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Plex adds streaming discovery, search, and watchlists

Plex, the media server that lets you easily organize and access all of your personal movies, music, and photos, wants to become a one-stop-shop for streaming services, too. The company has added three new streaming-centric features: A streaming-based discovery tool, a universal search, and universal watchlists — all of which are designed to decrease the amount of time you spend jumping back and forth between multiple apps as you attempt to answer the questions like, “Where can I watch [insert title of movie or TV show]?” or “What should I watch next?”

All streaming apps, one interface

Choosing streaming providers in Plex.

The new features are free to use (no Plex Pass subscription required), but before you can take advantage of them, you’ll need to be logged in to Plex with an account that has an associated email address. Guest accounts aren’t supported at the moment. Plex will then ask that you identify which streaming services you subscribe to. Plex covers all the major players, like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, and many of the smaller, niche services, too, so you should have no problem adding your favorites. There’s no way to prevent Plex from promoting the availability of a certain movie or show from one of your non-subscribed services, but it will always prioritize the ones you have access to.

Discover what’s streaming

Plex Discovery screen.

Taking center stage in Plex’s streaming-centric media experience is the new discovery tool — simply called “Discover”. It appears as its own tab in the left-side navigation menu and uses the familiar, ribbon-based layout to organize streaming content into logical categories like Trending from your services, Top titles on your services, Coming Soon, New on your services, Now available for purchase or streaming, and New for family. Movie buffs who love to stay on top of unreleased movies will appreciate the new “Trending trailers” section, which highlights new and notable previews for upcoming first-run titles.

The “trending” categories aren’t just lifted directly from the service in question. Plex uses its own algorithms and user data to compile lists that could possibly be more meaningful than what Netflix, Disney+, or any other service has created.

Plex Discover info page.

Clicking through on any of these thumbnails will take you to an info page. Plex users will be familiar with these screens, as they’re the same, visually-rich template used for personal media — but with a twist. Each of these titles is now accompanied by a “Watch from these locations” ribbon that lists all the streaming services that have them, and whether the title is included with your subscription. If it isn’t, the service’s icon will be accompanied by the label “buy/rent.”

On the same page, you now have the opportunity to add or remove the title from your watchlist (trailers and movies/shows) or to watch the trailer (movies/shows only).

At launch, the Discover tab won’t include content from Plex’s free, ad-supported video-on-demand (AVOD) collection or titles from your personal library, bu the company says it’s looking at adding these in the future.

Checking your list

The watchlist is presented as a subsection of the Home page, and you get several ways to sort content, including content type, when the items were added to the list, and whether you want to browse it as a grid or list view. Watchlist items can be added from any streaming source, but Plex can’t communicate directly with each streaming service to determine whether you’ve actually watched a title you’ve added, so you’ll have to manually remove them once they’re no longer of interest.

Because of this limitation, Plex can’t maintain a “Watch next” list that automatically prompts you to watch the next episode in a series. By the same token, it isn’t able to create a “resume watching” list for shows or movies you left unfinished, though a Plex spokesperson told Digital Trends that most streaming services should resume an unfinished title from where you left off when you click on the relevant watch option.

Plex has also mimicked an element of Roku’s My Feed feature: If you add an item that isn’t available on any of your services, you’ll be able to track as each one becomes available, using the “Available to Stream” filter, saving you time from having to repeatedly search for it inside each app.

Universal search

Plex search window featuring streaming results.

Arguably the most useful of the new tools isn’t really a new tool at all, but an extension of the existing Plex search feature. Now, the search window can surface results from a huge variety of streaming services and trailers alongside your personal media and Plex’s AVOD library.

Searches can be filtered based on content type, including movies/TV Shows, music, people, and podcasts. The one thing you can’t do is restrict search results to just titles that you currently have access to. Plex will show matching titles from every service in its database. Having results that are pulled from every source is still quite handy, however, as it lets you add items to your watchlist from anywhere — even if you can’t watch them right now.

Every screen, every device

While some of these features may seem like Plex playing catch-up to Roku, Amazon Fire TV, and Google TV, Plex has an enormous advantage over these players: The Plex client app is available on nearly every conceivable streaming player, smart TV, smartphone, tablet, or on the web. That means Plex’s newfound streaming chops are pretty much universally available on any device you want to use. Its nearest competitor is Apple, which enjoys strong cross-device support for its Apple TV app, but it still lags Plex in some areas.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article said that users would be notified by a message when a watchlist item becomes available. This has been corrected.

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Simon Cohen
Contributing Editor, A/V
Simon Cohen covers a variety of consumer technologies, but has a special interest in audio and video products, like…
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