To Xfinity, and beyond: A critique of television providers

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Picking a provider

Picking a provider (March 22, 2013)

On Demand

Here's where Comcast blows away the traditional-TV-provider competition. Comparing its offerings with Dish or DirecTV's is like pitting Serena Williams against your sister on the tennis court. Scores of current and recent TV shows are on offer, ready for those who forgot to record, say, “Nashville” this week or for those who never watched “Friday Night Lights” the first time around. 

Currently, my wife and I are powering through all three seasons of “Downton Abbey,” which we didn't latch on to when it first started. The show itself is seeming increasingly obvious, introducing complications in the life of the Crawley family and then resolving them within one episode. But at least accessing the episodes is also simple.

A couple of On Demand drawbacks: The 30-second skip button doesn't work, and in some shows neither does fast-forward, depending on the contract between Comcast and the show's maker. So you are more at the mercy of advertisements. Also, you can't watch, say, “Girls” unless you are an HBO subscriber (not that you'd want to this season). 

But this is a small price to pay in exchange for having a vast library of free television, some free movies and lots of pay movies ready to go. This was a key factor in my decision to go with Comcast, and it hasn't disappointed.

Sound and vision

DirecTV's HD picture, to my eye, earned a solid A. Comcast's, in contrast, is an A-minus or B-plus. It's assuredly high-def, compared with the standard-definition channels. But while I freely acknowledge my memory could be tricking me, or I could be enacting some bias toward information transmitted from space, it does strike me as a little less vivid than the satellite service's image. Comcast executives said this was not a common complaint.

Surround sound, when watching movies or well-made TV, is good on both, as it was on Dish Network as well.

Channel lineup

This is another area where Comcast feels like a visit to ye olde provider.  

The channels seem to have been assigned numbers cumulatively, over the years, just adding in the next one as it came along. This will not change when X1 arrives, the company said. I presume the thinking is that while it may be a clunky, illogical list, it's the clunky, illogical list viewers have come to know.

Example: Standard WLS is at Channel 7, just like on the analog dial, but WLS in HD is at 187. This broadcast network channel comes right after pay-cable HBO at 186 and before, somehow, WMAQ in HD (Channel 5 in standard, 188 in high-def).

DirecTV placed HD channels right next to their SD versions, and it gave me an option to show only the HD versions of channels that were offered in both formats. Comcast doesn't, and occasionally I've not paid enough attention and recorded a show or a Bulls game in standard-def. (X1 is better at defaulting to high-def, Comcast says.)

Like a store where the goods are just piled in, there's no sense that the lineup has been winnowed or arranged according to logic.

As for numbers of channels, the companies tout various figures to try to gain competitive advantage. But this feels a little like the megapixel wars in camera marketing: Once you've reached a certain number, it's all overkill. We end up watching maybe a dozen channels, anyway. And in my comparisons, the services all had all the channels I, or most anyone else, would be interested in.

But if there's a nonstandard, must-have channel for you, whether it's providing Mexican wrestling, Eastern European news or out-of-market pro soccer, then, by all means, do your research.

Vestigial services

Why is there still a button taking me to something called Interactive TV, and why are Comcast employees still spending time on it? That's a 1998 idea long since supplanted by the Internet and by the second screen that so many keep on hand as they watch TV. When you click on this button, you learn that you have no “saved ads.” Huh?

And why is Comcast spending time to run a program called “Xfinity Insider”? The benefits to me seem minimal compared with the effort the company is putting into it. 

If I ran such a company, I'd transfer all available resources to improving the primary user experience. In the age of Apple design and tens of thousands of apps, I wouldn't let my technology company be represented by the on-screen equivalent of a flip-phone.

But, on balance, I'm still happy with my decision to re-enter Comcast's spiky embrace. The On Demand is superb. The technology is improving more rapidly than I had anticipated. And, best of all, the price is very, very right.
Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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