Kevin Hunt: Comcast Launches Supercharged X1 Cable Box In Area; Cox Plans Upgrade


The clunky, noisy, technologically dated cable box is finally getting a makeover. For area Comcast subscribers, it starts Tuesday with the official availability of the X1 video-service platform powered by an Internet-equipped set-top box.

Eligible subscribers to Comcast's Triple Play bundle of television, Internet and phone service who elect the no-cost (except for the standard $90 installation of the new box) upgrade will barely recognize what's on their screen.

"It's like going from 'The Flintstones' to 'The Jetsons,'" says Brian Ferney, Comcast's director of marketing for Western New England.

The Bottom Line, after a sneak preview last week — some area  households who have upgraded to Triple Play service since June have received the new boxes already — suspects subscribers will like the 21st-century on-screen look and functions. That's assuming there are minimal bugs, freeze-ups and other new-technology calamities.

Current owners of a gaming console, Apple TV or a satellite receiver — all probably wondering what took so long — will recognize many of the features.

Among them:

>> Send To TV, which displays any Internet material from an iPhone or iPad on your television, via the X1 box, much like Apple's AirPlay technology.

>> An (Apple-only) app that turns an iPhone or iPad into a remote control, including voice navigation.

Laura Brubaker Crisco, Comcast's Western New England Region director of public relations and an X1 user, demonstrated by clearly enunciating "Brad Pitt" into her iPhone: Pitt's picture and Comcast's available library of his movies quickly displayed on a nearby television.

Users also can use voice commands to search ("Find the Red Sox game") or "record." Shaking the device with the remote app activated pauses On Demand content.

The app also works long range: Users can schedule a recording, even change the channel other family might be watching, from an office cubicle.

>> A 500-gigabyte DVR, up from the 80- to 320-gigabyte storage capacity of previous boxes. Comcast's X2 platform, a firmware update to X1 boxes likely arriving in this area in early 2014, will add cloud storage.

>> Five digital tuners that allow recording up to four programs while watching a fifth. Current two-tuner boxes give users a combination of two programs at once whether it's watching one while recording another or recording two.

>> An app-like interface that's cleaner, faster and more powerful that previous Motorola set-top boxes. Even the box, with a glowing green ring around the power button, looks slicker.

>> Actual apps, however rudimentary, that use the X1's Internet access. For now, they include Facebook, Pandora radio, The Weather Channel, INRIX local traffic and a sports scoreboard. Users also can share what they're watching via Facebook or Twitter.

>> The On Demand menu now looks more like Netflix or other streaming services like Vudu, with a box-cover menu of available titles. A movie or actor search also leads to extensive plot summaries, biographical information and ratings from third-party sites like Rotten Tomatoes.

"It's like going to IMDB," says Crisco.

With the X1 On Demand, viewers can start watching a movie on the television, pause, then resume later on a tablet or computer.

>> An emphasis on what you want to watch instead of which channel. The X1 box recommends programming and movies based on the subscribers search and viewing history. The program guide filters listings in six categories, and also by age for family-appropriate viewing.

"It's less about channels, more about content," says Ferney.

>> Even the remote is different, with fewer buttons (including alphanumeric, like a telephone keypad, to enter keyword searches). This remote, which uses radio-frequency technology, can be paired to a specific box. Unlike earlier remotes that used infrared technology, the new X1 remotes do not require line-of-sight. That means the box could remain out of view, in a cabinet, and it will still receive signals from the remote.

Cox subscribers who might be feeling a little cable-envy can expect a system upgrade later this summer. The project, with a working title of Personal Video Experience, will include an app capable of streaming video to a television via the cable box and a new box with a 2-terrabyte (2,000 gigabytes) DVR that can record up to six programs simultaneously.

Neither box will dethrone Dish's Hopper, with its 2-terrabyte hard drive, an AutoHop feature that skips commercials, auto-record of all prime-time programming and Sling technology that allows viewing of all subscribed channels on a computer, smartphone or tablet.

But X1, which debuted nationally more than a year ago in Boston, and Cox's yet-to-be-named system shows that cable service in Greater Hartford is finally starting to catch up.

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