Welcome to the second installment of the Alexa Skill Spotlight. In this series, I take a deeper look at interesting—and sometimes unusual—features third-parties have developed for Alexa via Alexa Skills. Because outside developers are adding new behavior to Alexa, the Skill Store often features a deluge of new commands daily. As a result, it’s often hard to not only keep up with the marketplace, but cut through the noise to find skills worth using.
Today’s example is with streaming services and finding multimedia. Did you know you can ask Alexa where movies and shows are streaming? For example, you can use Alexa to see if a given movie is playing on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Video, as well as many others. Keep reading to learn more about this feature as well as what Alexa Skill is best to use.
And in case you missed it, last week’s Skill Spotlight looked into Metronomes.
Pain Points with Streaming Services
Before weighing your options with the different Alexa Skills available, let’s first carve out what the issue is that these skills are attempting to solve.
To put it simply: Streaming Platform Catalogs are updated all. the. time.
It’s common to find a movie regularly deleted from Netflix this month and added to Hulu next month, and then removed from Hulu only to then be added to Amazon Prime the following month. Keeping track of what multimedia content is available on any given platform is painful.
And it doesn’t end with movies, either. For instance, earlier this year I was re-watching the show “Lost” (I know I’m old… don’t judge!) on Netflix. Then one day it suddenly disappeared from my watch queue. Turns out, the show moved to Hulu. What’s more—if you were to look up where the show lives now, you’ll find it available on a new platform called IMDb TV. Next month? Who knows.
This problem is where Alexa Skills come in. Instead of manually searching, you can use Alexa to search streaming services for you to locate a movie or show.
The catch is there are several Alexa Skills available for solving this problem. While some of these skills are great, others aren’t worth your time. So let’s take a look at three of these skills that claim to get the job done and see how they really stack up.
Alexa Skills for Finding Multimedia
For this review, I’ll weigh the merits of each skill based on two questions: how easy is the skill to use, and how accurate are the answers?
No one wants to wade through tons of setup and prompts. Interactions should be quick, simple, and easy to understand. Additionally, the skill needs to know where movies and TV shows are playing at all times. Without it, you won’t get the answer you want, or worse, you’ll get an answer that you can’t trust.
As I go through each skill below, keep these two questions in mind.
Can I Stream by Jason Laqua
To start off, let’s take a look at the Alexa Skill Can I Stream. Right off the bat, several streaming platforms are mentioned as being supported by the skill, such as Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu, but it’s unclear if that’s the exhaustive list.
One important call out is the rating of Guidance Suggested. Of the three skills we’re looking at today, this is the only skill that has any rating at all. Why does this skill need this rating? It’s unclear. The rating means this skill has access to some of your personal information, like your email.
Ease of use
When I use the command, “Alexa, open Can I Stream,” I get a one sentence description, explaining what the skill does. Next, Alexa asks me for a name of a show I’d like to look up. After I give one, Alexa gives me a list of services and asks me to give a rating.
This skill also has support for Echo Show where you can see the list of providers on-screen while Alexa lists them aloud. It’s a nice addition, especially if the list of providers is long.
I did uncover one problem with the skill name. It’s too easy to confuse the word “ask” with “where,” like in the instance: “Alexa, where can I steam <title>?” This command gives you an incorrect result. I had to really pay attention to my phrasing to get the words just right.
When users have to start memorizing magical phrases to get the desired output, Voice Assistants become much less useful. Instead, Alexa should understand any natural phrase I can come up with. In short, the words “ask” and “where” shouldn’t matter.
Sadly, an Alexa Skill doesn’t have much control over this problem. The only action an Alexa Skill has is to choose a skill name that is as natural as possible. So in this case, the name “Can I Stream” can be confusing for users.
To test accuracy, let’s see how the skill does with a few different shows and movies by using the command: “Alexa, ask can I stream <title>”
- Modern Family: Directv, Hulu
- Walking Dead: Netflix, AMC, Directv, Fubo
- The Good Place: Error message from Alexa
- Community: Netflix, Fubo, Hulu
- Lost: Crackle, Hulu [Missing platform]
- Moon: Gives me a list of purchase options with Prime Video
- The Matrix: Netflix
- A Quiet Place: Amazon, Epix, Directv, Hulu
- The Commuter: Amazon, Epix, Hoopladigital, Directv, Hulu
- The Patriot: Netflix, Fubo, Sling TV, Hulu
Results: 7 out of 10 commands correct
The skill simply lists off the providers that have the title you ask, including several smaller streaming platforms that I’m less familiar with. But the skill doesn’t know about every service. The TV Shows and Movies in red had some problems, as you can see above. For example, “Lost” is also available on IMDb TV.
Overall, the skill is useful but has some quirks. It’s easy to navigate and has a high accuracy rating during testing. Echo Show support is also a nice addition. My main issue is with the skill not being completely accurate and having both a confusing skill name and unusual rating.
JustWatch by JustWatch
Here’s where things get interesting. Today in the marketplace, there are two different skills with the same name “JustWatch.”
The first is owned by JustWatch, so let’s cover this version of JustWatch first. And right off the bat I’m running into big issues.
Ease of use
When I use the command, “Alexa, open JustWatch,” I’m immediately asked what streaming platforms I have. Alexa then waits for me to list out platforms. Then Alexa immediately asks me what country I’m in.
