9 free 'round-the-clock streaming apps for low-effort TV watching

Streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime excel at delivering on-demand video, but sometimes you don’t want to pick from an endless list of movies and TV shows. You might not even care that much about what’s on, provided it’s palatable enough to play in the background while you’re doing other things.

For this type of lean-back, passive viewing, you’ll want a video app that has some kind of ‘round-the-clock streaming element, so you can start watching with minimal effort. These types of apps have become more commonplace over the last couple years, so there’s a good chance you’ll find a few that match your interests. Here’s a list of our favorites:

Pluto TV

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DirecTV Now FAQ: All the details on AT&T's new streaming TV service

After months of hype with little substance, AT&T has launched DirecTV Now, a bundle of streaming channels that will compete with Dish Network’s Sling TV and Sony’s PlayStation Vue.

While AT&T bills its new service as “TV beyond your wildest dreams,” on paper it’s not markedly different from its competitors. We’ll have more to say about how well the service performs in the coming weeks. For now, here are all the details we’ve gleaned from from AT&T’s public statements and a little bit of hands-on time:

What is DirecTV Now?

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Android TV home screen bloat and how to fix it

When I reviewed the Xiaomi Mi Box last week, one of my complaints was about the layout of the home screen. Instead of having just one section for all your apps, the Mi Box splits your app library in two, with a separate section of “Mi Box Recommends” apps that can’t be customized.

This isn’t the first time I’ve run into this problem. Last year’s Nvidia Shield Android TV, which runs the same operating system from Google, also has a separate row just for Nvidia’s pre-installed gaming apps and Netflix. As with the Mi Box, there’s no way to move those apps around.

Fortunately, there are ways to take control of your home screen on the Xiaomi Mi Box, Nvidia Shield Android TV, and Google Nexus Player. They’re just hidden out of sight from the average user. Here’s what you can do:

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Streaming-box app comparison: Roku vs. Chromecast vs. Apple TV vs. Fire TV vs. Android TV

App selection should be one of the biggest factors in choosing a streaming media player, because all the fancy features in the world don’t mean much if you can’t watch the movies, TV shows, and other content that you want.

The good news is that there’s relative app parity among the major streaming-media devices, including Apple TV, Amazon’s Fire TV and Fire TV Stick, the Roku boxes and the Roku Streaming Stick, Google’s Chromecast, and Android TV devices such as the Xiaomi Mi Box and Nvidia Shield. If you’re just looking to watch Netflix or Hulu, pretty much every device on the market has you covered.

Still, each platform does have its hang-ups, which we reveal in the chart below. Have a look, then keep reading for some takeaways and caveats. (Keep in mind, the chart applies to the United States only. Some apps and services may not be available in other areas.)

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NFL without cable: A cord cutter’s guide for the 2016 season

Thanks in part to new streaming options for cord-cutters, it’s possible to watch all your local NFL games without cable, along with all nationally televised games on Sunday, Monday, and Thursday nights. With the NFL season just a week away, now’s a good time to run through all the ways* that cord cutters can watch or stream NFL games, so you’ll be ready for kickoff.

Over-the-air antenna

As it was last season, the best way to watch NFL games for free is with an over-the-air TV antenna. Cheap indoor antennas sell for as little as $15, while more expensive flat designs from Mohu and Winegard can mount on a wall or to a window. All the major networks typically broadcast in high definition, so with a strong enough signal, the quality should be comparable to the set-top box you’d rent from a service provider (or perhaps even better, since the broadcast signal isn’t as compressed).

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HDMI-CEC: The secret to streaming-remote simplicity

When I cut the cable TV cord nearly eight years ago, juggling multiple remote controls was a necessity. At minimum, you needed one for your television and another for your game console or streaming box. I used a third remote for a home theater PC, so I could access video websites that weren’t yet available as streaming-TV apps.

But over the past couple years, the need for multiple remotes has been slipping away, thanks to a decade-old HDMI feature called Consumer Electronics Control (HDMI-CEC). With this feature, streaming boxes such as Apple TV and Roku can control your television’s power, volume, and input, making additional remotes unnecessary.

On the downside, support for HDMI-CEC can vary from one device to the next, and TV vendors have a way of making the feature hard to find. Read on as I untangle the HDMI-CEC situation, and what it means for your cord-cutting setup.

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The cowardly Apple TV

If there’s one Apple product that would truly benefit from some courage, it’s the new Apple TV.

Apple’s $150 streaming box isn’t a bad product, but it faces the same fundamental challenge as other streaming boxes: With so many apps competing for users’ attention, managing and sorting through them all can be a chore.

Last week, Apple provided a glimpse at its solution, a new app called “TV” that acts like a universal viewing guide. Instead of bouncing between a dozen apps to find something to watch, TV pulls lots of content into one place. Apple will also offer a “single sign-in” feature for cable-authenticated apps, so you don’t need to keep re-entering the same login credentials. Both features are due out in December.

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