August 15, 2013
Dish Network has its Hopper, which records every show in prime time and helps you skip commercials. Microsoft has its Xbox One, which it says will enable you to control your TV with voice or gestures. Apple TV is still reaching for Steve Jobs' goal of an easy-to-use "integrated television." Comcast hasn't announced its own plans to win the war for the living room.
But the Philadelphia cable and broadband giant has a stealth entrant in that contest: the X1, a do-almost-everything device designed to protect and expand its share of the turf. What will the X1 do? Not surprisingly, it won't help you watch video from Internet-streaming services like Netflix - a mainstay of any "smart TV" device. But it does plenty to justify its portrayal as a reinvention of how Comcast delivers Xfinity TV to its 22 million customers, with some smart-TV flourishes.
Here are a few of the X1's features, as demonstrated by Sree Kotay, Comcast's chief software architect:
- Five tuners - an upgrade from the two initially included - so you can watch one show while recording four others.
- A 500-gigabyte digital video recorder, enough for 200 hours of standard TV or 80 hours of high-def.
- A brand-new user interface, with updated guides for TV and video-on-demand that include outside perspectives on movies from Rotten Tomatoes and on kids' shows from Common Sense Media.
- Content searches based on a vast new entertainment database Comcast calls Merlin, with shows tagged for terms such as actors, sports teams, series, and genres.
- TV-based apps that can keep you updated on the weather, your stocks, your Facebook friends, your sports teams' results, even the traffic you'll face on your commute.
- Cloud-based software, so the X1 can become the X2 when that brand-new interface - an even more radical departure, soon to offer cloud-based DVR storage - debuts in the fall.
- A radio-based remote, so you don't have to aim it and thus can locate the X1 anywhere nearby - even inside a cabinet. Yup, there goes the "set-top" from "set-top box."
The X1 is a first for Comcast, which previously provided DVRs built to its specs by suppliers such as Cisco Systems. The X1 was produced fully in-house - a multiyear project, headed by Kotay, involving about 400 employees. Rolled out slowly, the X1 made it to Philadelphia early this year and will reach all of Comcast's markets by year's end. Its software was upgraded in July to include five cloud-based tuners - perhaps to compete more effectively with multituner devices such as the Hopper.
Existing customers can request the X1, which goes first to new "triple play" subscribers. Kotay says a key advantage of the X1 is its "cloud-based application layer." Everything beyond a small onboard operating system - even channel-switching software - will be in the cloud. Won't that add lag time - latency, in tech terms? Yes, about 30 to 60 milliseconds, which Kotay says is more than made up for by shifting the remote's technology from infrared to radio transmission. In other words, you won't notice, but it should actually be faster, not slower.
Kotay says randomized tests show customers like the X1 well enough to watch a bit more TV but about 20 percent more of Comcast's 45,000 video-on-demand assets, the "long tail" of the content market. With the X1, he says, you can find whatever you're looking for in an average of 3.3 clicks. You can record a show, "favorite" it, share it via Facebook or Twitter, or pivot from the show to an episode guide.
Comcast started out unsure whether TV-based apps would catch on, but the answer now seems clear - two-thirds of X1 owners are using them, Kotay says. A Pandora app has been a niche hit, for instance. "Only about 15 percent of users are on Pandora, but those who use it use it a ton," he says.
The X1 even offers control via an iPhone app, so you can command it by voice. To illustrate, Kotay says, "Show me basketball movies," and 39 show up. Comcast's perspective is that plain old TV is now just "one of the services you consume on your big screen," he says. If the X1 succeeds, you'll continue to consume as many of them as possible through a Comcast box. Philadelphia Inquirer
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