The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we watch movies, as shelter-in-place orders and government shutdowns have closed down movie theaters, and social gatherings have become a public health hazard. As a result, remote viewing options have become a hot commodity, as services like Zoom and Netflix Party try to replicate the joy of hanging out with friends in “quarantine viewing parties.” But the available options are a mixed blessing; there hasn’t been a service that supports streaming video, video chat, and text chat at the same time for free, so holding a remote party has required at least a couple of windows open, or a small fee. Squad hopes to change that.
Squad initially launched in 2019 as a mobile-device video chat and screen-sharing app, but its newly released desktop version is set to be a game-changer. The new version doesn’t require downloading a separate app or installing a browser extension — it’s all right there in the window. You can stream content from any service you can think of, from Netflix to TikTok. You can video chat with your friends, and you can text chat, too. In other words, it’s Netflix Party and Zoom at the same time, in one package.
The desktop web version of the app can host up to nine people at a time, and allows screen-sharing, so Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney Plus, Hulu, and all other streaming services (not to mention screen-sharing for a PowerPoint party) are fair game, with only one login necessary for it to work. Squad also has built-in tabs for YouTube and TikTok, making it exceptionally easy to watch shorter videos and share the kinds of comments that might otherwise have gone into a group text.
The structure of the page, which puts viewers’ webcam video on the left, the video being played on the top right, and text chat on the bottom right, gets rid of the need to switch between windows or overlay them. The video player even has an adjustable volume slider so you can turn the stream down, if text chat isn’t enough to get across your emotions about what you’re watching.
Granted, Squad is less a way to watch a movie and more a way to hang out with your friends — the layout has too much going on for you to really concentrate on the video or film that’s playing. The point of having a video chat function is to be able to watch your friends react to what you’re watching, or to be able to discuss it immediately (hence the YouTube and TikTok options) rather than ignoring the video chat for an extended period of time. The screen-sharing can also get a little wonky if you jump around in a video; when tested by Polygon staff (we tried out both Scatman John and Lou Bega’s “Scatman & Hatman” and Steven Spielberg’s A.I.), attempts to select specific parts of a video led to some people experiencing load screens while others caught what was playing. If you want to watch something longer, loading it up and just letting it play is the safest option, rather than picking out your favorite bits.
But for now, Squad is completely free to use, and is the closest, safest way available to actually get together with your friends and watch a movie — or at least, to watch your friends watch a movie. Interested parties can get their own Squad party started here.