Nine 11 Boxes Later: Comcast TiVo Service

When I learned that Comcast was finally rolling out it’s long-delayed TiVo service, I was thrilled. I had seen the benefits of TiVo via several friends, but had avoided buying my own TiVo box because the HD versions are so expensive. I had been moderately disappointed in Comcast’s home-grown DVR service (which sported a clunky user interface and a mere 12 hours of nonupgradeable high-definition recording capacity).

We counted down the days until the Comcast installer would arrive to upgrade our two cable boxes. To our surprise, rather than merely a firmware update, the installer provided two brand new Motorola DCH3416 boxes, complete with 160 GB of storage and a wonderfully designed TiVo remote.

The cable guy came out mid-day on a Friday, and claims he tested everything before he left, but by the time I got home a few hours later, neither TiVo box was working correctly. The downstairs box had staccato sound, the upstairs box simply displayed the loading screen and never got beyond it. Tech support had the cable guy call us back, and he was actually willing to drop his kids off and come back out to try to fix the boxes.

Unfortunately, what we needed were replacement boxes, and he didn’t have two more of the DCH3416s, so we had to wait until Monday and another technician visit. (The technician was supposed to arrange for his boss to handle things on Saturday, but this never happened; on Monday Comcast had no record of anything like that being set up.)

In talking to customer support and in subsequent visits from the on-site troubleshooters/installers, it became clear that not much information had been propagated to the installers about how to set up these boxes or keep them working. One installer explained that in his training for the new cable box, the cable box was broken, so they had to learn from a PowerPoint presentation on the setup instead.

The downstairs new box worked for a few days, and then quit, going into an infinite booting cycle which Comcast guys call the “Crazy Eights,” because for part of the boot-up, the entire display shows all the segments, like in the photo above. Comcast replaced it the box. We learned that updates to the program guide or updates to the firmware can cause this problem, meaning the software hadn’t been quite ready to roll out, from a QA perspective.

So far, we are on our ninth cable box. Other than the sound problem exhibited, most of the time the issue was the “Crazy Eights,” although once the downstairs box simply decided it wasn’t going to record anything. Twice the boxes of have recoverable, but at the cost of reinstalling the firmware, which has to be initiated by an on-site tech. (This is apparently an evidence of improvement—until a week ago, such a feat was apparently impossible.) Of course, once you have to exchange the box, all one’s saved programming goes away as well. Likewise, firmware reinstalls seem to wipe out all previously recorded video and settings.

The boxes have dual tuners, but the software doesn’t take advantage of them correctly. If one is watching one program, a confirmation dialog requests switching channels to record a scheduled or suggested recording. Hey, it has two tuners. Perhaps the one not in use could be used for the recording? I had a similar problem with two recordings that started an hour apart which I had set to run one minute over; the second recording never happened.

There’s no 5.1 digital surround output. We get 48 MHz PCM output that’s in Dolby Surround (stereo) only. This is expected to be fixed in a future software update, but far more critical fixes need to go in first.

TiVo users will be wondering about TiVo Desktop, the software that lets one use a computer on the network to transfer shows, program the TiVo, and even move recorded programs from TiVo to TiVo or burn them onto DVDs … although it is not currently possible to use it, the powers that be at Comcast are actually considering enabling it, because so many customers have requested it. (Like the regular Comcast DVR box, the DCH3416 sports FireWire, eSATA, USB, and network ports. Like the regular Comcast DVR, they are all currently disabled, except maybe the FireWire port which will only output what is currently playing—and we only get that because the FCC mandates it.)

Other than the problems with the boxes self-destructing at irregular but rapid intervals, I couldn’t be happier with the service, especially at only an extra $3 a month. The 160GB hard drive give us enough storage space. The TiVo user experience is much better than the Comcast DVR software, akin to the difference between the Hotmail and GMail. Programming is rapid and easy, and navigation is a dream. In fact, the overall user experience is good enough that I’ve kept having Comcast replace the boxes rather than go back to the old Comcast DVR. Even the HD image quality seems to have improved. (I do wish the menu response were a little faster, but I believe this is normal for such devices.)

A software update is due out on April 1, that should correct the “Crazy Eights” and approximately 40 other bugs, but will not yet provide 5.1 digital sound. I hope our current box lasts until then!

Addendum: The downstairs box went into “Crazy Eight” mode on Friday. So now we are up to 10 boxes.

Updates at last!

April 1 came, and of course required a visit from yet another Cable installer. With the update, our box went into a mode where the TiVo software itself wouldn’t work, although we could at least change channels.

The technician was actually upset, because he believed he could reset our box with a little bit of help from ATS, but they wouldn’t work with him, so he had to swap it out. He swapped the box, and the downstairs one, and updated them both with the new code.

The improvements are significant: The menus respond about twice as fast. The record light illuminates on the box when something is recording. Dolby 5.1 is back (which we did not expect yet). I even think both tuners actually record (we have not tested that yet). So far both boxes are working fine.

The technician said that an update planned in about a month will further improve the menu response time, which is now reasonable, but was painfully slow before. That’s the beauty of Java: “Write once; run really slowly everywhere.”

5 Replies to “Nine 11 Boxes Later: Comcast TiVo Service”

  1. The pictures of Naomi were lovely, glad to see you included the other two Once! As for your TiVo may I suggest the 5.82 that’s dollars, cable package? No problems at all!!! Ha! Love Cindy

  2. Cindy:

    Believe it or not, Comcast doesn’t offer high-definition broadcasts in its $5.82/month “Cheapskate Special” channel lineup. Of course, as you’re the only person I know who still has a TV with a mechanical tuner … I wouldn’t expect HDTV to be on your list of required features.

    I would love to see A La Carte pricing, so we wouldn’t have to help pay for all the channels we never watch. This was recently debated in the FCC or Congress (I can’t remember which) and appears to be on the list of items to revisit, as the “industry representatives” appear to have been just a wee bit dishonest on that subject. Imagine that!

  3. Well, we’re up to our 12th box.

    This is a bit ironic for a Motorola device, considering that Motorola developed the Six Sigma quality program.

    Some of these failures have been hardware related, and some software related, so it may not all be Motorola’s fault.

    The current box had to be hard-reset a couple of times before the data for searches and categories would download. I think the installer had missed a software update.

  4. Now it’s 13. Actually, it’s 13a, as the box we swapped at the customer service center wasn’t a TiVo box. Nichelle is going to try again tomorrow.

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