Both of these questions are surprising and jarring. I had no idea I’d need to list off a bunch of streaming providers, and I find it odd that the skill doesn’t already know what country I’m in, or at least have a default location.
I ran through the setup several times to give the skill a complete list of providers, but I’m likely still missing some, as it’s impossible to know what the skill actually picks up. So I guessed as to what it really understood.
Because you’re required to specify providers, it’s almost impossible to get the same level of detail that other skills, like “Can I Stream,” provide. Attempting to give the skill a list of over 10 providers within a few seconds just isn’t doable nor user friendly.
Because the skill is difficult to configure, testing its accuracy is going to be even more of a challenge.
After configuring the skill, using it doesn’t get much better. Interacting with Alexa and this skill is really tough. The skill doesn’t confirm which providers you listed or give you a list of providers it actually supports. So you’re left trying to figure out if Alexa understood your list of providers correctly.
But that being said, the skill does provide accurate answers if you can get past the setup. For example, when I give the command:
“Alexa, ask JustWatch where Modern Family is playing,” I get this response:
“Yippee! You can stream Modern Family on Hulu.”
Which is correct, but not the full picture, as it’s also available on other providers, too. So it’s unclear if the skill is missing information for other providers (DirectTV in this case), or if it didn’t pick up the provider when I mentioned it during setup.
Given the setup difficulties, running this skill through the rest of my 10 commands test won’t be too helpful. It’s just too difficult to set up for any user.
This skill has potential, but the user interface is frustratingly taxing to use. If you do use this skill, understand that configuring it will take up most of your time. Because of these reasons, I don’t recommend you use this skill. There are better alternatives.
Just Watch by VWAP
Last but not least, here is the second skill to be named “JustWatch.” But unlike the skill that was just reviewed, this one isn’t owned by the company JustWatch. Instead, a fan of the service created his own skill after being frustrated by the quality of the original skill. As a result, we get the new Alexa Skill called Just Watch.
Ease of use
When I use the command, “Alexa, open Just Watch,” I’m given a quick description of the skill. There’s one issue I see with this. Alexa says the word “dot” instead of using it as a period at the end of a sentence. This results in Alexa rambling through the description. Not a good start. At the end, I’m able to make out that Alexa is asking me for what I’d like to search for.
I give the name “Modern Family.” Next, Alexa responds with a long list of providers, over seven or so—I lost count. Many more than what “Can I Stream” provides.
Why so many? The providers listed are more than just streaming providers. The skill also lists services that allow me to buy or rent the show, as well. Note that this isn’t clear from Alexa’s response though. I had to figure this out on my own by using the Just Watch website.
So after setup, the skill lists everywhere a show can be obtained, whether streaming, renting, or buying. Not really useful.
But for some good news—there is a path forward. The skill provides a setting to filter out rentals and purchase offers; it’s just not mentioned when talking with Alexa initially. After reading the skill description, I’m notified that I can use this command after I open the skill: “Set Offer Types.”
This command causes Alexa to ask me if I want to list subscriptions, rentals, or purchase offers. I only turn on subscriptions here.
Now let’s test the skill for accuracy.
Like before, I’ll run a list of 5 TV Shows and 5 Movies through the skill and verify the results. I’ll also use the same titles from the previous test.
- Modern Family: DirectTV, Hulu
- Walking Dead: Netflix, Directv, AMC, Fubo
- The Good Place: Netflix, Hulu, DirectTV, NBC, Fubo
- Community: Netflix, Hulu, PBS, Fubo
- Lost: Hulu, ImDb TV, Crackle
- Moon: Netflix, DirectTV, ShowTime, Fandor
- The Matrix: Netflix
- A Quiet Place: Prime Video, Hulu [Missing platforms]
- The Commuter: Prime Video, Hulu [Missing platforms]
- The Patriot: Netflix, Hulu, Fubbo, Sling TV
Results: 8 out of 10 commands correct
Just Watch is missing a few providers that “Can I Stream” has, like Epix and Hoopladigital. Both of these providers also host “A Quiet Place” and “The Commuter.” These providers are very small, though. Just Watch had no problems with the movie “Moon” or the TV show “The Good Place,” and scored best in terms of accuracy.
This new skill is a huge improvement over the Official “JustWatch” skill. It’s much easier to use, while having some deeper functionality for rental content.
It’s not all roses, though. The initial prompt needs a bit of work, and the setup should be tweaked to not default in giving rentals and purchase options off the bat. But after you get past those two challenges, it’s smooth sailing.
Best Skill to Use
VWAP’s Just Watch takes the prize. It provides an improved (but not perfect) experience over the official app, and more importantly, an interface to all the info Just Watch has to offer. But do make sure you spend a few moments setting up what type of content you want before diving in further.
Make sure you enable the right skill
Before using these skills, it’s worth noting how you go about ensuring you are enabling the correct “Just Watch” skill. It’s especially important if you have tried the official skill anytime in the past. Since there are two skills with the same name, Alexa can easily pick the wrong skill, which means you’ll get a pretty bad experience.
For instance, using the command “Alexa, open Just Watch” may open the incorrect skill for you. Instead, the easiest way to ensure you’re using this skill by VWAP is to:
These steps ensure Alexa chooses the new skill when you use the phrase “Just Watch.”