Days before Apple announces an expanded plan to sell video service subscriptions, Comcast has unveiled Flex, a streaming platform targeted at non-cable customers who have signed up for the company’s broadband internet. Flex costs $5 monthly and also comes with a set-top streaming box that includes Netflix, Prime Video, HBO, and other apps; you also get Comcast’s X1 voice remote as part of the service. It launches March 26th for all Comcast Xfinity internet customers nationwide. CNBC originally reported that such a product was coming back in November.
Comcast is touting that Flex brings together content from these services into one single integrated guide, where you can find something to watch and then switch over to the app to watch. “Xfinity Flex comes with more than 10,000 free online movies and TV shows—including live streaming TV—from ESPN3, Xumo, Pluto, Tubi TV, Cheddar, YouTube, and more,” the company said in its press release. Customers can also link their Movies Anywhere account by pairing it to their Xfinity login, and music apps Pandora and iHeartRadio are also pre-installed on the device.
You won’t find Sling TV, YouTube TV, PlayStation Vue, DirecTV Now, or Hulu with Live TV on the Flex, so Comcast is clearly steering clear of cable alternatives. There’s no download-whatever-you-want app store on this thing. You’ve got the popular on-demand apps on there and might be able to live stream select content, but if you want proper live TV, it looks like Xfinity is unsurprisingly the only real option.
The Flex hardware box is 4K and HDR-compatible. Customers can monitor their Comcast Wi-Fi network and also access smart devices in the home like security cameras using the Flex:
Xfinity Flex gives Xfinity Internet customers some of these same features, enabling them to easily access their entertainment, find their Wi-Fi password, see what devices are connected to their network, set parental controls, and even pause Wi-Fi access on their home network. They also can use voice control to access their camera feeds, arm or disarm their home security system and find their Xfinity Mobile phone—all on the TV.
And yes, Comcast says Flex customers will be able to upgrade to a full Xfinity digital cable package if they choose. They can opt for either one or two Flex boxes. Any streaming on Flex counts toward your monthly internet data plan.
What’s the point of all this? Well, Comcast seems to be hoping there are still consumers out there without a Roku, Fire TV, Apple TV, or Chromecast who won’t mind paying $5 every month to rent its Flex box — there’s no installation fee — and have that be enough for their streaming entertainment needs. You can also rent or purchase movies and TV shows if you run out of things to watch using the apps you already subscribe to.
And since this integrated guide (with universal voice search) is basically just borrowed from the X1 platform, Flex isn’t really much extra work for Comcast. The company notes that it could eventually change pricing for the Flex platform or adjust what’s part of the package. As is, this strikes me as a hard sell at $60 / year when a Roku will cost you less money and isn’t a recurring rental. And you’ll need to be using the xFi Gateway router if you want to try Flex in the first place — otherwise it won’t work.
Comcast’s move comes ahead of Apple’s March 25th event, where it’s expected the company will kick off a bigger push into bundling video subscriptions and showcase some of its original programming. Flex will be available the very next day.
Disclosure: Comcast is an investor in Vox Media, The Verge’s parent company.