Yet another company wants to help make sense of streaming with a single menu that covers lots of different video services.
This time it’s Plex, which started off as a media server application but has since branched out with its own library of free movies, shows, and live channels. A new version of the Plex app on phones, computers, and streaming devices allows you to look up stuff to watch, create a universal watch list, and jump directly into a movie or show regardless of which streaming service offers it.
Think of it as a TV guide for streaming, letting you browse across Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, and more in one place. While the concept isn’t new—Reelgood and JustWatch offer similar streaming guides, as do some streaming devices—Plex believes its free content catalog and cross-platform support will make a more effective one-stop shop for streaming.
“We definitely want people to think about opening Plex first, every day,” says Jason Williams, Plex’s senior director of product and design. “That’s always been a goal for us. We think we have an opportunity to do something better and solve some problems that are out there today.”
How Plex’s guide works
Plex users will now see a new “Discover” tab in the main menu, suggesting movies and shows to watch. Visiting this section for the first time shows a selection tool for your streaming services; Plex will mostly show recommendations from the ones you’ve chosen, though it will also include popular movie trailers, upcoming releases, and occasional recommendations from other services.
Plex also offers a watch list that works across streaming services. You can either add movies or shows to this list from the Discover tab or search for movies and shows by name. Unlike the watch lists you can create in Netflix and other apps, Plex’s list will continue to track shows even as they move around between services.
“We know that people have problems today with availability windows,” Williams says. “Having a watch list that’s always checking in real time where things are available is what the watch list has to be.”
Once you select a movie or show, Plex will list all the sources where it’s available to watch, whether it’s with a subscription, a one-time purchase, or free with ads. Selecting a source takes you directly to the video in the corresponding streaming app or website.
For now, this deep-linking capability is limited to iOS, Android, Fire TV, Android TV, and Apple TV devices. Williams says the company is working through technical issues on some platforms and “policy issues” on others. (Roku, for instance, forbids third-party apps from linking into other apps on its platform.) You can still look up where to watch a particular movie or show on those devices, but you can’t launch them directly through Plex.
The new TV guide wars
At the outset, Plex’s universal streaming guide is less refined than some others. It doesn’t try to personalize recommendations based on what you’ve previously watched or added to your watch list, and you have to manually flag individual seasons or shows as watched after you click through on them to another streaming service. Williams says more personalization is coming, but right now Reelgood and JustWatch do a better job on both fronts.
But unlike those guides, Plex also serves as a source of content unto itself. Its ad-supported TV service includes more than 50,000 movies and TV shows, along with more than 250 linear channels. (Those channels are separate from what’s on cable, with offerings such as Newsy, Crackle, and Johnny Carson TV.) Last year, Plex said it had 25 million registered users on its platform.
“The biggest benefit, quite frankly, is we also offer content inline, so we can also show you things you can just easily watch within the app,” Williams says.
The Discover tab also ties into Plex’s media server software, so if you choose a show that’s already in your library—for instance, from a ripped DVD or Plex’s over-the-air DVR service—you’ll be able to launch it from there. (The ability to record upcoming over-the-air programs from the Discover menu isn’t available yet, but Williams says it’s coming.)
Plex’s bigger challenge will be competing with streaming platforms such as Roku, Fire TV, Apple TV, and Google TV. All of them already offer universal search across streaming services, and they’ve been steadily building up universal guide features as well.
Google TV and Fire TV devices, for instance, both put content recommendations on their home screens and offer universal watch lists. Apple TV devices have an app called “TV” that lets users track shows and easily pick up where they left off. Roku just added a “What to Watch” section to its streaming devices and offers a watch list feature through its mobile app.
For Plex, convincing users to rely on a third-party app to navigate their streaming devices may be difficult, but the streaming platforms have their own weaknesses. Most of them don’t fully integrate with Netflix, which seems to detest universal streaming guides as a concept, and they of course don’t work across all platforms and devices. If you have an Android phone, a Samsung smart TV in one room, and a Fire TV device in another, Plex can sync your watch list across all of them.
In other words, Plex isn’t trying to lock anyone into any particular brand of hardware or favor one streaming service over any other. That may help it succeed where built-in universal guides have struggled.
“We’re not trying to be hardware,” Williams says. “We simply want to be a software solution, and we’re in a neat space to be able to tackle this and be a true software solution that people can trust.”
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