Which group streaming service is right for you?

Christel Deskins

Which group streaming service is right for you? No company has quite figured out the perfect group streaming app, but Hulu and Plex have both put together intriguing solutions for this era of social distancing. Hulu has leveraged its massive and diverse streaming library to offer Hulu Watch Party. The […]

Which group streaming service is right for you?
Which group streaming service is right for you?

No company has quite figured out the perfect group streaming app, but Hulu and Plex have both put together intriguing solutions for this era of social distancing.

Hulu has leveraged its massive and diverse streaming library to offer Hulu Watch Party. The feature’s a simple way to sync up playback with a handful of friends and chat with them while you watch Hulu programming. On the other side of the ring is Plex Watch Together, an experimental new feature that lets you watch pretty much anything you want with your friends so long as you’re willing to jump through some hoops.

If you’re not sure which one you want to use, just keep reading! We’ll break it down by the most important metrics so you don’t have to.

How do I set up the stream?

By their very natures, Hulu and Plex are completely different services, and that’s where we have to start.

Hulu is a streaming service like Netflix. You pay a monthly fee and you get access to an ever-expanding catalogue of content, though sometimes pesky rights get in the way and certain shows or movies get removed. In other words, the user doesn’t have any control over Hulu’s content offerings.

This is not the case with Plex. Though Plex does have a free, ad-supported selection of movies and shows, the real selling point is that you can turn your own device into a media server for any video or audio files you possess. A computer will work as long as it’s active and online at all times. But as our friends at PCMag pointed out in their helpful Plex startup guide, lots of folks use external server devices specifically for their Plex libraries. It requires a bit of technical know-how, but a well-managed Plex server is a powerful way to basically stream anything you want.

Image: alex perry / mashable

We’ll get Hulu’s setup out of the way first because it’s astoundingly easy.

Don’t worry about installing an app or a Chrome extension. Simply find something you want to watch with the “Watch Party” icon in its details page on Hulu’s website and you’re good to go. Click this, and you’ll be given a URL to share with up to seven friends who need to also have their own Hulu accounts. Once they click that shared URL, they’ll be taken to the playback screen with a chat window on the right side. If their video falls out of sync with everyone else’s because they had to pause for a bathroom break, a helpful button will pop up to get them back up to speed.

And that’s pretty much all there is to Watch Party. It’s light on features, but it’s fairly elegant.

Plex’s alternative isn’t difficult, per se, but there are several more steps to it. First, you need to log into the Plex app on a supported device, which we’ll talk about later. Then, you need to click the three dots labeled “More” on the watch page for a piece of content and select “Watch Together.”

Image: alex perry / mashable

Unfortunately, you can’t just send a URL to people at this stage. You’ll need to add your desired party members by going to the “Users & Sharing” screen in the Plex app. Your friends list will then pop up when you try to start a Watch Together party, at which point you can send them all invites. If you want to watch something from your personal server, you’ll need to share your server with them first using the same screen you used to add them as friends.

They should see an invitation in their Plex app that they can use to join. Once people are in the lobby and have marked themselves as ready, playback will start. Anyone in the party can pause, rewind, or fast forward the content at any time, and the video will sync up accordingly for everyone else in the room.

Plex’s approach to social streaming has benefits that we’ll get into shortly, but for the purposes of this category alone, we have to give the nod to Hulu. It’s a difference between taking seconds to start a party and taking minutes to start a party. And that difference matters.

The winner: Hulu Watch Party

What can I watch?

Hulu says Watch Party works with “thousands of movies and shows” on its platform — so there are limits to the feature’s reach. In my testing, it looks like pretty much anything that lives natively on Hulu works with Watch Party. I didn’t start encountering problems until I factored in content that came from external subscriptions, like HBO. I can watch HBO content on Hulu by myself, but it doesn’t offer Watch Party integration.

Image: Screenshot: Plex

Plex, on the other hand, has some free things you can watch via partnerships with MGM, Warner Bros., Lionsgate, and a few other studios. You’ll need to sit through some ads, but otherwise, you can load up the Plex app and watch the astoundingly weird Bram Stoker’s Dracula (with Keanu Reeves doing the greatest British accent of all time) with very little hassle.

The real draw here is the ability to watch anything you want by setting up your own Plex server. There are essentially no content limitations with Plex Watch Together, so it has to win this category.

The winner: Plex Watch Together

Can I chat with people?

Scener and Netflix Party both allow user chats alongside video playback, but Scener came away on top by adding video chat on top of text chat. Today’s competition is not nearly as compelling.

Hulu Watch Party allows text chat for up to eight people. I have no complaints about it. Plex Watch Together doesn’t have chatting at all. You have to load up a separate app of your choice to talk to friends while you watch Gary Oldman’s wild overacting in Dracula. This isn’t a dealbreaker by any means because there are approximately 100 million ways to talk to people on the internet. But Plex can’t win this category if it doesn’t even try to compete.

The winner: Hulu Watch Party

Which devices can I use?

Hulu Watch Party only works in a web browser on a desktop or laptop computer — there’s no support for the Hulu app on your smart TV, streaming box, or mobile device. That could change in the future, but at the moment, that’s the only way to watch Hulu content together with your pals. This isn’t a scathing indictment of Watch Party because most of these group streaming apps are computer-based anyway.

Plex Watch Together takes the total opposite approach in a way that’s probably for the best. You actually can’t use Watch Together in a web browser, as far as I can tell. According to Plex, it works with the Plex app on the following devices:

  • Amazon Fire TV

  • Android mobile

  • Android TV

  • Apple TV

  • iOS

  • Roku

That means you can actually watch movies on your TV, where they belong. Excellent. It works on your phone, too, if that’s your thing. The downside is you’ll have to pull out a laptop or phone anyway if you plan on chatting with folks while you watch, but that’s not the worst thing in the world. So we have to give this one to Plex.

The winner: Plex Watch Together

How much do I have to pay?

Image: alex perry / mashable

Hulu Watch Party is only available on the platform’s ad-free plan. So you’ll need to either subscribe to Hulu’s on-demand streaming platform or Hulu with live TV support. That means you have to pay $11.99 per month at a minimum to use this feature, and you can’t share it with users who pay for the cheaper, ad-supported version of Hulu.

Plex Watch Together doesn’t cost a dang thing…yet. The company’s FAQ page calls the current iteration of Watch Together a “preview period” during which the feature is free, but there’s no information about how long the beta period will last or what will change once it’s over. However, it’s not difficult to imagine Plex hiding Watch Together behind its $4.99 per month Plex Pass subscription sometime down the line.

But that’s all in the future and we’re living in the now. And in the now, Plex’s group streaming is free and Hulu’s is not.

The winner: Plex Watch Together

The Verdict

Hulu Watch Party is a totally fine way to watch Hulu content with your friends. A lack of built-in video chat isn’t that much of a hindrance because you don’t have to hear a barking dog or crying baby while watching Parasite. Hulu has a large and varied library, and you can socially stream just about all of it using Watch Party. It’s a lightweight, simple-to-use addition that feels like it’s in its infancy, especially given that you need to be in the more expensive Hulu tier to use it. It’s also browser-only right now.

You (or a tech-savvy friend with lots of time on their hands) may have to do some more work to make Plex Watch Together truly worthwhile, but its raw potential puts it over the top. Plex’s social streaming option may not have any native chat features, but you can watch any video file you have on your TV or phone with your friends. It’s really, really tough for any group streaming service to beat that. At least, until one comes around that doesn’t require as much setup as Plex Watch Together does.

The winner: Plex Watch Together

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