After using a Comcast HD DVR (a Motorola 6412) for a couple months I'm hooked on HDTV. I can't help but compare the experience to using a TiVo and while this DVR falls way short of the TiVo experience, it works well enough in the basic sense to keep me using it. It has some bugs, but there aren't many choices if you want your HDTV from anything other than an antenna. I renew my hope for CableCARD support, so that alternate devices could be used.
After five years of being a happy TiVo customer (first with standalone units, then with DirecTV units) it was time to finally try out HDTV and to do that meant I had only a couple options in my area: try a cable company HD DVR or a satellite company HD DVR. I'd done the DirecTV thing for the past couple years and their HD offerings were pretty minimal (and required buying a ~$500 box) though they claim they will have the most programming by 2007 when their new satellites are operational. I decided to go with Comcast, since it was simple, cheap, and here right now.
I know I'm a bit behind the times here, the unit from Motorola has been out for over a year and was first covered here two years ago. There are several older posts about it, namely how to transfer content to a mac using firewire that I'll try out later on. At the moment TiVo doesn't offer a HDTV recorder except for the one that DirecTV offers, and they're phasing it out as they deploy new MPEG4 content the HD TiVo unit can't decode.
Is HDTV worth all the fuss?
I've seen HDTV demos for years now and I never really saw anything impressive about it. What I've figured out is that you can't really get a sense for how good HD content is if you're looking at an unfamiliar TV set playing unfamiliar content. The wonder of HD wasn't driven home to me until I saw a TV show I'd been watching for the past year or so in standard definition. It also helped that I looked at standard def content on my low-end plasma TV for a year before getting HD. After everything was set up and I recorded a few familiar HD shows, I got to see what all the fuss is about. HD programs look pretty incredible, especially those with lots of outdoor shots. I was seeing detail I'd never seen before. After having HDTV for a couple months, I've realized that when there's nothing recorded and I start channel surfing, I keep it limited to just the dozen or so HD channels.
Now that plasma and LCD TVs are starting at $1,500 or so, if you've ever wanted to try out HDTV, now is the time to do it.
Some of the good things about the Comcast HD DVR experience
The first good thing about this unit is that it's fairly cheap. You don't have to buy any box and they charge $9.95 a month for the DVR service. That's cheaper than buying a TiVo box and sending TiVo $12.95/month. After turning the unit on, the first thing to jump out was the interface was fairly clean and unobtrusive. The remote is pretty good and did a good job talking to my TV and A/V system, though I couldn't configure the volume to work with just the A/V volume instead of the TV volume.
Recording shows instantly is just one click without the need to confirm and recorded HD shows are perfectly crisp. There are two tuners which can independently record while you watch something else on the hard drive, so conflicts are infrequent, but just in case there is the equivalent of a season pass priority list that the Comcast unit uses for figuring out what to tape when both tuners are already taping something. One nice feature is the 30-second skip, which I use more often than the default ffw/rwd controls. I didn't have to enable a hack or anything, it seemed to just be there when I programmed my Harmony remote.
One other nice feature is that the unit tells you how full it is at all times. Whenever you pull up the recorded shows listing, you can see if the hard drive is 27% full or 77% full and you can remove shows after you've viewed them to get a sense of how much time is left. HD recording takes up a lot of space, so as a result the maximum HD recording time is about 12-14 hours total.
Now, onto the ways this unit could be improved.
Some of the bad things about the Comcast HD DVR experience
Since this unit has been out for over a year, I've heard lots of feedback from readers here and friends that have one. I've heard about lots of software bugs, buggy playback, and mixed reviews of the DVR user interface. I'll break down my biggest problems one by one.
Lag time in the interface
The first bug I noticed was one I heard about: there is a lag between when you push a button, and when something happens. As a result, you get no feedback and you assume that the button push didn't go through, so you push it again. A few moments later, and two or more button pushes get registered by the device and in some instances that cancels what you wanted to do. It's infuriating when this happens.
There is loads of research behind this frustration on my and many other users' behalf -- the only acceptable lag time is very short, and beyond that users start to wonder if their device is functioning properly. TiVo does a great job rectifying this by giving you an audio cue that it received the button push, and TiVo also does a good job of putting up temporary "waiting..." screens. The worst experience with my Comcast box was once while I was fast forwarding some commercials during a football game, only to have the play/ffw buttons not work after the commercials were over. I hit play about ten times while I watched 10 minutes of a crucial game fly past before the commands could "take" and return to normal play. The lag was about 20 seconds where no button push did anything as the box was locked in fast forward mode.
Setting season passes sucks
TiVo does a pretty good job letting you find shows and set passes. As a result, I often tracked 50 or more TV shows. I realized that after two months, I only have season passes set for 8 or 9 shows because the process is such a pain. On a TiVo, you can search pretty easily for shows by surfing around an alphabet and spelling out the name of the show. On the Comcast box, you get five boxes for letters, and they all are set to A. You then have to manually step through the alphabet on each letter to find your show. Pushing "down" 20 times to find "P" takes about 3-5 times as long as simply picking "P" from a grid on a TiVo. The process is such a pain that I rarely set season passes and usually do so from the guide interface, which adds it as an option to the set recording screen.
Since I have so few season passes and I have two tuners, I haven't run into any conflicts yet, so I can't tell if the conflict notification/resolution is any good or if it just drops lower priority shows without telling you first.
Small hard drive, so many missing TiVo features
I'll admit that I'm spoiled. I've had a TiVo with 300Gb of storage in it and I've had a completely hacked DirecTiVo box that I could stream video from and stream music to. The Comcast box ships with a 120Gb hard drive and given that HDTV storage requirements are so high (about 10Gb per hour), the drive is much too small for an active box. I barely record anything and I'm always above 50% full. It'd be nice if they could bump it up to at least 250Gb, as hard drives are still getting cheaper everyday.
I also miss all the great features from TiVo. Stuff like wishlists matching actors, genre, or even show formats, and all the suggested recording features to help find new shows. I miss having a web interface so I could tell what's recorded from the comfort of my computer, before I head into the living room to watch TV. I miss the helpful sounds, the fast guide, and all the other great little parts of TiVo.
Don't get me wrong, the good outweighs the bad but after using a TiVo for so many years, the Comcast box just barely works enough for me to keep using it. If you've never had a DVR before, it'll probably be a great new device. If you've got a HDTV and haven't tried hi def content before, this is a great option.
Thanks to the proprietary nature of business, if you want to record non-over the air HD, at the moment you have to go through a cable or satellite company. Hopefully someday, the cable companies will open up their spec so that software packages like Windows Media Center and hardware like a HD TiVo can record this stuff. TiVo has been saying for a while that in 2006 they'll be launching a TiVo/Comcast box and I'm counting the days until that happens. Given the great HD channels plus a TiVo interface, I think that would be the ultimate package and get me excited about TiVo again.