Beginning today, Comcast cable television subscribers will get a whole new look and feel to their TV watching.
The largest cable company in Utah is launching a cloud-based, interactive TV service called X1 that will transform the way couch potatoes take in their favorite shows. The service will be phased in, and the first to get X1 will be new "Triple Play" customers who sign on with Comcast’s Internet, telephone and cable TV subscriptions.
What is it » Comcast is introducing a new cable box and cloud-based TV service for its subscribers that includes a new on-screen TV guide and additional features.
Availability » It’s available beginning today, first for new subscribers to Comcast’s “Triple Play” bundle (Internet, cable TV and landline phone services) and will become available to other segments of customers soon.
Cost » The box is free except for the normal monthly rental fee. No additional monthly fees. Requires professional installation.
"Our vision is we want the X1 platform standard for all of our customers," said Matthew Strauss, Comcast’s senior vice president of video services. Other segments of subscribers will make the changeover "very soon" after the launch, he said.
The new platform involves getting a new glossy black cable box installed that replaces the old one. The new box will have a 500 gigabyte hard drive for storing recorded programs and a new operating system with a redesigned user interface. The X1 will be free to Comcast customers, and there will be no additional or higher monthly charges for the new box or the service.
Everything about watching television through this new interface will be different, from the TV guide to the DVR and the On Demand section.
"It allows us to breathe new life into what we know of TV," Strauss said.
The TV guide has been redesigned, and searching for a program across live TV programs and what’s available through On Demand is simpler. You also can re-watch the last nine programs viewed at the push of a button. The service also has a feature similar to Netflix that recommends similar programs to ones you’ve already watched. You can even tell the box to record all upcoming programs that star a certain actor.
The new box also has five separate tuners so you can record up to four programs simultaneously while watching a fifth. And any room in the house that has the X1 box can access programs recorded on the other boxes.
The X1 also can run applications similar to ones you can find in other set top boxes like the Roku or on newer TV sets. In the beginning, customers will be able to access the music service Pandora as well as weather, voicemail and Facebook. Users also can share what they’re watching with Facebook friends and Twitter followers. More apps will be developed for the platform over time.
The X1 comes with its own remote, but it also will work with a new iPhone app that turns the phone into a touchscreen remote (an Android version is coming soon). Voice recognition is implemented in the app so a user can say, "search for ‘Game of Thrones’" into the phone, and the X1 will list all of the available episodes to watch.
Perhaps the X1’s biggest interactive features involves sports. With a new sports app in the box, fans can watch a game on one half of the screen while accessing up-to-date sports scores on the other half. From that screen you also can tune in to other games by clicking on the scores.
Comcast executives see the X1 box as the end-all, do-all set top box for its cable subscribers and the only one that viewers will ever need. The biggest advancement is that many of the features, like the TV guide, are cloud-based, meaning the box accesses information in real time from Comcast servers.
That also means that any new features that are added to the service in the future can be switched on and implemented via the cloud and won’t require a new box or additional hardware. Strauss said the next big feature will be cloud-based recording where users will record and playback shows saved on Comcast’s servers and not on the harddrive in the box. Because the box uses the cable connection for all of its content, it does not require that the home have an Internet connection.
Nearly all of the new features implemented in X1, however, are not new in the marketplace. Apps that enhance TV viewing, such for Netflix, Pandora, or Amazon Instant Watching, already are available through set top boxes like the Roku and built into Blu-ray players and gaming consoles. The ability to watch a game while also displaying real-time stats is available through services like MLB.tv or on Olympics websites. And voice control over your TV already is available through the Xbox 360 video game console though its Kinect motion controller, and voice control will play an even bigger part in the next-generation Xbox One console that will be released in November.
But Comcast wants to pull all of these disparate features into one box and make it more accessible for viewers.
"I see this as more than a product," said Kyle McSlarrow, regional vice president for the mountain region of Comcast. "It’s an integrated entertainment operating system. It’s one-stop shopping for anything you want — video, apps, social media. It’s a platform that links television, online viewing, and your tablet."
Comcast is tasked with trying to keep its cable base as the popularity of other TV services such as Netflix and Amazon Watch Instantly have been eating into its subscribers. Viewers have also been looking for other ways to ditch their cable subscriptions as they find alternatives online to view their TV shows. The Philadelphia-based company reported a loss of 60,000 cable TV subscribers in the first quarter of this year, though it posted a $1.4 billion first-quarter profit in large part due to an increase in cable Internet subscribers.
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