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In (faint) praise of Comcast: the new iPhone/iPad app
Some tech-support blood, sweat and tears finally got the new Comcast mobile app working. One more step forward in the Xfinity TV concept.December 03, 2010
By Skip Ferderber
I’m a fan of Comcast’s Xfinity TV concept, which lets customers of the giant cable company watch their television shows and movies, as well as on-demand content, on computers and mobile phones.
Its latest development is an app for the iPad/iPhone, which promises to let you watch all your cable programming on your Apple device. Right now, it acts as a sophisticated, lightning fast remote control for your cable box.
A bevy of Comcast tech support people helped me to get it working. It took the better part of a week, and nearly five hours of actual hands-on time to solve a Comcast tech issue that seemed to rest on the way I signed into my Comcast account. I had the feeling I wasn't the first person who had experienced this same problem. (More on that later.)
Comcast is fighting back, as are other cable companies, against the phenomenon known as "cutting the cord." The idea is that the public is fed up with the high prices — and some say highhandedness — of cable services and are turning to alternate ways of getting the TV shows and movies they want to their living room TV set with subscription services such as Netflix, or a la carte, pay-as-you-go operations such as Apple iTunes and Amazon TV.
Along the way, Internet services such as Pandora internet radio and Facebook — features that cable never would have made available to its customers — are now available for watching on your TV. You can hook up a computer directly to your TV or purchase add-on boxes such as Apple TV, Roku, Google TV, and Boxee. Or you can buy new-generation Blu-ray players, game consoles and TVs with these services, or “apps,” built in.
Whether cutting the cord has traction is difficult to pin down. But the cable companies are taking it very seriously.
At Comcast, the Xfinity TV service is a major tool in its arsenal to fend off these new forces, especially for those who want their media everywhere: on their computers, laptops and smartphones.
Virtually all Comcast TV shows and movies are now available for watching on your computer. That includes Comcast's own estimate of 150,000 items such as movies, programs from multiple broadcast networks, popular cable shows (e.g., "The Closer" or "Top Chef"), and, oh, those lovely premium channel shows ("Dexter," anyone?).
There are a few caveats: You need a Comcast digital cable TV account to qualify for these services. The service you contracted for is what you'll see; if you haven’t signed up for HBO for your regular cable service, for example, you're not going to see it on your mobile devices.
A "My TV" feature lets you personalize your viewing options, set up recordings on your DVR from their computer, and keep track of your favorite TV shows and movies in a "Watchlist" feature. If you're a social media type, you can talk about what you're watching with your Facebook/Twitter friends.
The iPad and iPhone apps arrived about two weeks ago. While their current functionality limits them to acting as a cable box remote control, a Comcast spokesperson said people will be able to watch shows on these devices within weeks. An Android phone app should be available early next year.
With the Apple app, you can see a full listing of all your channels, change channels, and set up recordings, and control your DVR (digital video recorder) to play back your recorded shows. You can set up a "favorite channel" list, and tweak your settings to see, for example, only the HDTV channels.
Switching between channels and services with the app is incredibly fast: it controls your cable box through your home WiFi network while your remote still operates on the slow, old-school infra-red technology
Checking out on-demand programming on the iPad/iPhone is a welcome relief from using Comcast's awkward on-set search system. You can scan programming by a pure alphabetical list, by networks, genres, and more. Not all on-demand programs are available for browsing in the first edition of this app but there's plenty of content to choose from.
There are a number of functions the remote doesn't have, including a keypad and the ability to either rapidly scan down the channel list or look at days ahead. But this is the first generation of the software. Hopefully those and similar changes will be available.
Despite all the good things the app does, setting it up with Comcast was frustrating and time-consuming. I hope it's not anyone else's experience.
Comcast is a huge organization; the technological logistics to enable this wired cable network to interact wirelessly with its customers is beyond daunting. But as I spoke to three tech support people at Comcast's National Customer Service Deployment Center in Denver, whose job is to troubleshoot new products and services for the company, I had the impression that rolling out this technology was still a work in progress.
Certainly the people I spoke to were uniformly excellent, thorough, and concerned about solving my issue. But it required a number of steps to implement: first, just getting into the system and then successive stages, accompanied by multiple calls from me to Comcast and vice-versa, to get the app interacting with my cable box.
After lengthy conversations, my issues all seemed to trace back to the name I used to access my account, which I entered based on the advice of tech support. That seemingly innocuous item, and conflicting advice about that name — whether it required typing in "@comcast.net" — set up the series of events, at least two work tickets, and mutual frustration on my part and that of the tech people I talked to. I would implement the change dictated by one tech, then the next day, try accessing the account using the information given the previous day, and it would not work.
I now have an answer that seems to work, a working app, and I've even been promised a reduction in next month's cable bill for my efforts. But I believe there was much time wasted in getting me here, and I'm left with a distinct feeling that the system needed to work better to help the techs do a better job.
Skip Ferderber is a Mukilteo-based journalist given to fits of joy over technology that makes sense. He is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, edited Millimeter and On Location magazines in the technology end of the motion picture and television industries, and is a long-time contributing writer for HD Video Pro Magazine.