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Streaming services are a mess, but JustWatch keeps me sane
I think we’re all aware at this point that cord-cutting hasn’t simplified our lives the way some of us were hoping. The initial promise seemed to be that we could subscribe to one or two services and get plenty of movies and TV shows. As the number of services has multiplied, however, content has become ever more fractured, and businesses have embraced the idea of platform exclusives as a hook. You’ll only ever be able to watch Foundation on Apple TV Plus, for example, or The Witcher on Netflix.
When shows and movies aren’t exclusive, they can still be maddeningly hard to track down. I like to watch movies while weightlifting, which means going through upwards of a dozen movies per month, and finding specific titles that pump me up — Conan the Barbarian or Rocky IV, for example. But a movie that’s available on one service can move to another without warning, or sometimes disappear entirely in a futile attempt to make me pay for a rental or purchase. JustWatch has helped keep my lifting nights on track, not to mention parties, and movie nights with my wife.
See also: The best video streaming services
What is JustWatch?
JustWatch is available via the web, mobile apps for Android and iOS, and TV apps for Android TV, Apple TV, Fire TV, Xbox, and select LG and Samsung sets. Every version is free to use, though in the mobile apps you can pay $2.49 per month to upgrade to JustWatch Pro, which removes ads and allows for more complex search filters.
At its core, JustWatch is a service that keeps a tally of which movies and shows are available where. Once you’ve told it which platforms you use, you can search for a title and it will show all compatible options for streaming, rental, or ownership, sometimes with links to start watching right away. As of this writing, for example, the service shows I can stream Conan the Barbarian for free on Peacock, or rent it from services like Amazon and YouTube. If I want to buy it, the options are plentiful.
JustWatch additionally tells you if a title is ad-supported or requires a subscription, and in the case of rentals and purchases, the exact price from each vendor. While Conan is currently a $15 purchase from Apple or Amazon for instance, it’s $3 less from AMC. Filters let you highlight free options, or 4K resolution if quality is the priority. (There’s no 4K remaster of the original Conan, sadly.)
You can add any of your picks to a personal Watchlist, and help expand it by browsing Netflix-style recommendations based on what’s popular, as well as what you’ve marked Seen and Liked (or Disliked). One minor annoyance is that if something is on your Watchlist, but you mark it Seen, it’s automatically removed from your list as if you’d never want to watch it again — regardless of whether you Liked it.
How JustWatch keeps me sane
I’m a busy man with a wife and preschooler, which is another reason I watch movies while working out — there are things I’d never have an excuse to see if I limited them to the rare occasions I watch something with my wife or friends. That also means that I can’t afford to waste time choosing something, not when my workouts easily top two hours and there are chores like dishes and baths on top of everything else.
When I sit down with my wife or friends, it's the ability to shop around that matters most.
JustWatch’s mobile apps mean that by the time I have weights in hand, I’ve narrowed down what I might like to see and how I’m going to see it. New releases or my mood can flip things on their head — I might choose something light when I’m depressed — but that’s still better than having to hunt through multiple apps for 30 minutes, or cast my fate to the wind with movies I’m unfamiliar with (which is saying something for a Film grad).
When I actually do sit down with my wife or friends, it’s the ability to shop around that matters most. Typically, one of us has a clear idea of what we want to watch, it’s just a matter of figuring out where we can watch it while spending the least amount of cash. That’s especially important during parties, since snack expenses can add up, and sometimes we have kids and partners to get back to.
Are there alternatives to JustWatch?
Sort of, but they’re not one-for-one. Roku is famous for integrating neutral search functions into its smart TV platform, including voice. It’s honestly great, but sometimes it’s not as quick and seamless as JustWatch, and there are only two places you can use it: Roku devices or the company’s mobile app. Similar things can be said about Apple TV search, only worse. It’s limited to first-party devices, tends to show fewer results, and relies on an “Up Next” queue instead of a watchlist. Apple, just because I want to watch something eventually doesn’t mean it should be put alongside things I have in progress.
Read more: The best movie apps for Android
Perhaps the most popular alternative to JustWatch is Letterboxd, which is on the web, Android, iOS, and Apple TV, and lets you compile a watchlist while providing similar details on how you can watch something. It’s more of a social network than a streaming tool, however, and that shows in its interface, which is geared towards rating, reviewing, and sharing content. If all you’re trying to do is jump into a movie as fast as possible you could consider Reelgood, which is functionally similar to JustWatch, but not the best at the moment because of bugs on Android. For me, JustWatch is an essential timesaver in the streaming universe.