To Xfinity, and beyond: A critique of television providers

Shows aside, a critic gives his take on market-share leader Comcast's user friendliness

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Picking a provider

Picking a provider (March 22, 2013)

Even now, even as paid critics become an endangered species, there remains a lot of television criticism, discussion of the import and meaning of the various filmed entertainments that flicker across our ever-larger screens. 

Much rarer are critiques of the television system itself, of the hardware and software that allow us to keep up with both the Kardashians and the Crawleys. 

It would be nice if this stuff were just an intermediary, a generic pass-through spiriting television into the living room, as interchangeable as an HDMI cable. 

It is not. It is an integral, shaping, occasionally rewarding, often maddening part of the process. A balky DVR, as I had for a time when DirecTV was the outfit that collected my monthly checks, can make watching sports as hellish as listening to an LP that skips on every revolution. An antiquated on-screen program guide, as I now have with Comcast, can make you feel like it's the olden times, and you ought to be drinking Crystal Pepsi, making unapologetic references to LPs and searching for cool new shows such as “Hill Street Blues.” 

My recent switch to Comcast, far and away Chicagoland's dominant cable provider, has had me paying close attention to the service. Comcast won't give exact numbers but says it counts about 2 million households as customers, the vast majority of them TV subscribers, out of 5.5 million total households in its greater Chicago region, which includes the city, suburbs and much of northern and central Illinois; northwest Indiana, east to South Bend; and southwest Michigan. With such a big chunk of the market, Comcast deserves to be examined with the same critical eye that a new CBS police procedural might get.

So in terms of that actual delivery of TV programming, how well does the big kahuna treat us? What happens after Comcast (which now brands its in-home services under the name Xfinity) gets into the house? In its choices about technology, how does it compare with the last two services I had, Dish Network and DirecTV? And what is the purpose of a remote button that says HD Zoom?

Now that I mention it, and this is not Comcast's fault, where is my remote?

In the midst of asking these questions, I discovered some very good news, indeed, for those of us vexed by the Comcast program guide, which feels like Atari in an Xbox world. X1, the company's sleek-looking and very long-awaited new programming platform and interface, will finally be launched in the Chicago region in the next two weeks, said marketing Vice President David Williams, almost a year after it was first launched in the Boston area.

The exact timetable for it to trickle through to all local customers is still uncertain, he said, but the upgrade will begin with new and existing high-end Triple Play subscribers, he said. More details are in the Interface section of the review, below. 

Installation

This may be contrary to the popular perception, but Comcast showed up on time and installed the equipment quickly, and things worked right away.

This was in contrast to DirecTV. That company had to put a small satellite dish on the roof, a process made trickier when a beehive was discovered right where the ladder would go for the best roof access point. And the setup was complicated by add-on devices between the cable leading from the dish and the DVR. DirecTV's customer service was really pretty good, but during my two years with them I spent hours on the phone with tech support trying to fix problems myself, and two, maybe three, times in the first year, an installer had to re-do what the previous one had done. Each seemed to have a different opinion about the optimal setup.

The Comcast TV setup, discounting a roughly 24-hour delay as its On Demand service loaded, worked right from the start. To take advantage of (relative) bargain pricing, I had gone for the heavily advertised Triple Play, including telephone and Internet service, knocking my monthly bills almost in half, to about $120..

My Internet was much faster, giving me the bandwidth to handle movies I might want to stream and my family's myriad Wi-Fi devices.

And to my amazement, the transition to Internet-based telephone has been seamless. We didn't have to change out our telephones, answering system or phone number, and the service hasn't had so much as a hiccup in five months.

Interface

Coming from the sleek, modern on-screen programming guide DirecTV added during my tenure with them, I was stunned to see what Comcast offered. 

Its guide looks like it was designed in — being charitable here — the year 2000. In the most common viewing mode, more than a third of the screen shows the current program and information about it. In the rest, you get listings for just five channels at a time and only 90 minutes of their offerings. A huge chunk of real estate also goes to an ad for a current pay-per-view selection.

Amazingly, even on widescreen TVs, this guide sits in the middle of the set, reminding us of the almost-square shape that TVs used to be.

While I'll be thrilled to see it give way to X1, it's surprising that the company put the old system — which I'll call B-minus — before the public for so long.

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