Inside Comcast's New OTT Streaming Device

There's no doubt about it: We are firmly in the age of cord-cutting and we're witnessing the rise of over-the-top internet television. In 2018, the number of people who cut the cord on traditional cable nearly doubled over 2017's figure. Legacy media companies and cable providers are in turn falling all over themselves to deliver new streaming services in order to lure budget-conscious cord-cutters.

While Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) is due to have its own streaming service from NBCUniversal out sometime in 2020, the company just came out with another new streaming device and service last week: Comcast Xfinity Flex.

Flex has almost exactly the same offerings as Roku (NASDAQ: ROKU) -- free ad-supported services, on-demand movies, and access to other streaming channels in a single menu -- only it's a bit more expensive. However, Comcast has tied the device to an interface that also controls the connected home, which may bring some interest.

Here's all you need to know about Xfinity Flex, which will cost customers $5 per month.

Flex programming looks suspiciously like Roku

Xfinity Flex isn't so much of a content service as it is a system to control all of a customer's streaming, radio, and connected-home devices. The big draw is that customers can access all of these services from a single, easy-to-use interface and Comcast's award-winning voice-activated remote control. The service is only available to Comcast internet subscribers, who can access Xfinity Flex through the company's new 4K HDR streaming TV device that subscribers self-install.

In terms of programming, Flex offers an easy interface that accesses all the main streaming channels including Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX) and Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) Prime, and features over 10,000 movies and TV shows on-demand. The television programming will include ad-supported channels such as ESPN3, Xumo, Pluto, and Tubi, as well as Cheddar and YouTube.

There will be some live television, though not from any of the giants of broadcast or cable TV. There's not even live content from NBCUniversal, which Comcast owns and is predicted to roll out as a streaming bundle next year.

Subscribers will also be able to access radio apps Pandora Radio, iHeartRadio, NPR One, and a weather app. In addition, Comcast Flex allows users to monitor home Wi-Fi, mobile, security, thermostats, and other automation services from the same remote and interface.

Why get Flex?

At first, Flex may just seem like a more expensive version of Roku, which costs only about $40. (A $5 Flex subscription will run you about $60 per year.) To some degree that's true, but the ability to manage not only streaming video but also all connected-home devices from a single central hub is the thing that sets Flex (a tad) apart.

Flex really appears to be an attempt by Comcast to keep subscribers entrenched in its ecosystem, whereby the cable giant will likely try to upsell customers on more expensive Comcast features. Soon, users will be able to easily upgrade to Comcast's cable service with just the click of a button on the menu, and when NBCUniversal comes out with its streaming service, I'm guessing there will be prime real estate on the app set aside for that.

Don't get too excited

Comcast's Xfinity Flex attempts to portray itself as a new, hip, low-cost service for cord-cutters, but it appears to be just a way to keep people inside Comcast's connected-home ecosystem, and an avenue to promote Comcast's more expensive cable bundle and upcoming NBCUniversal streaming service. It's not a bad deal by any means, but it's not exactly a huge discount for cost-conscious cord-cutters, especially when a Roku device is less expensive, and allows users the flexibility to switch to any broadband provider.

Make no mistake, the cable giants are trying desperately to hold on to as much of their legacy cable profitability as they can. It will be interesting to watch how this unfolds over the next few years.

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John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Billy Duberstein owns shares of Alphabet (C shares), Amazon, and Netflix. His clients may own shares of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A and C shares), Amazon, and Netflix. The Motley Fool recommends Comcast and Roku. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.