2009.
In August of 2012, Plex introduced Plex Pass as a way to generate additional development revenue while keeping the core features of Plex free. The original payment model was monthly, but by the end of the year, they had introduced an annual pass and a lifetime pass. That model persists to the present, and the current pricing is $4.99/monthly, $39.99/annually, or $119.99 for a lifetime pass.
There are usually semi-regular discounts on lifetime passes, usually around 25% off, a few times a year that bring the price of the lifetime pass down to around $95.
Do You Need Plex Pass to Use Plex?
When the Plex Pass first came out, there was a bit of minor uproar among the user community—as there usually is whenever a company introduces or changes a subscription model—but Plex was free to use then and remains free to use today. You do not need a Plex Pass subscription to use Plex.
If you have a free account, you can use Plex Media Server, and you can stream your personal media (videos, music, and pictures) to any of the non-mobile Plex apps (such as those you would install on Windows, your Apple TV, Rokus, various Smart TV platforms, and so on). The only exception there is the mobile apps for iOS and Android require an in-app upgrade for full functionality—those apps are free if you get the Plex Pass, however, so consider that an instant discount.
You can also, with a compatible tuner and antenna, watch live TV on Plex, as well as watch streaming Live TV and movies and TV shows (this is in addition to any content in your personal library), though the latter two options are ad-supported.
In fact, depending on how you use Plex, it’s quite possible you’ve never run into a situation where you need the features that the Plex Pass provides. There’s also a chance you’d really like the features and didn’t realize they were there, just behind Plex’s freemium wall—which is exactly why we’re going to dig into the features to help you decide if it’s worth upgrading or the free model is perfectly suited for your needs.
What Upgrades Come with the Plex Pass?
There are quite a few upgrades that come with Plex Pass, and it’s impossible for us to say which ones are the most important for your particular use case. However, the upgrades vary significantly in terms of scale and impact from “Wow, I can use my Plex Media Server in a totally different way now” to “Well, that looks (or sounds) a little bit nicer, I guess.”
With that in mind, we’re going to rank the upgrade benefits in terms of how big of an impact they have on the overall user experience. If you happen to think a particular entry should be higher or lower on the list, we won’t be offended!
Downloadable Media and Syncing
With Plex Pass, you can download content from your Plex server to your devices for offline on-the-go viewing. This function is identical to the offline viewing modes available from various streaming services like Netflix.
It’s probably one of the most popular Plex Pass features, and for a good reason, as it makes it easy to load up your devices before a flight or anywhere else you won’t have a strong internet connection.
It’s also invaluable for folks with slow home internet. Your internet connection might not be powerful enough to stream from your home server to your remote location, but with the download and sync function, that won’t matter—as long as you pick out the show you want to binge ahead of time.
Enhanced Streaming and Hardware Transcoding
You don’t need a Plex Pass to watch your Plex media away from home, but you do need a Plex Pass to tweak and optimize the experience.
Plex Pass features allow you to adjust the streaming quality and, more importantly, enable hardware transcoding for a better user experience both within and outside your home.
You might not have given much thought to hardware transcoding, but it’s a crucial feature for a media server—especially if you’re serving up streams outside your home.
Enhanced Sharing and Family Features
You can share your Plex server with friends outside your home and, of course, with friends and family within your home network without a Plex Pass. But without the Plex Pass, you can’t set up user accounts or optimize streaming for your friends.
You also need the Plex Pass to set up user controls, such as putting adult content restrictions on your children’s Plex accounts.
Speaking of sharing and managing your Plex server, the Plex Pass also unlocks the dashboard view, so you can more easily monitor what is going on behind the scenes with your Plex server.
Skip Intros, Enjoy Trailers and Extras
Power users with the Plex Pass can enjoy one of the best streaming video features right on their Plex server: intro skipping. With Plex Pass, the next time you’re binge-watching a show, you can jump right past the intro and get to the good stuff.
But for those times you want to dig in and linger, Plex Pass can help too. The upgrade enables trailers, behind-the-scenes footage, deleted footage, and other extras—when available—for your favorite movies and shows.
And if you’re a true movie buff, Plex Pass has a neat feature for hardcore fans: you can keep multiple cuts of the same movie in your collection with distinct entries, metadata, and such.
Also appealing to movie buffs, Plex Pass supports HDR mapping, so if you have HDR-enabled media and a compatible display, you can enjoy an HDR-enhanced experience.
Live TV and DVR Features
You don’t need Plex Pass to watch live TV through your Plex server, but the experience is pretty anemic if you don’t.
Plex Pass turns your Plex server into a supercharged DVR, so you can not just scroll through the live TV offerings in your area but record the current and future broadcasts right to your Plex server.
While this feature might not be a huge priority for people who have gotten away from live TV or the DVR experience, for folks who want the Plex interface and ease of use with local TV, it’s tough to beat.
Early Access to New Features and Beta Releases
Although you might not want to chase the bleeding edge with beta releases because a stable server is a happy server, with Plex Pass you’re free to do so.
However, the bigger benefit in this area isn’t the beta releases but the early feature access. Many cool features that became part of the Plex experience were first released to Plex Pass users, such as support for Chromecasting.
Enhanced Music Playback and Display
We’re ending our feature list with the music playback not because it’s a cruddy feature (it’s actually quite polished) but because the majority of Plex users are focused on TV and movie playback, not music.
But the Plex Pass unlocks the PlexAmp player and adds in additional cool features like synchronized lyrics, offline listening, better music controls with things like volume leveling and other enhancements, and even includes a Tidal music discount if you want to integrate Plex with a streaming music service.
Finally, before we close out the discussion of the Plex Pass, I’ll say this. Plex is a small company, and the ongoing development of Plex is dependent on user support. It’s easy to argue back and forth about whether or not X feature or Y feature is worth the cost of a Plex Pass when you’re looking at that feature in a vacuum.
But in the end, the Plex Pass isn’t just about the feature, and it’s about funding a project that is a core part of your home media experience. So even though I don’t use every feature of the Plex Pass (and really only consider one or two of them must have enhancements), I’m more than willing to pay for the Plex Pass because the rest of the Plex experience is just as important to me as the premium features.