Plex’s new universal search is already better than Google

A photo of a TV showcasing the Plex Watchlist

Welcome to Plex’s watchlist, the best new beta feature.
Photo: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

When I want to watch something, I don’t know where to start. Do I bend down in front of the TV and use the remote to look for something? Or do I have to pull out my phone and dig into my apps folder and figure it out from there? What if there was a third way?

Plex hopes you choose its system for those important life decisions, especially if you already use the app to maintain a home media server. The company launched a beta feature called Discover. It’s basically a new landing page that includes a universal search tool to help you manage the obvious number of streaming services available to watch. There’s also a new watchlist and trending feeds that let you mark things to watch later.

After only a few minutes with it, I can already say that the new offerings from Plex are what I was looking for. I tried the new Plex beta Discover feature on my Android phone and jumped this on my Google TV. It reminds me of a similar feature available on Google TV, although it’s not to spec. I’ll explain why that is in a moment.

First, let’s talk about using Plex’s new beta features.

How to Use New Plex Features

A screenshot of Plex's Universal Search

I searched for my favorite TV show in Plex’s universal search, and it brought up my personal Plex library of ripped DVDs, along with all the places I can stream it.
Screenshot: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

To access new Android app beta features, make sure your Plex app is updated. Upon launch, you should see a prompt to sign up for the beta. Then you will be asked to choose your streaming services so that they are in the search results. You don’t even need your login credentials for this part.

Once back on the home page, access the Discover in the overflow menu, which you can access by tapping the three-dash More icon in the upper left corner. (On the TV app, it’s behind the same menu.) This is where you’ll find trending trailers, your watchlist, and trending content on the services you subscribe to. When you’re ready to search, tap the icon at the top to get started.

I’m impressed with the number of services included in Plex’s search. You can find anything on big-name apps like Apple TV+, Disney+, HBO Max, Hulu, Netflix, Paramount+, and even Pluto Free TV, which offers on-demand content. Plex also lets you add search results from more niche streaming services, including Curiosity Stream, which focuses on documentaries, and Lifetime Movie Club, which is exactly what it looks like if you’ve ever spent a second on the Lifetime Channel in the 90s. . You can even include YouTube in your search results, but not YouTube TV, which offers on-demand and DVR content. You will have to manually check there if you have access to a series.

Plex’s watchlist is the key to keeping track of your favorites. The feature appears as a small bookmark icon below each title, and you can use it to flag shows and movies when they’re streaming across multiple platforms. When you have a craving, you can select the title from the list to see what services offer it. If it’s something that’s already in your personal Plex library, the app will bring it up first.

A screenshot of the Watchlist on Plex

Your Plex watchlist includes all the shows and movies you keep tabs on on streaming services.
Screenshot: Florence Ion / Gizmodo

As I mentioned earlier, the Discover stream has incorporated more trending trailers, with movie trailers at the top and suggestions of what’s on deck from other streaming services sprinkled throughout the rest of the stream. The goal is to make Plex your news feed for what’s happening and trending in different places.

When you tap on a trailer to watch it, the app prompts you to add it to your watchlist to give you another reason to come back to Plex when the movie or TV series is finally available. And it is precisely Plex’s strategy with these seemingly simplistic new abilities.

A trusted source

Luckily, Universal Search and Watchlist won’t require a $5/month Plex Pass, Plex’s premium subscription offering, considering competing apps like just look do the same for free.

I’ve tried several times to use the similar Google TV feature to organize my watch list, since most of my TVs and my smart home are tied to the Google ecosystem. But that doesn’t include searching for every service, including Netflix, or some of the niche apps I mentioned earlier. It also doesn’t include results from my long-running Plex library, full of ripped versions of every movie and TV series on DVD I’ve ever owned. I’m precisely the kind of user that Plex is betting on to adopt this feature.

Plex hopes these new capabilities will entice more people to head to the app before watching anything. This is the same goal that Google had with the Google TV Watchlist, which consists of preventing users from leaving the ecosystem. Plex’s approach is a bit more inclusive of other services, but it keeps itself intact nonetheless.

“You’re going to open Plex every day,” said Jason Williams, Plex’s senior product and design manager. Protocol as the company’s hope for these new features. “It will be your trusted source.”

The streaming wars have changed strategy a bit now that everyone has a service with unique offerings, and it’s all about keeping users in one app to maintain engagement. With this new watchlist feature, Plex can at least keep the nerdy following its buildup over the years.

The app started as a standalone home media library manager, but the company has made strides in recent years to branch out into the mainstream. It constantly adds free media to watch and listen to and offers live programming similar to Pluto TV.

The Universal Search and Watchlist features are currently in beta. They’re available through the Plex app on your smartphone, smart TV, streaming dongle, and set-top box. Plex told Protocol that it plans to open universal search and discovery capabilities to developers down the line.