Since my DVR is like the waistline of my pants—usually at maximum capacity—I’ve written about my relationship with Comcast a few times. To say we have a love-hate thing going is a bit of an understatement, but it’s really not that complex. I love watching television, and I hate most aspects of my cable service—the exorbitant and ever-fluctuating bills, the spotty customer service, and the technology that feels about 10 years behind the times. There’s a TiVo collecting dust in my closet that does nearly as much as my current Comcast DVR, which costs a whopping $125 a month, including my digital channels, On Demand and HBO.
On Friday, I took the Comcast folks up on an offer to see what the next generation of their cable service looks like. On the 35th floor of the company’s Center City tower, electronic-controlled glass doors opened to a room known as The Lab, where I met with six Comcast execs (all of whom were exceedingly pleasant human beings and were right on time for our scheduled appointment). Inside a screening room equipped with a TV the size of a mini-Jumbotron, they introduced me to the X1—the company’s new super-DVR that only a relative handful of customers and journalists have seen so far.
The aesthetics are striking. Gone are the bulky metal DVR set-top boxes; the X1 has a sleek black design with a green-ringed power button reminiscent of Microsoft’s Xbox. The remote is smaller, too, by precisely 23 buttons, thanks largely to data that showed which ones we use the most (all info, I was assured, was compiled anonymously and in the aggregate). In developing the X1 to best suit our needs, Comcast conducted face-to-face, in-home interviews with customers, which ended with the data collector asking, “Would you mind if I watched TV with you?” Sounds creepy, but what we say we do while watching The Bachelorette and what we actually do can be two different things. (One holdover from the old remotes is the red “record” button, but only because so many customers like it—the numbers prove we don’t use it as much as we think). The new clicker fits much more naturally in hand, with most buttons in reach of your thumb.
Remote-control ergonomics aside, what matters most is on-screen performance. From the demo I saw, the X1 finally brings Comcast into the modern age. Here are a few of the biggest changes you’ll notice:
Icon-based menus. The program guide is still a (better-looking) grid, but once you start searching for movies or TV shows, graphics appear—much like the way Netflix’s website displays the poster for each film. Let’s say your five-year-old needs some entertainment asap: a search for “kids movies” turned up 624 titles, each with its own icon.
User-friendliness. Advanced searches are now easy enough that you’ll actually consider using them. If you’re a fan of Clint Eastwood, anything he starred in or directed will turn up, along with “recommended” titles that X1 curates, based on a mysterious “complex algorithm.” Meanwhile, the show you’re watching is always on screen as you flip through the menus. You can also record up to four programs at a time.
Capacity. The Comcast folks said a typical DVR holds 80-120 GB, which I can tell you works out to about eight Walking Deads, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert, this week’s Hannibal, a few Comedy Central shows, and enough room for a movie and Game of Thrones. The X1 boasts 500 GB, roughly five times the current storage.
Apps. The X1 can hook up with your Pandora, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and from what I’m told, there’s much more yet to come. You’ll also find apps for weather and traffic, with live video feeds from trouble spots on the roadways and real-time updates. The goal is to make cable feel more like the Internet, a place where content is everywhere and channel numbers are obsolete. We’re not there yet, but it feels like the journey has begun.
Sports geekery. Fantasy nerds will salivate over a menu that displays scores from around the leagues. (Take that, ESPN!) Imagine you’re watching the Eagles in early September. You can keep tabs on other NFL games in a side frame and check to see which are available for live viewing. You can also monitor who’s batting for the Phillies and get detailed game stats; the demo told me Friday night’s pitching match-up was Kendrick versus Zimmerman. It’s all part of Comcast’s shrewd plan to encourage us to close our laptops, put our phones down, and get all the sports info we need on that big flat-screen.
Fewer bugs. No one claims the X1 won’t have its glitches. But as a “cloud-based” platform, the machine updates through the Internet, which should—in theory—make customer service simpler. There have been more than 400 upgrades already this year, all of which, they say, resulted in no service interruptions. The goal is more time prepping for the Breaking Bad series finale, less time on the phone or waiting for a tech.
Aside from one awkward moment when we flipped to Caddyshack during a sex scene, the demonstration was largely bug-free and impressive. The catch, of course, is that the X1 is only for customers who buy their cable, phone and Internet service from Comcast, which I don’t. That means I have two options: Either cut ties with Verizon and sign up for the Triple Play; or stay the course, juggling two service providers and dealing with a rapidly-becoming-obsolete DVR that will certainly be a low priority for Comcast in the future.
Unless you’re one of the brave (or desperate) souls who’ve unplugged from cable completely, right now, there’s little hope of breaking free from Comcast’s choke hold. FiOS still isn’t available in my neighborhood, and as a sports junkie, I won’t switch to satellite without Comcast SportsNet. The good news for me and my fellow Comcast addicts/hostages is that with the X1, we’re finally getting a product that seems worth what we pay for it. At least until the rates go up.