With the nation still largely in lockdown, and most non-drive-in theaters closed, enjoying movie night with anyone outside your own household has gotten … complicated. In response, media server Plex has rolled out an early version of its new Watch Together feature, which lets you remotely sync up movies and TV shows for simultaneous viewing with other Plex users.
How does Watch Together for Plex work?
Everyone you watch a movie or show with will need a free Plex account, and they'll need to be running Plex's media server and player software. You can't invite non-Plex-using friends to join the fun, although for now, you don't need a paid Plex Pass subscription to use Watch Together. You'll also need to have added the folks with whom you want to watch to your Friends list in Plex under
Accounts > Users & Sharing.
Once that's all set, pick a movie or TV show from your own Plex library or Plex's free streaming service. Click, tap, or select the icon with the three dots (
…), and from the menu that appears, choose Watch Together. Select the people from your Friends list with whom you want to watch a movie, then select
Plex will take you to a lobby screen and send invitations to your friends to join you. While you watch your friends' statuses shift from "Invited" to "Buffering…" to "Ready," you can choose to start playing the movie and let your tardy friends catch up. But it's probably more polite to wait for everyone to indicate that they're ready, at which point Plex will start playing the movie automatically.
Once the movie starts, any of the viewers can pause or resume it at any point. For now, at least, there's no way to chat with your friends within the Plex app, so you'll either need to use a separate app to keep up your conversations, establish a telepathic mind-meld with your fellow viewers, or just endure a lot of awkward pausing and un-pausing at random. (We recommend the first approach.)
How well does Watch Together for Plex work?
Pretty well! From the East Coast, we tested it out with a pair of brave volunteers — one on the West Coast, and one in the middle of the country. Occasionally, playback would skip backwards a few seconds to ensure that everyone stayed in synch. Otherwise, none of our viewers reported any problems. Movies looked great and played smoothly, whether they were SD or HD, black-and-white or color, staid and slow or fast-paced and frenetic.
All our testers definitely missed having an in-app way to talk to each other, and they bemoaned how quickly Watch Together-related notifications came and went from their screens. One who was using VoiceOver on AppleTV noted that Plex didn't play well with it — Plex didn't read the notifications aloud, and with VoiceOver turned on, the tester couldn't access any of the playback settings to switch audio tracks or turn subtitles on or off.
Keep a few caveats in mind as well:
- Even if you're the one who starts a movie, it'll keep going even if you leave it, and the other viewers in your watch party will see it in their "On Deck" list, inviting them to jump back in.
- There's no way right now to boot misbehaving viewers from a movie, short of bailing out, starting a new viewing, and inviting only the well-behaved friends to join you.
- Every friend in the party needs to have access to the same servers. If you're streaming stuff from your own library, you're fine. When we tried to stream movies from a server that some of the testers didn't have access to, they couldn't watch.
- If you've chosen one of Plex's streaming titles, be ready to sit through lengthy, randomly placed ad breaks.
But on the whole, we had fun testing out the new feature, and several testers began cooking up ideas for future remote watch parties.
Where can I use Watch Together?
As of October 2020, Plex had rolled out Watch Together for its Web app, iOS, AppleTV, Android, Amazon FireTV, NVIDIA SHIELD, and Roku. The company says that versions for Mac and PC desktop apps are on their way, too.
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Nathan Alderman is an iMore contributor. He’s been using Apple computers since his first Apple IIe in 1985, and writing professionally about Macs and their software since 2005. During his 12 years freelancing for Macworld, he covered email clients, web browsers, web design programs, writing apps, and games, and he’s continued to follow those interests at iMore since 2017. An editor and writing coach in his full-time career, he spends his dwindling spare time writing fiction for fun, volunteering for democracy, and contributing to podcasts on The Incomparable Network. Nathan adores his wife and wrangles his alarmingly large children in bucolic Crozet, VA.