After weeks of anticipation, I finally got a chance to go hands-on with Comcast’s Fancast Xfinity TV service while visiting family that subscribe to Comcast’s cable and broadband service. While the cable company should get points for launching the first TV Everywhere deployment in the U.S., my early experience has not been very positive. Due to significant issues with the authentication process and actual content library, I have to say that I’m more than a little disappointed by the service, especially after months of hype by Comcast and content partners like Time Warner.
Let’s start with Comcast’s authentication process, which is the biggest stumbling block for Xfinity. To authenticate with the service, you have to download and install on your computer a client application that phones home to Comcast to confirm that you’re a subscriber and figure out what content you have access to. Each Comcast account can add up to three devices that can access Xfinity content, and each one has to have the Comcast Access client installed. In theory, this should be a seamless process, but in practice it involves a number of steps that could keep subscribers from being able to use the service.
What could go wrong? In my case, it seems like everything did. First, I was unable to access any content because the account set up for me was “restricted.” (Thanks, Mom.) Once I was able to get an authorized account, I had to go through the process of reinstalling everything. Except, the new installation didn’t seem to want to gel with the old authentication information. After about 45 minutes on the phone with a Comcast customer service rep, who was clearly not trained on how to fix problems with the new TV Everywhere service, I found a solution: clear my cookies, delete all instances of the Comcast Access application, restart my browser, and reinstall.
Great! Now I can sign in and watch True Blood. There was only one problem: Once I closed the Comcast Access application, Xfinity no longer believed I was a subscriber and asked me to download and install the client all over again. Simply restarting the Comcast Access app wouldn’t do it — believe me, I tried. Nope, every time I wanted to use the Xfinity service, I had to clear my cookies, delete the app, restart and reinstall. Not exactly a painless user experience. And not one I’d be willing to go through again, if I didn’t have a review to write.
Once you’re on the site, you’re faced with actually finding the content that you want to watch. The good news is that there’s plenty to choose from; Comcast boasts more than 12,000 video assets in the entire Fancast Xfinity TV library. The bad news is that only a small portion of that is premium content, and even less of it is premium content that you actually might want to watch (i.e., not just the dregs of cable reruns).
Some content partners — like HBO — make older library content available through the service. The entire run of The Sopranos is available, for instance, if you want to relive the series by watching all the episodes back-to-back-to-back. But other series, such as Six Feet Under or Deadwood, are notably missing. Perhaps more importantly, shows that are currently still on the air — like True Blood — have very few, if any, episodes available for viewing. And those that are available are from early seasons, which means subscribers won’t be able to catch up to what’s happening currently.
A glance at some other content partners paints a pretty similar picture: AMC has the complete miniseries The Prisoner available, but no Mad Men; Discovery has no full episodes of Mythbusters; and Bravo only has two recent episodes of Top Chef online. TNT is one exception, with current seasons of full-length videos from its shows, like The Closer and Men of a Certain Age. But those full-length episodes are also available on TNT.tv, so there’s nothing from it that isn’t available elsewhere.
Search and Discovery
While the site has a ton of full-length TV content, finding the content that you want to watch isn’t as easy as you would expect. While its search function works pretty well, the interface for browsing Xfinity’s full-length show and full-length movie libraries is pretty dreadful. You can scroll through hundreds of titles alphabetically, hoping to find something you’d like to see, or you can scroll through content by cable channel, or browse by genre. Either way, it’s not much better than the scrolling interface in most set-top box electronic program guides.
That said, the service has a fairly reliable recommendations system on show pages. If you’re watching 16 & Pregnant, for instance, you might also like Teen Mom, The Hills or Desperate Landscapes. Unfortunately, it gets buried below the video, alongside episode listings — so the average user might not scroll down or even notice that it’s there.
If there’s one thing worth giving Xfinity kudos for, it’s the quality of the video on the service. Using the Move Networks player, which is installed along with the Comcast Access application (if it’s not already on the viewing device), Xfinity provides pretty seamless video in most network conditions. With HTTP-based adaptive bitrate streaming, the videos adjust to the bandwidth that’s available to the end user with no buffering or stoppage along the way. Despite some early reports of poor video quality in the early days of the service’s launch, I had no problems when I tested it out at my parents’ home, which had cable broadband, or in my apartment, where I have FiOS high-speed Internet service.
It’s difficult to fault Comcast too much for the early response to its Fancast Xfinity TV service — after all, it was the first U.S. cable company to dips its toes in the TV Everywhere waters. Given the technical hurdles involved and business discussions it must have had to get its content partners on board, it’s quite an accomplishment that the service even launched. That said, the initial iteration of Xfinity seems half-baked, both in terms of content available and user experience — and the authentication process is just plain painful. A somewhat tech-savvy user like me might have the patience to clear cookies and reinstall the plug-in to get the service working every time, but your average user won’t.
And why would she? To watch back episodes of The Sopranos? Not likely.