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Paul Paradise

Comcast DVR downgrade: TV Guide replaces Microsoft

For the past few months, Comcast has been sending me emails, postal mails, and at one point, even having an automated system call me to inform me about the impending DVR upgrade. I was excited: one of the promised fixes as part of the update was the “DVR hangs while fast forwarding” bug, which was particularly inconvenient because you ended up seeing parts of a TV show out-of-order, which ruins some surprises on shows like Lost.

Last Thursday, I came home to a newly-upgraded DVR. After a few days of testing, I’m reasonably convinced they fixed the dreaded stuck-while fast forwarding bug. Unfortunately, so many other things regressed from the Microsoft-branded DVR that I’d gladly switch back:

  1. While watching TV, the DVR will occasionally pop up a message front-and-center on the display with one of two messages: Your recording has finished or Your recording has started. There’s a few things wrong with this message:
    • It doesn’t provide anything useful, like the name of the program that just started/finished recording.
    • I don’t care that it started/finished. If the DVR is doing its job properly, it should act like an appliance and Just Work. Displaying a message like this reminds me of a novice programmer using printf-style debugging and forgetting to remove the debug statements.
  2. The user experience for searching by title is vastly worse than it was before. On the Microsoft software, I was provided with an alphabetically sorted list of shows on the right, and an onscreen (alphabetically sorted) keyboard on the left. I’d use the up/down/left/right/OK buttons to “type” a letter, and it would jump to shows starting with that letter. I could enter more letters to continue filtering the show title; eventually I’d have enough that I could easily locate it in the show list. On the new software, I’m presented with 5 boxes representing the first 5 characters of the show name – initially “AAAAA.” To change a character, I use the left/right buttons to select the appropriate box, and the up/down buttons to scroll through the alphabet. Remote controls aren’t the greatest input device, but this really should be a solved problem. My cell phone and squeezebox both get it right: use T9 and the number keys. Now, instead of the suboptimal Microsoft choice of navigating a 2D keyboard to pick each letter, I’m stuck with the even worse solution of navigating along a 1-dimensional line for each character.
  3. The Microsoft software had a button that brought up your list of recordings in one press. It’s probably the most common navigation action besides fast forwarding, and the new software requires I hit a button and navigate a menu just to bring up my recordings.
  4. Once I’ve made it to the list of recordings, they’re no longer grouped by show. When you have season passes to a number of shows, it helps to have a display where each show only takes one line, and selecting it allows you to pick which episode you want to watch. You can sort by show title, but you can’t group them.
  5. When a program is recording and you want to switch to live television, it doesn’t just automatically start using the second tuner. It asks if you want to cancel the current recording or use the second tuner. I can’t think of a reason I’d ever want to cancel the recording in that situation, aside from the programmers being lazy.
  6. The channel guide no longer provides the full channel name. I’m forced to learn that “THC” means the “History Channel.” It’s almost as bad as trying to memorize channel numbers again.
  7. Fast forward doesn’t jump back in time. TiVo pioneered this simple usability improvement, and I can’t imagine using a DVR without it. When you’re fast-forwarding and press play, the machine should jump back a bit from where the fast-forward got to, in order to account for human reaction time. At first I thought that it was just providing less reaction time, but then I noticed that I had the opposite problem in reverse – it didn’t jump forward to account for the reaction time there, either. This is extremely frustrating when you’re trying to skip commercials – fast forward, overshoot, rewind, overshoot, fast forward, overshoot, give up in disgust.
  8. While this software doesn’t seem to get stuck (stop responding to remote commands) while fast forwarding, it does appear to get stuck in a different way. When rewinding through a show, a corrupted picture frame will change the play state from rewind to paused. To go back to rewinding, you have to hit play, then rewind again.
  9. I lost the ability to pick when to record a show. Some shows air a second time in the middle of the night, and i’s convenient to record them in their non-primetime slot to free up the DVR for other recording duties when there would normally be conflicts. Now, any conflicts during primetime mean the show never gets recorded.
  10. Comcast promised the upgrade would maintain all my current recordings, scheduled recordings, etc. That wasn’t quite what happened:
    • Really old recordings I’ve kept on the DVR for months were simply deleted.
    • Any recording settings to record a few minutes early/late were lost.
    • After the upgrade, the DVR decided to record a few random shows I’d never told it to record.

I really liked the idea of having a Comcast-owned DVR. For the past 1.5 years, it’s given me a decent experience and provided the ability to record HD broadcasts for about $10/month. I knew TiVo had a better service, but it wasn’t worth the high upfront cost for the HD-capable box or the higher monthly cost to me. With the new “upgraded” service, I may change my mind on that. Since TiVo recently released a reasonably-priced HD model, the prospect of switching looks much nicer…