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Attention Cable-Box Haters: Comcast’s Video-Streaming X1 DVR Looks Pretty Impressive

Slick new features let you stream live TV and recorded video to a computer, tablet, or phone.

Attention Cable-Box Haters: Comcast’s Video-Streaming X1 DVR Looks Pretty Impressive
[Photo courtesy of Comcast]

Back in 2008, I moved into a new home and became a Comcast subscriber for the first time. For a few weeks, I used the set-top box and remote which the company then offered. They provided such a miserable, user-hostile interface for the vast quantities of programming I was paying for that I was tempted to chuck them out the window. Instead, I hooked up a TiVo DVR, returned Comcast’s box, and never looked back.

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But in the six years that I’ve been busy not using Comcast’s TV equipment, the company has been at work. Its current DVR platform, X1, bears no resemblance to the rudimentary one which drove me nuts before I switched to TiVo.

Judging from a demo which the company recently gave me, X1 is slick and approachable, with lots of ways to find stuff worth watching beyond scrolling through an interminable grid of numbered channels. Better still, the X1 box is a gateway to features which live largely in the cloud, so Comcast can add new features on the fly without updating or replacing the box. Even the remote looks sensible.

And Comcast is currently rolling out a feature which is similar to one of my favorite capabilities in TiVo’s current Roamio Plus and Roamio Pro models: the ability to stream live TV and DVR recordings to your computers and mobile devices, or download shows for later viewing when you don’t have Internet access. Already available in six metropolitan areas, it’s going live in the San Francisco Bay Area (where I live) and in Houston this week; Comcast expects to make it available to most customers nationwide by the end of the year.

If you’ve got the new feature and are at home on your own network, you can use a computer, iPhone, iPad, or Android device to stream or download any channel which is available to you as part of your Xfinity plan, as well as watch the 125,000 hours of content available through Xfinity On Demand. Outside of your home, you can stream your DVR recordings and around 60 channels of live TV. Rights issues prevent Comcast from offering full access to every channel over the Internet.

At the moment, you use one Xfinity iOS/Android app to watch video at home, and a different one when you’re anywhere else–a duality which Comcast says it hopes to eventually eliminate. TiVo doesn’t draw that distinction: It’s got one app which behaves the same wherever you are. (Already on iOS, TiVo’s app just became available for Android.)

Then again, Comcast lets you stream video to a Windows PC or Mac, a feature which TiVo doesn’t have, and which I wish it did.

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I’m not itching to ditch TiVo: It works well and is lovably familiar, and I already invested a sizable amount of money in the DVR and service. (Comcast’s new streaming features are rolled into whatever level of service you’re paying for, and require you to rent its X1 box.) Still, there was a time when I assumed that big cable companies such as Comcast didn’t have the competence–or at least interest–to build a really first-rate TV watching experience.

After having seen X1 and its new streaming features, I’m happy to eat my words. Assuming I don’t cut the cable cord any time soon, it no longer seems unthinkable that I might someday willingly choose to use Comcast’s own hardware with its service.

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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