1. Two Weeks of Comcast HD TiVo Service: Complete or Total Disaster?

    brian on 2008.02.12
    at 02:41 am

    (Fair warning: this piece is over 2,500 words. A lot has happened in two weeks, and this was as succinct as I could make it!)

    What follows is the story of our first two weeks with the brand new, Comcast HD TiVo service. The merges the Comcast HD cable settop box with the DVR recording capabilities of TiVo software.

    The experience, while having so much potential for a quality product at a fair price, has been nothing short of disastrous.

    Our model is housed within an attractive Motorola DCH3416 box. It has HDMI and composite video out, along with TOSlink optical audio. I have the unit attached to my Panasonic 720p HD LCD via composite video, (a Mac mini uses the sole HDMI connection on my TV) and to a Yamaha Pro Logic 5.1 receiver via the TOSlink. When functioning properly, the unit displays nice HD video and audio. TiVo logo

    A little history, prior to this new Comcast box, we had the Toshiba SD-H400 Series II TiVo with Basic subscription (eg no monthly fee, limited capabilities) and built-in DVD player since it debuted. It was a fabulous, trouble-free experience. We could never justify the monthly fee (or lifetime plan, back when that was an option) for the additional features. But after a year of having an HD box and display, we couldn’t take it any longer, and had the Comcast TiVo box installed the week it was first available in Medford, MA. Comcast logo

    The install started rough. The technician, and all of the techs we’ve dealt with since, were fabulously friendly. Even if they didn’t know much. In this gentleman’s case it was his fourth install. He removed our non-DVR box (I had already cleared out my SD TiVo) and replaced it with the box that was visually identical to the non-DVR box, which I assume was a Motorola 6412. The install comprises of the tech in my house standing on his phone with another tech remotely in Comcastland pulling the strings from behind the curtains. The in-person tech has little to do beyond attaching cables, giving feedback to what was on the LED display on on my TV, and occasionally pressing a button here or there.

    After an hour of software downloading, the software install somehow failed and the box became non-responsive. The tech started to disconnect the box. I asked if they had both these style boxes and the DCH3416 boxes. He said they had both, and in fact he had that same model in his truck. He came prepared with a few boxes in case of failure (like this). He said he started with the older style box because “they had more luck with them.” But he went and brought in the 3416, since he wanted to swap it any way and I had asked about that model. Again with the software download. An hour later, they began having communications problems again. The box, like the previous, appeared non-responsive to the tech on the remote site (on the phone).

    My tech, determined, went into my basement and found an old filter on a line which he was convinced was causing the trouble. Why it worked for a long time and only intermittently lost connection with the home office is a question that went unanswered. He continued to fight with the box and got it going again.

    About this time, my internet connection (I was trying to work from home in the other room) clammed up, giving me only a Comcast setup screen. Both the in-house and over-phone techs swore up and down that they had nothing to do with it, and my in house guy had no idea how to address it. Resetting the cable modem had no effect. Also, at this time the box started functioning, and the tech started the download again. It was 5:30 I had to go pick up a rental car a few minutes away, and the tech said he’d be happy to step out and listen to some sports radio in his van while I got the car and the software was downloading. Again, super accommodating technician.

    We were back in the house, and the software was downloaded much faster than before. With another 20 mins, the box was up and functioning. Cable internet was still down. My cable guy took off. Around 8pm, the internet guy showed up. Minutes before, the connection had sprung to life and the (again super friendly) tech had nothing to do, shook my hand and took off.

    [When I got the bill, I was charged $25 for the internet service call. Unbelievable. I called and they removed the charge with out resistance.]

    After the first couple hours of using the box, it was clear this wasn’t the pure TiVo experience we were accustomed to.

    First of all, there’s no power button on the remote for the TiVo box! This was our first remote that resembled the original TiVo remote (the shapely black one), as our Toshiba remote looked very different (but worked fabulously, other than now the enter and 5 keys don’t respond and all the buttons need a very hard press to function – but it’s quite old and heavily used). But it had a power button! There’s a power button on the front of the box (puts system to standbye mode). In this day of energy consciousness, there’s no excuse for leaving this box on, nor having to turn it off on the face of the box.

