I may have mentioned before – verbally to persons since I’ve not posted about it before – but there are a number of streaming services that can be utilized.
Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Disney Plus and a whole slew of others exist. For personal servers, there are ones like Plex, Emby, JellyFin and – on the much older scale – XBMC. You can look up each one and check out the features – I’ll be going into details of a few soon, but the focus will be functionality and the “watch together” feature.
Fortunately – or unfortunately maybe? – COVID came around and forced everyone to stay indoors. This then prompted the various companies to implement methods for friends/family to watch content synchronized. I honestly don’t recall who was first, but users all over had various things developed that pushed things forward to where they are now.
One of the mentions would be the MPC (Media Player Classic) ports that have been around. There was an addon to a version that allowed you and friends to “watch together” any video file. The downside is that everyone had to have the same video file on their system, and then have the addon running. This would then synchronize the playback – mostly – but it would not allow pausing by anyone. That means – if I paused it would only pause for me. I believe later iterations developed on this, but by then the big companies had caught on.
Enter the “watch together” features from Netflix, Amazon and the other big players. These allowed users of the platform to plan a date/time and stream the same content. This would be hosted on the provider (Netflix/Amazon/etc) and the play/pause would be global. This means if someone had a call or needed to rush to the bathroom, everyone would be paused until someone hit play again. I believe Netflix took things a step further and allowed for a sidebar chat to be available.
Some persons that either have private content – or “not so straight” content – would want to have these features available as well. Enter services such as Plex and Emby.
Plex was more along the “commercial” line while Emby was somewhere on the fence about being “commercial” in comparison to Plex. The main fork of Emby became Jellyfin, and I assume that the open source core components are the same, but development has differed along the way.
Regardless of which you choose, each has their pros and cons – but each will allow you to selectively give access to your personal library. This content can be hosted on your PC at home, or on a server somewhere else that you rent/own. You could – for example – place your wedding or funeral videos in a shared location that could then be streamed to persons that you grant access. Let’s get into the main three.
Plex is by far the “top dog” when it comes to a commercial product with great features. As with the others, it’s a streaming media server and service that you own and place whatever content you like there. The difference with the others is you pay for monthly, yearly or lifetime subscriptions which opens up other features.
Based on how Plex works as a service, you share your content with other Plex users based on their email/username. You can specify what content they can see, and you can have a “local” login set for your household with parental controls available.
Plex was the first of the self-hosted services to have a “watch together” feature available. This pushed the envelope and made it the #1 service in the self-hosted category.
As of this writing, Plex still works nicely but has some recent bugs that may be related to an influx of users, or changes to coding which has caused the service to take a downturn. Specifically with remote hosted content, your videos will play fine – pause fine – resume fine. Seeking through a video (fast forward or rewind) now causes the video to playback at 2X speed for some strange reason. The “watch together” feature has become extremely buggy, and the issues seem to be across the board.
While Plex is probably still the easiest to find and install on any device, the current problems make it unbearable to keep using. As a more “commercial” service, I expect that the issues will be fixed – but there seems to be no timeline. Work was done on the back-end it seems, and some features were added, but the playback issues and “watch together” issues still persist. This has been going on since December 2021.
Emby has (or had?) cemented itself squarely at the #2 position when it came to a Plex alternative. The mixed open and closed source code with stalled development seems to have caused a diminished following.
While Emby is still one of the best self-hosted services available, the lack of a “watch together” feature has caused persons to move to either Plex or Jellyfin – which the latter is a fork of Emby. We’ll get into Jellyfin next, but let’s look at the Emby features.
Emby allows you to do most of the things that Plex does – except “watch together” – yeah – sorry about that. I’m kinda upset that Emby has not added this feature. But let’s move on.
Emby allows you to easily and quickly log in using a code – Plex does something similar with a “claim code” for the servers. Emby allows you to set parental and other restrictions to users. Emby, though not as popular as Plex, has begun to have apps available in mainstream TV stores. Let me get into that a bit…
Prior to the prevalence of Android TVs, each manufacturer like Samsung and LG would have their own stores. You could still “sideload” Android apps, but they were not always easily supported. Plex was available in these stores, but Emby has started to gain a presence there as well. In terms of simply installing from my Samsung TV – some difficulty on other older models – Plex is king of this while Emby would be the close second.
If your TV isn’t 100% smart or running Android, I would suggest using an Android box or an Amazon Fire TV – stick or box. This would allow very easy installation of any streaming service.
Emby has premium features that can be purchased, and they also have a lifetime option. Unlike Plex that only periodically offers the lifetime, Emby has it available for purchase whenever you want.
That’s about it for Emby – so let’s get into the #3 on this list.
Welcome to the new kid on the block that has blown everything else out of the water. Almost.
Jellyfin is a fork of Emby with a lot of community work going into it. While Emby still has an active community, one of the biggest requests has been a “watch together” feature to keep up with Plex. For whatever reason, Emby did not progress with the feature. Community members made two main addons which work, but they require a bit of technical knowledge to get it working.
Someone – or a group of persons – developed “Jelly Party” as an option for Jellyfin. This was a website that you could go to and follow the instructions. It would then allow synchronized playback with a “watch party” situation. Because Jellyfin is a fork of Emby, this feature ended up working with Emby as well. Jellyfin then integrated this into their later releases and it’s now a part of the mainstream Jellyfin. This leaves Emby in the dust. Sort of.
One of the issues I’ve had with Jellyfin recently – on a Fire Stick – is constant crashing of the app. This doesn’t happen in the browser, but sometimes you want to watch on the bigger screen.
Jellyfin is 100% free and has the community assisting with development. This seems to push the overall process faster than Emby, but it may still take some time before Jellyfin becomes more mainstream.
What persons have been doing is using YouTube, FaceBook, Discord and other services to stream video that they’re watching. While this works, it’s entirely up to a single person to manage the playback. There’s also the risk of an account being banned if it’s reported as playing “questionable” content.
Plex, Emby and Jellyfin are great tools regardless of which you pick. The issues I have with one or the other may only be specific to my servers or media. I would recommend that you try out the one you like and see if it works for you.
For general playback, Plex is unbeaten overall. The CPU usage for transcoding is lower than the others, but the current issues with playback and the “watch together” not working is a pain.
As a 100% free tool, Jellyfin is the next best thing since sliced bread. It works overall, but the recent issues with crashing on the Android platform (Fire Stick specifically) makes things a bit tedious. If you want to watch together though, it’s probably the best choice currently. For self-hosted that is.
Emby is probably the most stable of the three mentioned. It works great overall, but the main reason persons shy away is the absence of the “watch together” feature. If you only want your library shared for yourself and watching with friends is not a concern, then Emby is definitely the one I’d suggest.
If there’s something else that you’d like to suggest, please do so in the comments area so we can discuss it. Have a good one!