Meet your new streaming TV bundlers: Apple, Amazon, Roku, and Google

Aside from lower bills and greater flexibility, one of the many benefits of ditching cable TV is that you’re less dependent on an industry with historically awful customer relationships. The less one has to interact with Comcast or Charter or DirecTV or—well, you name the service provider—the better.

But cutting ties with cable TV does have a downside: Instead of dealing with just one company for TV services, you might have to manage multiple streaming accounts. As the number of online video services proliferates, you might wish there was a way to bundle them all together under one bill—kind of like you did with cable.

Unfortunately, cable TV cheerleaders seem incapable of looking at this problem with fresh eyes. As always, when cord cutting presents a new challenge, they reflexively point to the cable TV industry as the answer. It’s no surprise, then, that some pro-cable pundits believe Comcast and Charter will be the streaming bundlers of the future, rolling up online video services the same way they do with traditional TV channels now.

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

Update: Get ready for Thursday's night's match-up between the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers. Take a look at our guide to all the ways you can watch the game and cancel your expensive cable subscription! 

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

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PlayStation Vue FAQ: Everything to know about Sony’s cable TV alternative

For about a year, Sony’s PlayStation Vue streaming service was barely worth paying attention to. At launch, the cable-TV alternative only worked on PlayStation game consoles, and although Sony expanded availability late last year, Vue was still only available in a handful of U.S. markets. It didn’t help that Vue lacked channels from the Disney media empire, including ESPN.

Everything changed in March, when PlayStation Vue launched nationwide and added ESPN and other Disney-owned channels to its lineup. You can read our full PlayStation Vue review for a verdict on how well the service works, along with our comparison to rival Sling TV. But if you’re just looking for details on what Sony’s streaming service has to offer, read on for answers to some common questions.

What exactly is PlayStation Vue?

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The Roku interview: Here's how the streaming-box builder is working through its app issues

Some folks at Roku read my column last week about how the quality of its streaming video apps is falling behind other platforms.

To recap, too many Roku apps today rely on simple templates that aren’t flexible enough for modern streaming services. The PlayStation Vue Roku app, for instance, doesn’t allow for a channel grid or simultaneous playback and browsing, like the Amazon Fire TV version does. And Twitter has passed over the Roku platform entirely. Although it’s technically possible to build custom apps on Roku, it’s a time-consuming process, and many developers don’t bother.

After that story went live, Roku reached out with some upcoming news, and an offer to explain in detail how it’s making the platform more hospitable for modern streaming apps. The strategy diverges sharply from other platforms like Apple TV—it’s more about accommodating low-cost hardware than enabling super-powerful apps—but there’s a certain logic to it.

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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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