Roku gets a new Plex app that looks nothing like the old one

Good news for Roku users: everyone’s favorite media center app maker Plex just launched a new Roku channel that makes you forget you’re using a Roku: Gone are the endless rows of square cover art and the complicated, nested information architecture that’s present in so many Roku channels, and also dominated the look of the old Plex app.

Instead, the new Roku app is using big imagery, wallpapers and a great-looking full-screen music player, and offers access to Plex’s new content discovery features as well as trailers and enhanced multi-user support. It’s visually very close to the Plex apps on Sony’s Playstation, Microsoft’s Xbox or Vizio’s smart TVs.

This is how an album looks like with the new Roku app...

This is how an album looks like with the new Roku app…

The app is currently only available to paying Plex Pass subscribers, but will eventually make its way to regular Plex users as well. And right now, it only supports movies, TV shows and music, but support for photos, playlists and channels will be added soon, according to a post on the Plex blog.

... and this is how it used to look like.

… and this is how it used to look like.

Plex is also currently working on integrating music videos from Vevo into its apps. The company first showed off this feature at CES, and executives told me at the time that the goal was to eventually make iTunes obsolete.

Samsung TVs start inserting ads into your movies

Thought you could watch that video on your local hard drive without ads? Think again: A number of owners of Samsung’s smart TVs are reporting this week that their TV sets started to interrupt their movie viewing with Pepsi ads, which seem to be dynamically inserted into third-party content.

“Every movie I play 20-30 minutes in it plays the pepsi ad, no audio but crisp clear ad. It has happened on 6 movies today,” a user reported on Reddit, where a number of others were struggling with the same problem.

Reports for the unwelcome ad interruption first surfaced on a Subreddit dedicated to Plex, the media center app that is available on a variety of connected devices, including Samsung smart TVs. Plex users typically use the app to stream local content from their computer or a network-attached storage drive to their TV, which is why many were very surprised to see an online video ad being inserted into their videos.

Samsung accepted the blame for the ad a day after this story originally published, with a spokesperson telling me it was an error that was confined to TVs sold in Australia:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”We are aware of a situation that has caused some Smart TV users in Australia to experience program interruption in the form of an advertisement. This seems to be caused by an error, and we are currently conducting a full and thorough investigation into the cause. This situation has been reported only in Australia. We would like to apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.”[/blockquote]

A Plex spokesperson had previously assured me that the company has nothing to do with the ad in question. It looks like the Pepsi ad isn’t just making an appearance within Plex. Subscribers of Australia’s Foxtel TV service are reporting that streams watched through the Foxtel app on Samsung TVs have been interrupted by the same commercial. A Foxtel employee responded to these reports by saying that “this absolutely should not be happening and is being escalated immediately.”

It looks like the ad insertion was accidentally turned on by default for apps that it wasn’t actually meant for, but the faux pas points to a bigger issue: Device makers like Samsung have long tried to figure out how to monetize their platforms and generate additional revenue in a time where margins on hardware are slim at best.

Samsung initially tried to sell ads on its smart TVs, but shuttered its paid app store for the big screen a year ago because it realized that most people simply didn’t want to pay for TV apps. Another popular idea in the industry has been to monetize smart TV platforms through media services — but it turns out that isn’t all that easy either, especially at a time where most people are perfectly happy with just using Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime Instant.

To its credit, Samsung caught on to this shift in consumer behavior earlier than others as well, and shuttered its movie rental service last July. The last option for Samsung is to monetize third-party apps — and the company isn’t alone in trying. Roku has been particularly aggressive with ad and revenue sharing agreements, but I’ve been told that almost all platforms are trying to strike some kind of deal with more successful developers to either run ads against their content or get a cut of their revenue.

Consumers rarely ever get to know about these deals — unless something goes wrong, which seems to be exactly what happened in the case of that Pepsi ad that popped up on Samsung TVs this week. That’s bad, because there are other issues at hand than interruptions from unwelcome ads. Who, for example, gets what kind of data when TV manufacturers strike deals with advertisers? And how can consumers opt out of data collection altogether?

Coincidentally, the Pepsi ad started to pop up on Samsung TVs a mere day after the company was in the hot waters over another smart TV-related privacy mishap: Earlier this week, an owner of a Samsung smart TV discovered that the company’s privacy policy included warnings not to disclose private information in front of the TV, with the implication that the device might be listening in on our all your conversations. Samsung has since clarified that this isn’t the case — the device is only capturing voice commands when you press the microphone button on your remote control, and otherwise using hot words to monitor for voice commands.

But the incident clearly indicated that companies like Samsung have to be more transparent about the data collection capabilities of their devices. The Pepsi app just seems to be the icing on the cake, urging the company to get serious about this now.

This story was updated on 2/11/2015 with a statement from Samsung.