    Nearly every button press had a delay before the box reacted. When you went screen to screen (say main TiVo menu, to your recordings menu) the screens didn’t slide over, they just appeared, without TiVo’s trademark user interface classiness. No deal breaker, but still, no polish. Then the sound effects started getting screwy. The correct effect would begin to play, but half way through the sound, it was start to play whatever the previous sound had been. This has continued non-stop through all the tribulations that I haven’t gotten to yet.

    There were stupid things too, like if you’re typing in a name for a search recording, and you clicked left too many times (easy when the box is a solid 2 seconds behind your button presses – often more) you would slide back a screen, losing everything you had just typed in for the search.

    When you were watching a channel, if there was a TiVo suggested recording coming up, it would interrupt you on the channel you were watching, (where the other tuner was doing nothing) and say “I’d like to change the channel to record a TiVo Suggestion” if you’re not sitting in front of the tube at that moment, I can only assume it would automatically answer in the affirmative and leave what you were currently watching and start recording something else. Usually crap. Our box has an obsession with House, M.D., despite me ranking it with thumbs-down.

    If you pause a live program and walk away from our Series II box, you get 45 minutes of buffer before the box would automatically start playing (unless you had already set the box to record the program you were watching). This box has a much shorted buffer, maybe 20 minutes.

    Setting Season Passes or any similar special recording, it takes at least a minute to register, probably closer to two. Ridiculously slow (compared to four year old TiVo). Setting regular recordings takes about half that time, but about 80% longer than on the old box.

    We find double recordings on the recording list. One would have about 2 minutes of the episode, and then end. The other recording would be complete. Unless the last minute or two were missing.

    Last Saturday I had to call about the inadvertent charge to our bill. When I did that, I asked if I could lodge a complaint about the poor functioning box. They connected me to a technician. I didn’t expect her to be able to do anything, figuring the box was still new (despite the year of beta testing! This thing is buggier than any beta product I’ve ever used. I’d hesitate to call it alpha!)
    I had read that many others were having problems, including a guy I know across town. So I figured I’d just lodge my complaints/bug reports and hope that expedited a software fix.

    I told the technician about the slowness to respond to remote commands. She said immediately, “Oh, I can fix that!” I was startled. “Really?” I replied. “OK, go ahead!” She rebooted the machine and said she was refreshing the software. (I believe that was the term she used.) The machine blinked a couple times and within two minutes my picture was back. All the TiVo graphics were gone, replaced with the original Comcast graphics. “The software is loading in the background. In about two hours the box will restart and your TiVo software will be back and running! Till then you can watch TV but not record anything, though, pausing will work.” she said. “OK.”

    I had stuff to do, so I just turned off the TV. Coming back in two hours, nothing had changed. Still Comcast software. Figuring I just had to wait linger, I decided to flip on ESPN. Except I couldn’t. I could only receive broadcast channels below ch23. Something was seriously wrong here. I called back.

    After 1 hour and 50 minutes (my iPhone has an obvious call timing function) I had yet to speak with a human. I hung up. I called back using the method of getting through to someone-*anyone*- by hitting “*” at every prompt. I got through to someone who was apologetic and got me a technician as fast as she could. He worked with me to get my cable channels back but couldn’t do it. No TiVo software, either. The box would not respond to them, apparently. He was apparently a local because he advised me I could take the box to be swapped some where across town (Wellington Circle for any locals). It was 9pm. I had run out of time for that. He put me on hold and worked some more customer service magic. (Again, this guy too was so friendly that I just assumed he wasn’t a native of the area :-) ) He came back on the line to tell me a technician would come to my house the next morning, 8am-10am to fix the box. That’s SuperBowl Sunday. The call ended.

    The next morning, I had a meeting to attend on the other side of Boston. My wife woke up to wait for the tech. I get a voicemail from the tech saying since I wasn’t home, he wasn’t coming. I later find out that they confirm you’re home by calling (we have no home phone number and they only have my cell number) and if you don’t answer, they don’t come. And they don’t leave a number where you can reach them, just a rescheduling number.

    I passed this info to my wife, who called and they wouldn’t send the tech back, even though he would have still been well within the time he would have been in our house. When I got home, I was pretty pissed. Kick off time was approaching fast, and we had a seriously disabled cable connection! I called in for help again and got through to another super friendly technician. She worked with me for about 40mins until she was able to get my full allotment of cable channels functioning again. But there was nothing she could do for the TiVo side.

    We were rescheduled for Thursday. Yup, our second week with HD Comcast TiVo, we didn’t actually have the TiVo part. FAIL.

