Xfinity Flex review: Comcast’s “free” streaming hardware/service combo is a work in progress

Media streaming boxes just keep getting better and cheaper, but nobody else has matched the “absolutely free” pricing of Comcast’s new Xfinity Flex. Exclusively available to cord-cutters who pay Comcast for broadband but not TV, Xfinity Flex consists of a 4K-capable set-top box and a competent, voice-activated, RF remote control to serve up subscription and ad-supported video and music programming.

Comcast is currently providing just one free Xfinity Flex per qualifying household (and the company is cagey about revealing just how many of its 26 million Xfinity internet customers qualify), but you can rent second and third boxes for additional TVs at a cost of $5 per month each.

But before you get too excited, know there are some big missing links in Comcast’s service offerings. At present, Xfinity Flex doesn’t play at all with Hulu, ESPN linear channels, Disney-branded services, CBS News 24×7, CBS All Access, nor with cultural exotica like the English-language NHK World from Japan that’s near and dear to my heart (and which is available on rival platforms including Apple TV, Fire TV and Roku).

xfinity flex 1 Comcast

The Xfinity Flex program guide opens up nicely, and then keeps going and going and going.

Also missing from Flex are such music titans as Spotify, the most popular of streaming music service; global internet radio aggregator TuneIn, which is 10 times better than the iHeartRadio app that is supported; and satellite radio biggie Sirius/XM.

Smart home features

Because it’s a secured component of your internet service, Flex can also monitor and control aspects of your home network, although some of those features require a paid subscription. With the Flex’s user interface displayed on your TV, for example, you can track network clients and schedule when they have access. This would be useful for managing the screen time of your little ones, so they’re not spending hours at a time playing video games or watching YouTube videos.

Sign up for Comcast’s Xfinity Home, which costs $40 to $50 per month on top of your broadband access, and Flex can incorporate smart-home features on your TV screen, such as streaming video from your security cameras, as well as offer on-screen controls for your smart lighting, thermostat, and other smart-home devices.

Should you ever decide to beat a retreat from cord-cutting, Flex is built on the same X1 platform developed for Xfinity cable TV. As such, the box can be upgraded to deliver a full panoply of traditional cable channels and services, including the enriched X1 on-screen program guide and the ability to store content in the cloud for time-shifted viewing.

xfinity flex 3 Jonathan Takiff / iDG

A rear view of the box shows an ethernet port and two HDMI connectors, although only one is active. The other, labeled Input, might see future use.

Setup simplicity

Shipped to your door, not brought by a technician, a pre-programmed Xfinity Flex already knows your Comcast account details and will automatically sniff out and self-install on your Wi-Fi network. If you have the infrastructure for it, you can alternatively hardwire the Flex to your router with an ethernet cable.