Plex unifies its Android apps, adds camera roll casting

Media center app maker Plex just overhauled its Android app with a newer UI and the ability to cast photos and videos from the local camera roll to a Chromecast streaming stick, Roku box, game console or any other device with a Plex app installed. And while doing so, Plex also took a big step toward unifying its Android apps and making them more accessible for new users.

plex camera roll

Previously, users had to either buy the Android app or subscribe to the company’s Plex Pass premium tier, in which case they had to download a separate app. Now, there’s just one single app, and it’s free. However, free users will only be able to use Plex to cast media that’s either stored locally on their device, or on a Plex server. Users who also want to view or listen to content on their mobile devices need to unlock that feature via a $4.99 in-app purchase.

Aside from working on this new Android app, Plex has been busy building out a new music experience, which will be available for Plex Pass subscribers soon. Plex apps will soon be able to generate Pandora-like playlists from a user’s local music library, and also offer ad-free access to music videos from Vevo.

After raising $10 million, Plex gets ready to take on iTunes

Media center app Plex is up to big things: The company quietly raised $10 million from Kleiner Perkins last year, and now it’s getting ready to put that money to use and take on iTunes.

Plex showed off a bunch of new music features at CES in las Vegas this week, where Plex Chief Product Officer Scott Olechowski told me that these new music features represented a big step forward for the company. “People expect their stuff to look like Netflix,” he said, adding that Plex has done a good job in the past to deliver on this expectation in the video space. For example, last year, the company added online movie trailers and recommendations to its app, allowing users to browse and explore local movie and TV show files just like they would when browsing an online video service.

In the coming weeks, Plex is now going to bring a similar experience to the music space. The company has teamed up with Gracenote to add recognition and tagging of files and help people organize their music library. Plex also uses Gracenote’s data to automatically recommend music from a user’s personal library, and even generate playlists that kind of work like Pandora stations.

Plex 3

And to add some eye-candy for everyone who is using Plex on the big screen, it also shows related music videos from Vevo, which can be watched completely without ads. “This will get music to the place where people don’t need iTunes anymore,” Olechowski said. He added that Plex is even considering to eventually add paid music downloads, or team up with a music subscription service, to give users a chance to grow their music library.

Plex is getting Vevo’s videos through a partnership with the music video service, which costs the company some real money. That’s why the videos will only be available to paying Plex Pass subscribers. Plex first introduced this paid tier two years ago, initially just providing paying users with early access to new features. But with music videos and trailers, Plex is looking to turn Plex Pass more into a true premium experience, and get even more people to convert. Olechowski told me that the company already gets about 80 percent of its revenue from Plex Pass subscribers.

Plex 1

Plex currently employs 42 people all around the world, and most of them have been working to bring Plex to a large number of devices, including most recently the launch on the PS3 and PS4. This year, the company also wants to improve the channel experience for integrating third-party online content in Plex, and give users better tools for their personal photos and videos.

User-generated content is “a deceptively hard problem,” said Olechowski, adding that most people are likely to have a mix of cloud-based and local media that is hard to manage. Plex wants to solve that problem by integrating more cloud storage systems over time, and help users to explore and rediscover their personal videos.


Seagate’s new Personal Cloud drive is a $170 Plex Media Server

Remember Seagate’s new Personal Cloud drive, which my colleague Kevin Tofel wrote about earlier this week? Turns out the device, which can already play content on Chromecast, Roku, Apple TV and other devices, has another ace up its sleeve: It is getting a Plex Media Server app through Seagate’s NAS app store, the company revealed at the Pepcom Digital Experience show at CES Monday.

This is huge news for Plex fans: Plex, which is a long-time favorite of people with a large collections of personal media, has had playback apps for all major mobile platforms as well as a long list of streaming boxes, smart TVs and other connected devices for some time.

But to use Plex, you also have to run a Plex Media Server app, which either means always leaving your laptop or a dedicated media PC up and running 24/7, or buying one of a handful of supported network-attached storage drives. Plex has media server apps available for just a few NAS models, with prices generally starting at $500 and up, not even including the necessary hard drives.

Seagate was showing off its Personal Cloud drives at the Pepcom Digital Experience event at CES.

Seagate was showing off its Personal Cloud drives at the Pepcom Digital Experience event at CES.

Seagate’s Personal Cloud drives on the other hand start at $170 for a 3TB connected drive, with the option to spend a little more on a 4TB drive or a 5TB drive. Users will also be able to buy a 2-bay drive with 4TB, 6TB or 8TB capacity for added security via RAID.

Seagate’s Simple NAS Products Product Line Manager Charles Ribaudo told me that the Cloud Drive won’t be able to transcode media for Plex in real-time, but that the device will be able to transcode in advance to have the media ready in the formats you’ll need. He added that Seagate will be adding a bunch of other apps to the device, including BitTorrent Sync and Owncloud.


Plex is coming to the PlayStation with apps for PS3 and PS4

Everyone’s favorite media center app Plex just took another major step towards total living room domination: Plex announced a new app for Sony’s PlayStation 3 and 4 Wednesday that largely offers the same looks and functionality as Plex’s recently-launched Xbox One app. However, the new app is first only launching in Europe and Asia, and coming to the U.S. and other countries next year. As the Plex blog put it: “Hasn’t your spouse been bugging you about moving to Italy since they watched A Good Year? Now might be the perfect time.”