Apple media sharing limits explained and why you should use Plex instead

Apple sets limits in a few directions on what you can share among people in a family or home.

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Apple has implemented multiple kinds of sharing for media—apps, music, audiobooks, movies, and TV shows—but imposes limits across a few directions, ostensibly not to reduce piracy, but limit the reach of any particular purchased item. Some of this–maybe all of it–is at the behest of copyright holders that require Apple to meet certain terms to offer the media at all.

If you BYOM (bring your own media) to any of Apple’s software that manages, plays, and shares it, you’ll feel these limitations, depending on with whom you share and how you’ve set things up.

The better alternative if you have a lot of your own stuff to share among a family, including on the go and geographically dispersed? Plex.

(It’s obligatory and morally necessary for me to point out that none of this advocates sharing media in a way that’s prohibited by the terms of what you’ve purchased or been given access to. Those rights tend to be either explicitly broader or carved out through court cases for media shared within a family or in a single residence.)

Apple’s version of sharing

Family Sharing. This free option allows up to six people you claim in the same family to give each access to a common set of apps (if the app developer offers sharing), purchased media, and optionally to one iCloud storage subscription, even though the storage is still private to each individual. (Starting with the next release of Apple’s operating systems, including Big Sur, developers can also let Family Sharing include sharing in-app purchases and subscriptions.)

Family Sharing doesn’t include any items you’ve added to a media library, like iTunes, Music, or TV. That includes omitting music that you’ve purchased or ripped and rely on iTunes Match to find high-quality copies of and sync across your own iCloud-linked devices. Only purchased music and other media is shared.

Home Sharing. Separate from Family Sharing, Home Sharing isn’t primarily designed to let you share media with different people, but to share it among your own devices on a local network. You can authorize up to five computers and access it from mobile, too. Guests have access as well, including to media you have in your libraries that’s not purchased from Apple.

Turn on Home Sharing in Mojave and earlier in iTunes: iTunes > Preferences > Sharing and check Share My Library on My Local Network. In Catalina and later, use the Sharing preference pane, select Media Sharing, and check the Home Sharing box and Share Media with Guests.

mac911 catalina media sharing preference IDG

Catalina offers controls within the Sharing preference pane for Home Sharing, including choosing what you share with guests.

Apple Music. To complete shared offerings, Apple offers individual and family subscriptions to Apple Music. If you purchase a family subscription for Apple Music and have Family Sharing enabled, it automatically shares it to those family members; if not, you have to enable Family Sharing.

Across none of these scenarios can you and others share all your media in any given location, though a combination of them may provide you with access at home to everything, albeit not all in the same fashion.

The Plex alternative

The Plex software and service is the best alternative for Mac users, and even better for people using media across Apple and non-Apple platforms. Its free flavor may offer people everything they need for sharing music and video, and Plex also allows photo sharing.

Its premium tier is worthwhile for a few added features: offline storage on mobile devices, and over-the-air recording of TV programs with a networked tuner (I use it for this). It’s just $4.99 a month, $39.99 a year, or $119.99 for a lifetime subscription. It also adds parental controls.

The one thing Plex can’t do is play Apple-protected video content, but that’s something that Family Sharing is quite good at managing.

You install Plex on any computer from which you want to share media and log into your account. Plex lets you identify folders that contain various kinds of media, and these can be scattered across drives and locations. I have an external 8TB drive on which I store most media, and it’s easy to point Plex at that, where iTunes, Music, TV, and other apps are harder to target and can’t manage multiple locations.

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Plex is available on multiple platforms.

Plex lets you enable sharing by kind of media, and then you can use that from other devices to access your own computer servers—and use invitations to share content with other people in your family. They don’t need premium subscriptions unless they want to have offline mobile access, too. Streaming is available without any paid subscription.

Plex has apps for Android, iOS, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, Google Chromecast, and Roku, among other platforms and systems. Desktop users access Plex through a browser, which is also the best way to manage and configure server settings.

This Mac 911 article is in response to a question submitted by Macworld reader Philip.

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