Locally in Seattle, thanks to a Comcast/Microsoft deal, Comcast has begun a broad trial of a digital cable receiver that's also a DVR (a la Tivo). I'd always wanted a Tivo, but the addition of another remote control, the cost of the service, and the fact that it couldn't record high-def TV left me in the cold. So when I heard that Microsoft employees could get a free trial of the Comcast DVR box (granted, I heard about two weeks after everyone else at Microsoft) I leapt on it. Here are my observations:

  • It has two tuners. You can watch one station and record another or record two stations.
  • The DVR experience is quite good. High-definition recording, pretty smart conflict resolution features, a good understanding of channels and programs, and so on.
  • Playback from DVR is great. It doesn't seem to lose any fidelity.
  • The EPG (electronic program guide) experience is much nicer. Picture in picture of the show you're watching, much more flexible ways to search, etc.
  • Pause live TV. Whatever you're watching, it's caching. Hit the pause button and you can come back and it will read off the internal hard drive.

And there some things to improve:

  • Navigation is funky. Some pages have a "last" menu option to back you out of the menu system, some don't, and the "Prev Ch" button on the remote control doesn't navigate channels, so sometimes you have to exit the EPG entirely and go back in.
  • Recording is not smart enough. The box understands show titles and channels, but it doesn't understand that you can have a show that's on multiple channels (e.g. new CSI episodes on CBS and reruns on BRAVO). Plus, though you can set it to record only new episodes, I'm not sure how it defines "new," since it was recording reruns and even rebroadcasts of the same show.
  • Performance is not snappy. It's OK, but especially for things like pausing live TV, there are stutters in the UI. It's much worse when it's downloading something like an OS upgrade or new EPG data.
  • Setup is non-intuitive. The box comes configured for 480i; my set understands only 480p. Not sure how to resolve that, but it required a call to Comcast to get it set up right.
  • Disk fills up fast. It can record a lot of normal-def TV (like 30 hours or something), but high-def just eats it up. Since this is a major feature, I'd love a bigger hard drive.

I'm now wondering what Windows XP Media Center Edition would do to improve on these...