Pushing Buttons: Comcast’s “Key Queuing”

The scene: You’re at home watching TV through your Comcast cable set-top box. You press a button on the remote to change channels. Nothing happens. Well, you think, maybe I didn’t press down on the button hard enough. So you do it again. Still nothing. Aggravated, you press a bunch of other buttons on the remote to see if it’s working. For a second…nothing. Then, as if a dam had burst, every command you punched in gets executed, unleashing a torrent of unstoppable channel flipping, fast-forwarding, pausing, and on-screen menu launching.

You’ve just been key queued.

1067bx3thumbnail.jpg“Key queuing” is what happens when your cable box hangs before implementing the commands you input. At the very least, it’s an annoyance, as you have to wait for your commands to run their course. At worst, it can ruin the endings of TV shows or possibly delete programs you haven’t even watched yet. So I talked with Mark Hess, senior vice president of business and product development for video at Comcast, to find out why it happens — and what they’re doing about it.

As with so many things, there’s good news and bad news.

First, the bad. There’s nothing you can do about key queuing. The fundamental problem is the inability of the set-top box’s processor and memory to keep up with the commands.

The less-bad news is that key queuing is relegated primarily to DVR boxes. Since video is constantly being played off the hard drive, the processor and memory are already tasked, so it can hang before executing an additional command. But even though it’s been narrowed down to DVR boxes, the problem is still random, affecting some worse than others, and a lot of it depends on how you use your DVR. If you’re just pausing live TV, you probably won’t experience the issue as often as someone who’s recording multiple HD channels while watching a third program from the hard drive.

The good news is that Comcast has identified the problem. It has to do with the “transport bar” in the guide software. The transport bar keeps track of where you are in a show. You see it when you pause a live recording. When it’s not on screen, it still runs in the background. Comcast noticed a big spike in key queuing issues after it implemented the latest version of the guide software this year.

The better news is that Comcast is implementing a fix; it’s being tested as we speak. According to Hess, the new software drastically improves the key queuing issues, and Comcast is aiming to have it rolled it out, nationwide, by mid-February of 2008.

Until then, don’t let the DVR push your buttons.


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