To Xfinity, and beyond: A critique of television providers

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Picking a provider

Picking a provider (March 22, 2013)

X1, meanwhile, is Web- and cloud-based, meaning it'll be easier for the company to update even as it offers a fuller feature set, quicker searches, Pandora and Facebook access and more. The proof will come in actually using it in a standard home setup, of course, but it looks and sounds like it could be terrific.

Not only is the design contemporary, but it comes with a new DVR and new remote as well, and has a remote-control app for iOS (Apple) devices (but not yet for Android, despite Android's greater market share).

While it will be used as an enticement to new subscribers, Comcast marketer Williams said existing Triple Play customers with higher-end packages will be able to move into it in the first wave; it will be made available further down the line in subsequent months. The upgrade fee, he said, is expected to be $30 for the service call to install it.

Streaming

All the rage now in certain circles is “cutting the cord,” throwing over traditional television delivery methods for a combination of websites, Netflix and, I presume, waitlists at the local library. That's well and good for those with the patience and the bandwidth. 

I don't want to work that hard, across so many platforms, just to watch this week's “Modern Family.” I don't want to have to know where the free “Daily Show” is or when my trial subscription to Hulu Plus ends. And although there are a lot of issues on which we disagree, the great majority of other Americans are with me on this one; only about 5 percent of households use a combination of broadband Internet and just regular broadcast television, says Nielsen Media Research. It's a big jump from five years ago, but it's still just 1 in 20.

Most of the rest of us get our TV the way Ted Turner intended, via a thick wire poked through an exterior wall. Of 3.5 million households in the Chicago metropolitan area, according to the research firm SNL Kagan, 1.7million have cable, 929,000 have satellite, and a rapidly growing number, 317,000, use fiber optics, most often provided by AT&T's U-verse.

Comcast, like DirecTV, does seem to have put a lot of investment into its online offerings. The Web-based programming guide feels contemporary, and key functions, such as setting recordings, are easily available via PC, tablet or smartphone. 

The online guide, too, lets you sort what you see by, for instance, sports only. This feature, near as I can tell, is absent in the regular on-screen guide. Hundreds of shows and movies can be watched online, and some can be downloaded to your devices. If you're a Showtime subscriber, you could take this season's “Homeland” with you on an airplane, for instance.

My two middle school-age sons have used the streaming services a lot more than I have (lately, to watch back episodes of “Psych”) and report that they have been very satisfied with it.

Equipment

I was adamant with Comcast that I wanted their best, biggest, latest DVR/cable box combo. This is an area where being a squeaky wheel helps. Speak up when you still have the leverage to back out, or you may find yourself with less-than-current equipment. 

The Motorola RNG200N has a 500-gigabyte hard drive, big enough to handle my recording needs, even with HD recordings taking up so much more space than standard-definition ones. Channel switching is not instantaneous, but it doesn't cause you to pull out a stopwatch either. 

But the device only records two shows at once, a big drawback. And if you want to watch something from the On Demand menu, then it can only record one show. The new X1 DVR will have similar functionality, Comcast said.

Seeing DirecTV's new advertising push for the Genie service and its ability to record five shows at once has me more than a little envious. Dish Network's Hopper behaves similarly, and AT&T's U-verse system, delivered through a phone line, says it can do four simultaneous recordings, but it's not available at my address.

Comcast's supplied remote is just OK; it looks and feels like the Comcast remote I remember from about a decade ago, when I last had its service. The new one, for the X1 platform, should be a big step up.

That HD Zoom button is there, I can only presume, for thumb exercise. It doesn't do anything in my setup.

The current remote, though, became a lot better once I programmed in a 30-second skip button. This feature, great for zipping past ads, used to be widely available on early DVRs but has gradually disappeared under, I presume, pressure from TV channels and advertisers. 

But — pro tip — it's a quick Internet search to find the programming codes to add such a button and make your viewing life much easier. 

In five months of use, the one recurring system glitch has been the disappearance of sound. Turning the cable box off and on has always fixed it instantly.

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