    Thursday, the tech came, this time, he knew to call my wife and not me. When I got home, the TiVo was “functioning” again. The quotations are because it was just as bad as before! She said the tech claimed “They’re all that way because they are new.” That certainly doesn’t speak well for their Quality Assurance testing.

    Everything was even keel until yesterday. Things that were supposed to be recorded, weren’t. Now we cannot delete anything from the TiVo. You hit delete, it spins and thinks. It reappears. Every time, every program.

    Tonight the final straw. We were watching a program, and it repeatedly started to black our, and a blue box at the bottom of the screen would appear saying something I can’t quite remember, something akin to the channel wasn’t available. Then it would appear and dissappear. We couldn’t then change the channel. Audio would get much louder, then snap back to where we had it set (we have it connected to a receiver via a TOSlink optical cable). Finally, the system wouldn’t respond to the remote and we had had enough, I pulled the power plug upon plugging it back in, our box is now stuck in a power cycle loop. It takes about two minutes to complete, starts up “Please wait” screens (black background, big white rectange in the middle of the screen, read blocky text) shows us 20 seconds of live TV, stays totally unresponsive to the remote or button-presses on the front of the box, sound jacks up, then down, and it reboots, again into the cycle. I tried twice more to reboot via power cord. Same result.

    I was simply too tired tonight to call into service. It sits unplugged in front of us.

    I cannot fathom how this could have been a worse two weeks with this Comcast box, outside of the device damaging our other equipment or burning down our house (knocks on wood).

    Comcast you have a serious problem on your hands.

    My advice to everyone out there considering the service. Don’t. If you can save your money for a TiVo-built HD box with Cablecard – do it! I simply cannot justify the expenditure for the box plus the monthly service of lifetime charge (they brought that back I hear, for good?) personally. But if you can afford it, do it.

    All others, wait it out until you hear the all clear around the TiVo online forums. It’s so bad that I think all of us early adopters should be paid to report these bugs, or at least not have to pay for the box until it works as well as boxes TiVo shipped four years ago. This system is beyond broken, and should never have left testing.

    If I had to wager a guess, I’d guess the problem lies in making TiVo’s software work on Comcast’s hardware, which was never intended for it. This is the reason I buy Apple Computers, and now the iPhone. Devices where the total experience is designed, engineered and built custom under one roof functions better, with fewer bugs. My advice to Comcast: stop wasting your money, just have TiVo build you a cable box from the ground up. Phase out your current boxes (maybe sell them to another cable company who also uses them, cheap). I know it’s hard to let go of the control, but look how well that’s worked for AT&T when they just stepped back and listened to the people who really knew how to make a wonderful experience. Stick with your strength: networks and nice people, and allow TiVo to do what they’re good at: outstanding software, famous user interface design and quality integration with hardware they spec.

    Posted in: Technology · Television


    Comments (3)

    1. Jeff said on 2008.02.12 at 11:53 am


      I signed up for one of the Tivo boxes as soon as they were available in Boston. They guy came out, made one phone call, left. (They charged me $18 for that!)

      Same problems on my end, too. Terrible delay, awkward noises, etc.

      Not worth it. Wish I would have read this before I took the plung.

    2. Hoss said on 2008.02.12 at 02:10 pm

      Re. your suggestion to get the TivoHD with cablecards: I have that and it was a pain in the a** to get it set up. As with your installation, the tech comes, slides the cablecards into the Tivo box, calls his office, waits on hold for 45 minutes, has the tech on the phone send the signal to the box, runs thru the setup and then leaves. It makes very little sense to me why they don’t just send the user the cablecard and have the user call the hotline and have the tech walk them through it. That way, they could charge those who want to have a tech come out and install it, or not charge for people who want to do it themselves with help from the phone tech.

    3. Tyler said on 2008.02.13 at 02:31 pm

      I’ve been a Tivo fan for years. We still have a SD TV with a TiVo-built SD Tivo Series II, and I love it! But hearing stuff like this really makes me nervous about taking the plunge to HD.

      A friend of mine bought a TiVo-built HD box recently and had the same problems with Comcast. After weeks of frustration, he returned it.

      I’ve been thinking a lot about moving to HD lately. I’m not in a position to buy a TV yet, but when I do, I want to do it right. After three years of Tivo, I’m not sure how I’ll live without it, but I’m sure as heck not going to get myself involved in this kind of mess until they fix it!

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