By Dan Moren
February 2, 2017 11:49 AM PT
Plex enables voice control of media via Alexa
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
Even though I’ve been waiting for the much-anticipated Sonos-Alexa integration, it hadn’t occurred to me that I could be using my Amazon Echo in conjunction with other media. So today’s announcement by Plex that it was rolling out an Alexa skill allowing control of your media library took me by surprise. So I fired it up and quickly ran it through its paces. The verdict? Definitely shows some promise–though it’s hampered by a few limitations, not all of which are under Plex’s control.
The Plex skill is definitely one of the more complex third-party features I’ve used. First you have to enable it, then log in to your Plex account, then authorize Alexa to access your Plex account. But wait, there’s more! After that, you have to set both your default server and player. The latter was where I ran into my first hiccup: I intended to set my Apple TV as the default player, but at first it wasn’t detected–presumably because the set-top box was asleep. But eventually after waking it up and opening the Plex app (and opening the Plex app on my iPhone and on the web), I was finally able to set the Apple TV as my default player.1
Once the setup’s done, there are actually quite a few commands available in the skill. You can have Plex play back a specific movie, album, or TV episode. You can ask what’s in your On Deck listing (which is Plex’s version of the Up Next feature that Apple added in its TV app), what you recently added to your library, or what you left off watching. You can even have Plex recommend what to watch or listen to next, complete with slightly snarky commentary–when I turned down listening to a new song, it then suggested I instead go with an old favorite which it commented I had listened to a lot. It wasn’t wrong.
There were a couple minor glitches, though. For example, the Plex skill didn’t understand when I asked it to “play the newest episode” of a show (or “play the latest episode”), in both cases saying it couldn’t find the first episode of that show. When I did get to play the newest episode of a show–by simply telling it to play the show–I ran into a weird behavior where the audio started playing even as the Apple TV was still displaying the screensaver. (Not sure if that one was Apple or Plex’s fault, frankly.)
As cool as that feature is, there are some drawbacks, some of which have been long predicted for this kind of interface. For example, it took a couple tries to get Alexa to successfully pause the video on Plex, since it seemed to have a tough time hearing me over the audio from the TV. 2
And, of course, the Plex skill is somewhat limited because it talks directly to the Plex app; there’s no control of hardware. Once you have the TV and media player turned on, it’s fine, but you have to get to that point first.
But despite all that, there’s a lot of promise here because it combines two features we’ve seen independently: ubiquitous voice control and voice control of media playback. My biggest problem with voice control of the Apple TV is that I don’t usually use the bundled remote, which makes its Siri functionality a non-starter. I do often use the Echo to turn on my Apple TV while I’m doing something else, like preparing dinner, so being able to now use that to furthermore start playing a show is a nice improvement.3 Being able to simply ask Alexa to play something and not having to fumble around and look for a tiny slab of glass and metal is a huge plus. Apple should take a page out of this playbook for future versions of the Apple TV.
One of the other major advantages that the Plex skill brings is the ability to address multiple players. For example, I can tell it to play a certain show on my iPhone, or on my Apple TV, or in any other Plex app I currently have running.4 I can see that potentially being a handy feature for households that share an Echo but have multiple screens. It also seems like it might be a beneficial thing for young kids who haven’t quite mastered the art of remotes yet.
Overall, the Alexa-Plex integration seems like a winner. Really, my biggest regret is that I’ve moved so much of my media consumption away from Plex of late, relying instead on the Apple TV’s other apps like Netflix, Hulu, and the network-specific offerings. Because now that I have the ability to cue up some of my TV via voice, I want to be able to do that everywhere.
- It also wanted me to address the Apple TV by the name I’d given it, rather than as “Apple TV.” ↩
- I also found the phrase “Alexa, ask Plex” surprisingly tricky to say at times–it’s a bit of a tongue twister. You can also say “Alexa, tell Plex” though that doesn’t always feel particularly natural. ↩
- I do hope the Plex skill adds a “cue up” feature where I can ask it to open a show and immediately pause it, so I can just start playing it when I’m ready. But maybe that’s just me. ↩
- It seems like the Sonos integration will boast a similar feature for its integration. ↩
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Mastodon at @email@example.com or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest novel, the supernatural detective story All Souls Lost, is now available for pre-order.]
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