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Scener’s Chrome extension makes streaming HBO with friends super easy

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Streaming shows and movies with your friends remotely isn’t always as simple as it should be, but HBO made it a whole lot easier last week.

The most premium of premium cable channels recently announced a partnership with Scener, which bills itself as a “virtual movie theater.” The result? A Google Chrome extension that lets you watch either HBO Go, HBO Now, or Netflix with your friends using text, video, and audio chat. It’s a step up from Netflix party, which requires additional tinkering on the users’ part if they want to see and hear each other. 

After spending an evening with Scener, I think it might be the real deal. Just don’t expect perfection right away.

The Basics

Scener is a Chrome extension, meaning you won’t be able to use it with browsers like Firefox, Edge, or Safari. Up to 20 users at a time can gather into private “theaters,” or chat rooms, where one person with a virtual remote control gets to decide what everyone else will be watching. Theater access can be easily shared with a code or a URL, and the remote can be quickly passed to another user if its original handler tires of life as the king.

But before we go any further, it’s important to note that everyone involved needs to have the extension installed and their own HBO login. 

Also, Scener only supports HBO Go and Now. The upcoming HBO Max service won’t work, at least not right away. Netflix is the only other service Scener allows users to log into right now.

Aside from that, there isn’t a lot to know about Scener. Just make sure your friends have the extension installed and login info at the ready before it’s time for movie night.

The Methodology

'Mr. Show' holds up, not that you were concerned about that.

‘Mr. Show’ holds up, not that you were concerned about that.

Image: alex perry / mashable

For this article, I roped my friend Nick Miller in for an evening of testing. He’s a Brooklyn-based musician and all-around sweetheart who loves watching TV much more than I do. I can’t think of anyone better to put the Home Box Office’s extensive library through its paces.

Okay, maybe that’s not exactly what we did, but we managed to watch a couple of different HBO shows just to get a feel for how Scener works. I asked Nick for show suggestions and he offered up Curb Your Enthusiasm, one of the network’s all-time best shows. 

I pretended to agree with him, but really that was a lie.

Instead, my first move with Scener’s remote was to pull up Arli$$, a terrible, old HBO comedy about a sports agent that inexplicably ran for seven seasons.

This ran for seven seasons on HBO. SEVEN.

This ran for seven seasons on HBO. SEVEN.

Image: alex perry / mashable

With this move, I proved that Scener can be used for deception as much as it can be used for connection during a time of social distancing. Although, after watching less than a full episode of Arli$$, I passed the remote to Nick and we moved on to bingeing Mr. Show, which is actually good.

The Verdict

I’ll say right away that Scener, from a performance standpoint, seems outstanding. The stream quality was not too different from watching HBO Now in a web browser by your lonesome and my testing partner felt the same on his end. Scener is extremely promising, but folks who want to watch HBO or Netflix content with their friends should expect a few minutes of amateur tech support their first go-round.

By my count, I had to do the equivalent of “unplugging” Scener and plugging it back in twice to make it properly work for the initial test run. The first of these resets involved camera and mic permissions. Upon the first boot-up, Chrome wouldn’t grant Scener access to either of those things, with the pop-up only giving me the option of blocking access. 

I had to take 30 seconds to hop into Chrome’s settings and manually switch the permissions. This is obviously not a huge hurdle, but it may be a bit much to explain to people who are less tech-savvy. My man Nick had the same problem and solved it the same way. Thankfully, you should only have to do that one time.

Once that was fixed, we had a new problem: We couldn’t see or hear each other despite being in the same theater. Leaving the room and rejoining (which was fast, thanks to a “Recent Theaters” area on the menu) fixed it. I can’t say whether or not this is a frequent problem, but the fix is simple enough, at least.

Going to shamelessly recommend 'Deadwood' if you need an HBO show to watch with buds.

Going to shamelessly recommend ‘Deadwood’ if you need an HBO show to watch with buds.

Video playback quality, on the whole, seems excellent, but there are a couple of minor quirks worth noting. Scener uses hidden magic tricks to sync up everyone’s HBO streams instead of just streaming one person’s view. This means that when the remote holder starts a video, you have to manually hit play and give it second to sync up. If you don’t hit play, you won’t see anything on-screen at all.

Lastly, going fullscreen is more of a hassle than it should be. Hitting the fullscreen button will indeed expand the video, but you’ll lose the chat sidebar in the process. To fix this, you have to press control+up on a Mac and drag the sidebar into the fullscreen video from the command center view. On Windows, press alt+tab and select the Scener window from there, per the FAQ.

Once all of the people in a “theater” get a good feel for how things work, which only takes a few minutes, Scener becomes a fantastic way to watch things with your pals. Video and audio chat looks and sounds clear, text chat works as expected, and the streaming quality shouldn’t leave you wanting for more. 

In a way, Scener’s a little like playing a good board game: It’s a blast once everyone is up to speed, even if getting there takes a little bit of effort.

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