At various times I’ve plugged my Mac into my television using an HDMI adapter, used the PlayOn service to stream content from my computer or my wireless network, and even cut the cord completely for a while in favor of over-the-air broadcast channels, supplemented by Netflix and other streaming services.
But it looks like I’ve met my match, and it is called the Xfinity X1. You win, Comcast. At least for now.
I have been testing this sleek black cable box for the past three weeks, but to call it a cable box really doesn’t do it justice. It is a nice blend of Internet content, live television, apps, a multi-tuner DVR and on-demand programming, in one of the cleanest user interfaces that you’ll find from a cable company.
Of course, this is just one of a growing array of options for TV viewing these days. The X1 experience is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the new Google Chromecast, which GeekWire columnist Frank Catalano wrote about this week. If the Chromecast is a Smart Car, the X1 is an Escalade, as I mentioned when we discussed this topic on last week’s GeekWire radio show. Both serve a purpose and could work well depending on exactly what you’re looking for in a television experience.
Here are some of the highlights from my usage of the X1 over the past few weeks, and some of the areas where it needs to get better.
Apps: There are several Internet-connected apps on the X1, including weather, stocks and traffic. On startup, the screensaver shows the latest news headlines and other info from the apps. You can also connect your Facebook account and stream music from Pandora.
But the app that shows the most promise is sports — displaying mini box scores of NFL, NCAA and MLB games in progress or coming up, with quick links to watch or record games as part of your cable package.
While watching a game or browsing other channels, the sports app can be positioned off to one side of the screen, showing the score and additional details about the game, such as runners on base or a graphic of the latest scoring drive. In short, it’s a nice complement to the viewing experience.
One big opportunity for improvement: It would great to be able to click to watch highlights from games after they’re finished.
DVR and On-Demand: The DVR version of the X1 has five tuners, making it possible to record up to four shows simultaneously while watching another show live. One of the nicest parts about the interface is the way it integrates live programming, upcoming shows and on-demand content into unified lists.
But as I explained on last week’s GeekWire radio show, this one place where the current state of cable TV starts to feel like an interim solution. Why can’t we just get everything on-demand from the cloud — whatever we want, whenever we want it? The whole notion of recording a show and saving it to a local hard drive starts to feel a little odd when you can see on-demand and DVR recordings of the same episode side-by-side in unified menu.
No doubt we’ll get there eventually, and Comcast is taking a step in this direction with the X2, by making DVR recordings available via the cloud. But for now, we’re in this in-between place where not everything is available on-demand.
Search: The X1 remote is straightforward and easy to use if you just remember to hit that big Xfinity button repeatedly. On last week’s show, my colleague John Cook rolled his eyes when I explained the process of searching using the alphanumeric keypad. It’s not a perfect solution. But the reality, with most searches, is that you only need to hit a few keys before the program you’re looking for shows up at the top of the list, to select easily.
Personally, I prefer this to alternative input methods such as barking out commands to my Xbox 360 Kinect sensor.
For easier searching, there’s an iPhone and iPad app available for the X1, letting you locate and launch a program by typing into the device keyboard, or using voice commands. Another feature request here: It would be great to be able to use the hardware volume controls on the phone itself to control the TV volume.
Hardware: I misspoke when we discussed the dimensions of the X1 on the radio show. It’s actually only a little more than a foot wide, and probably smaller than other cable boxes that you’ve had.
But it is a loud machine, at least compared to my whisper-quiet Xbox 360 console. The X1 has a low rumble that can be heard across the room. I’ve tried repositioning the device to make sure it’s not a function of vibration.
One nice touch: The clock and green light on the front of the box can be dimmed from a simple on-screen interface.
In the end, the X1 is an example of the convergence taking place across the industry, and how that convergence has yet to reach its logical conclusion. For example, I’d love to have a truly singular experience in one piece of hardware — Netflix, live TV, video games, and everything in between. The upcoming Xbox One is headed in that direction, with the notable lack of DVR integration. The X1 has the DVR, but no Netflix.
There is plenty of room for improvement with the X1. (Comcast has already announced the X2.) But based on my experience so far, I’ve decided to keep this machine around, on my own bill. The machine is currently available to Xfinity triple-play customers in Washington state. Unless you’re adding services such as DVR functionality to your bill (as I will be) there’s no extra charge for the X1 beyond an installation fee of approximately $90 for the triple-play setup.
So for the time being, at least, it looks like I’ll end up with two powerful but incomplete boxes under my television.