4:27 PM EDT, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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