Roku has an app problem, but it's working on solutions

Roku’s streaming-media players have always stood out from the competition with a simple formula: Affordable hardware, plus an app selection unrivaled in its quality and diversity. But the platform's app selection is deteriorating even as the company's players become ever more affordable with the new Express, Premiere, and Ultra models announced this week.

Roku is no longer the primary destination for some major content providers, such as PlayStation Vue and Twitter, and when those providers do get around to supporting Roku, the quality of their apps doesn’t match what's available on other platforms. Roku seems to recognize the issue; there are some major improvements to its app-development tools on the way. Still, it’s unclear whether those tools will be good enough, or whether developers will even take advantage of them.

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Pre-roll ads on Amazon and Netflix are a poor solution to a genuine problem

One of the best things about ad-free streaming services such as Amazon Video and Netflix is that there’s no friction when you sit down on the couch. Just hit play, and the video you’ve selected launches without interruption.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to be. Last week, however, some Amazon Prime subscribers started complaining about unskippable pre-roll trailers in their videos advertising other Amazon shows. (I’ve seen a couple of these myself, but not in every video.) Amazon isn’t alone in this practice: HBO also advertises its own programming at the start of each video, and Netflix briefly experimented with pre-roll teasers in 2015, prompting a major backlash.

In fairness, advertising one’s own content isn’t quite the same as advertising other companies’ products, and one could argue that the trailers provide useful information about the service you’re already paying for. But that doesn’t make them any less annoying, especially when you see the same one over and over. If the goal is to inform subscribers about other videos they might like, there has to be a better way.

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Amazon's Fire TV streaming devices are becoming less selfish

When I reviewed Amazon’s Fire TV Stick and Fire TV set-top box, I arrived at similar conclusions with both: Unbeatable prices, clever software, but too much emphasis on Amazon video.

With Fire TV devices, Amazon splashes its own Prime and Instant videos across the home screen and often gives itself top billing in search results. Other services, such as Hulu and HBO, get second-class treatment—you need to open each app individually. As a result, using the Fire TV can feel like Amazon is putting its own business goals—selling a la carte video rentals and pushing Prime subscriptions—ahead of its users’ needs.

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Cord cutting is a bigger bargain than ever

About 18 months ago, I tried to dispense with the notion that it’s hard to save money by cutting the cable TV cord.

You’ll have to forgive me for essentially writing that column all over again, but cable-TV cheerleaders still haven’t listened to reason. They continue to argue that the costs of streaming-video services add up, to the point that cable TV remains the more economical choice.

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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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TV Everywhere apps aren't just for cable subscribers

Officially, cord-cutters aren’t welcome to use video-streaming apps from TV channels such as ABC, Discovery, The Food Network, and many others. Known in the industry as “TV Everywhere” apps, they’re really meant for paying cable or satellite subscribers, who can enter their account credentials to access a trove of on-demand shows and live channel streams.

But if you look in the right places, these apps can provide a trove of ad-supported free TV for cord cutters, ranging from guilty-pleasure reality shows to late-night variety.

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Netflix moved cord cutting forward; it's also holding it back

Like lots of people who’ve cut cable TV, I couldn’t have done it without Netflix.

For a fraction of a typical cable bill, Netflix provides more TV shows, movies, and comedy specials than I have time to watch. And while I sometimes turn to other streaming services (and my over-the-air antenna) for specific content, most evenings I’ll just thumb through the Netflix app until I find something that grabs my attention.

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