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Feature creep is killing Plex as we know it
I’ve been a hardcore user of Plex for nearly a decade now. I’ve run the media server on everything from a spare laptop to a Raspberry Pi, to a dedicated NAS, and even my own cloud server. From paying monthly for the premium service to buying a lifetime pass because it was so essential to my media watching, I’ve clearly stepped far down the Plex rabbit hole. It’s the backbone of my 40+ Terabyte media library but it also serves media to dozens of family members and friends spread across the globe. When we plan a movie night, we do it over Plex due to the disjointed availability of content across countries and services. And yet, the recent changes to the service have me looking for some of the best alternatives to Plex.
When it launched almost a decade ago, Plex was designed to act as a Netflix-like front-end for your personal media. Point it to your media directories, give it a few minutes and the app would “automagically” pull up posters, artwork, trailers, and more. It was beautiful. It still does that, but signing up for Plex today is a whole different experience. Setting it up on a brand new installation automatically ticks off additional services like Discover and Plex’s homegrown streaming service. And those two services, in particular, appear to be pivotal to Plex’s future.
A more legitimate future
Ever since Plex introduced its ad-supported movie and TV show service in 2019, the feature has been creeping into more and more product fronts. Most importantly, it takes up several rows of recommendations on the Plex home page now. I wouldn’t mind it so much if the content offering was limited to just a secondary library as is the case with personal media. However, as it stands, not only is it switched on by default, but it is impossible to entirely remove the additional features from the side panel.
Even if you give Plex the benefit of doubt, and assume that there might be good content on the service, the selection covers underground, ahem, classics like BMX Bandits, and The Ninth Configuration. Suffice it to say, it’s not what I’m looking for. More so when you factor in the very reason people set up a Plex server for — a curated content library. Plex’s decision to include these generally irrelevant results when searching through media makes the already cluttered interface, even worse.
Users come to Plex for the personally curated media experience, not the irrelevant recommendations and content.
The latest feature addition, Discover, is yet another glaring pointer to a very different future vision. With it, Plex wants to make the media server your go-to hub for content discovery. The hope is that you not only find new movies and TV shows, but also add them to a personal watchlist and then stream them from whatever streaming service you subscribe to. Yes, the feature works, but instead of being completely optional, it has led to yet another tab in the interface.
It’s not just the Discover tab, though. A secondary watchlist menu is also displayed loud and proud on the homepage, and unlike the Discover tab, you cannot hide this away.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that most of these additional features can be toggled off to varying degrees, but the company’s relentless focus on an assortment of additions that nobody asked for is the complete opposite of what users have been asking for.
Read more: Did Plex just kill the media streaming box?
Plex needs to listen to its userbase
Over the last few years, Plex has introduced and then killed Plex Arcade. It has also removed the ability to stream content from cloud servers. Camera uploads, a fantastic feature for home users, especially with the changes to Google Photos was also let go of. You’d expect all those engineering resources to go towards getting things like application stability, better subtitle support, or even ensuring that downloads finally work. Instead, we get a smorgasbord of B-tier movies because of the ad revenue on top of a service that a lot of us already pay for.
Flush with VC money, Plex wants to move away from its origins. That is blatantly obvious. Head over to the Plex website today and it takes four scrolls or more to even get to a mention of personal media library. The company is clearly stepping away from its association with the space.
The reason for that is obvious. Sure, a portion of the Plex userbase acquires its media library from legitimate sources, but the service has long been associated with piracy. That has only gotten worse over the years as more and more users start running cloud instances of Plex capable of streaming to hundreds of people simultaneously. It makes sense that Plex wants to distance itself from that practice. But a lackluster replica of existing solutions carries a greater risk of alienating the userbase, instead of bringing more subscribers into the fold.
For one, trying to compete with alternatives like Tubi or Crackle isn’t going to work out simply because that just isn’t what Plex users come to the platform for. Even if you leave aside technically-inclined users, a significant portion of the base joins Plex for user-streamed content. Advertising Plex as a home for free television content risks diluting the brand to yet another ad-supported streaming service amidst the dozens that already exist.
Similarly, universal search is a pretty good idea with major flaws. Plex users often jump on the platform to avoid major streaming services. But the bigger issue is the implementation. It requires too many steps to look for and add movies to your watchlist. A standalone secondary app in the style of Plexamp might have been a better solution, but that’s not what the Plex team chose to do. Instead, JustWatch has been around forever, and it does all the same stuff but better.
Look, Plex has long had a near-monopoly on the personal media streaming market. Emby and Jellyfin have shaped up as decent alternatives but they don’t support anywhere near the number of platforms that Plex does. But that’s just a matter of time. Sure, streaming media might be the future, but Plex was built on the back of solid user content aggregation and serving that everywhere. If aggregating streaming services is the route Plex wants to follow, perhaps it should consider spinning off the media server into its own entity. Call it Plex Classic if you will. In fact, there’s precedence here. Adobe continues to offer Lightroom Classic for those who prefer the, well, classic photo editing experience while the regular app gets cloud-connected features.
If this is the future, perhaps it is time that Plex spun off its media server component into a separate app
As a longtime user, my biggest gripe is that there is no simple way to toggle off all the extraneous additions and go back to a clean and simple streaming experience. Plex can go ahead and tack on as many features as it wants, but it needs to rethink why people come to it, and that’s for the personal media streaming feature. That needs to be easy and quick to do. As a tech-savvy user, I can go ahead and hide most of the additions. My Plex-hooked parents? Not so much. By continuously adding features that nobody is asking for, Plex risks breaking the experience to the point where users start looking at alternative services. I know I already am, and I’m not alone.