Meeting up with friends or heading to the movies isn’t quite as easy as it used to be—in some place, it’s not even possible. But streaming services are filling in the gaps with a growing number of ways to watch something with other people, even when you’re physically alone.
This isn’t exactly a new trend—we’ve been writing about it for four years at least—but current events have these tools even more relevant. Official features built right into the streaming platforms are competing with third-party add-ons, all designed to help you watch stuff over the web with other people, whether you’re living through a global pandemic or living on the other side of the world from your best friend. Here are the best options we’ve found.
We first mentioned the Netflix Party browser extension for Chrome in 2016, but it’s become even more useful in these times of social distancing. After both you and your fellow viewers install the extension, start a show or movie, then click the NP icon in the toolbar. That gives you a unique URL that you can then share with everyone else in your chosen group.
After the party is started, you get your own private chat room to discuss the plot of what you’re watching. Screenshots, GIFs, and emojis can be rolled into the chat as well, and anyone in the ‘room’ can control playback (unless the person who created it opted to keep solo control). In the absence of any official tool like this from Netflix itself, Netflix Party is the best option.
Amazon Prime Video was the first of the big players to roll out an official ‘watch party’ feature for its service, though it’s accessed through Twitch, another of Amazon’s many properties. You need to get Twitch Studio installed to host the stream, and then other Twitch users can join you in the communal viewing.
It’s not quite as simple as clicking a browser extension—Twitch has a full guide to getting up and running here—but once you’re set up, it’s straightforward enough, and everyone else can join via your watch channel link. All the viewers need to be fully paid up Amazon Prime Video subscribers (or at least signed up for the free trial). Keep in mind that not everything on Prime Video can be viewed in a watch party.
Hulu has begun to roll out official support for watching with friends—though you need to be a subscriber to the ad-free plan and you need to be watching on the web for it to work. Look for a title that has a Watch Party icon on its listing: It looks like a group of people huddled together inside a circle.
Click on that, and the watch party gets underway, with a maximum capacity of eight viewers. Click the icon that looks like a chain to get the unique URL for the virtual gathering, which you can then pass on to other people who want to watch along, complete with a chat room at the side of the screen. Hulu has more details here.
Scener brands itself as a virtual movie theater, and like Netflix Party it’s a Chrome extension. In addition to Netflix, it also supports HBO’s various streaming platforms. It launches very much like a desktop app, hiding your browser in the background, and putting the content you’re watching on one side and a chat box on the other.
Video chat is supported as well as text chat, if you don’t find a grid of faces takes too much attention away from what you’re supposed to be watching, and as many as 50 people can join a room. As is normal for many of these tools, everyone watching will need their own authorized account for the service you’re using.
Kast is more of a screen-sharing tool, which means it’s compatible with just about every streaming service you can name. As long as you can stream it on your computer display, then you can invite other people to watch via a custom URL. There are apps available for phones and tablets too, which isn’t the case with all the entries in the list we’ve put together here.
Audio or text chat is supported alongside the main event, and if you pay the premium fee—$5 a month or $50 for the year—then you get better video quality, no ads, and the ability to stream your webcam feed as well as your screen (so your friends can see exactly how you’re reacting). If there’s no dedicated tool for the service you want to use, then Kast is a good secondary option.
TwoSeven is similar to Kast in that it lets you watch pretty much anything you can stream through a browser with other people. It’s a bit more lightweight than Kast, though, which may or may not be what you prefer. A browser extension handles all the syncing duties, but unlike Netflix Party and Scener, this one is available for both Chrome and Firefox.
Fellow viewers can be invited along via their nickname, or by email, or through a custom URL that leads straight to the relevant page. As long as everyone is signed into the same video streaming service, you can start watching—the chat box at the side supports video chat as well as text chat, if you want to be able to see everyone’s faces. If you want to watch Disney Plus, it’s an extra $3 one-off payment, which helps fund TwoSeven.
Metastream is a lightweight, straightforward watch party tool that supports Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube, and it’s available as an extension for both Chrome and Firefox. After you install the extension, you just need to provide a nickname, and then you’re up and running—friends can be invited to the viewing room via a URL.
An unlimited number of people can join a Metastream feed, and you can make it public, though we wouldn’t recommend this if you’re just planning on watching a movie with a small group of close friends. The well-designed interface shows who’s online and what’s playing next, as well as the chat window overlay.
Of course, there’s nothing to stop you firing up a video-conferencing app like Zoom or something similar and using it to stream video from pretty much any source. One of you shares your screen and your audio, and everyone else makes use of the video and text chat that goes alongside it. You could also forget the screen sharing and just agree to all hit ‘play’ at the same time, if everyone has access to the same copy of whatever it is you’re watching.
Depending on your internet connection, you probably won’t get 4K video quality and a completely uninterrupted audio feed while you’re watching, but if your broadband has the bandwidth to share your video chat, then it should be able to stream a movie as well. However, you may need a paid Zoom account to get over the 40-minute meeting limit.