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Oh My Tech!: A review of Comcast's X1 cable TV service

Published August 9, 2013 9:08 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

There is a wonderful quote in "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" where Scotty easily sabotages Starfleet's newest and most technologically-advanced starship, then tells Dr. McCoy, "The more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain."

That idea comes dangerously close to Comcast's newest cable television platform called X1, which is initially available to a small number of customers in Utah but will grow later. It's a new cable box with features that launched in Utah last week and replaces your current cable box. It has a redesigned interface and on-screen television guide and easier-to-use functions. The technology is advanced, sleek and a peek into the future of the cable company's direction in interactive TV.

But it's also buggy, slow and occasionally frustrating just to record a television show. The "drain" is starting to get plugged.

It's not mandatory to make the change over, but it is worth considering it. So far, it doesn't cost any additional monthly fee to make the switch, except for a $50 to $100 installation fee, and it adds a number of features that TV fans likely will appreciate. For some customers with multiple boxes in their home, it could save them a little money per month.

It's just that with the introduction of any new technology, there will be growing pains. And the X1 has its fair share. I have been using the new system for more than a week, and here's my impressions with the X1 so far.

First of all, only new "Triple Play" customers — those new subscribers who get Comcast's Internet, cable television and home telephone services — are eligible to get the X1 box for now. Other segments of customers will be eligible soon.

The reason Comcast is charging for installation is because it requires a professional installer to come to your home. He or she must hook up a special filter on the cable line outside the home as well as connect the new boxes inside the home. After that, there is no additional monthly fee tacked on to your cable bill. In my case, the install was pretty seamless and took about an hour.

The X1 has some nice features. The on-screen guide that lists the television shows is easy to read and thankfully can fill the whole screen. This time, there are none of those annoying ad banners that took up a huge chunk of the TV screen's real estate as was seen with older boxes.Hopefully, Comcast will keep it that way.

The box comes with a 500-gigabyte harddrive, enough for hours and hours of recorded programming, and you can record up to four programs at the same time, two more than before. All the TVs in the house can record and play back shows from one main box, or "hub," in the house.

The On Demand section is easier to navigate, and the search function to find movies and TV shows uses a unique system with the remote's number keys for faster more intuitive searches. The X1 also has an iPhone/iPad app (Android is coming soon) that allows you to do voice searches. The voice recognition was good at understanding what I was saying, though it was a little slow in translating it to text to start the search.

The X1 box can run basic apps, like Facebook, Pandora, and widgets for weather, traffic and a daily horoscope. While it's nice to have them, these same features work much better on other set top boxes like the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 gaming consoles, and many of them are already built into a lot of newer TVs. The best application is a sports app that can bring up scores on half of the screen while you're watching a TV show or game on the other half. You also can go directly to the broadcast of one of those games by clicking on the score.

Perhaps X1's greatest feature is its potential. It's a cloud-based service, which means that as new features are added, all it requires is a software download, not a new box. Later this year, Comcast said it is releasing the next version of the service, which will be dubbed "X2." It will add cloud-based recordings for more storage and an interface that is even more simple and elegant.

All of this technology is not without its problems. The software that runs on the box is loaded with critical bugs: Recorded episodes can't be erased unless you reboot the machine; personalized channel listings and other system settings revert back to the default settings; and a slow on-screen guide takes too long to refresh on the screen.

There are also a number of useful features from older boxes that were not included,such as the ability to advance through the on-screen programming guide by days instead of hours. And the remote that is included doesn't have a button to change the television's input in case you want to watch a Blu-ray movie or turn on a video game console — a major omission. Make sure you have your TV's original remote control on hand.

The X1 service has been available in the U.S. since the middle of last year, and a lot of these bugs should have been addressed by the time it launched in Utah. But I understand that with new technology comes a host of new headaches.

While Comcast is working hard to add more features to X1, let's hope they stop overthinking the plumbing long enough to clear out some of the drain first. That's when the X1 will really shine.

If you have a tech question for Vince, email him at ohmytech@sltrib.com, and he'll try to answer it for his column in The Salt Lake Tribune or on its website. For an archive of past columns, go to http://www.sltrib.com/topics/ohmytech.