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December 22, 2009

Review - Comcast's Fancast Xfinity TV Beta

As you know, Comcast last week launched its own authentication beta under the moniker “Fancast Xfinity” to let paying subs access online versions of their favorite shows. So as a Comcast subscriber, I’ve been poking around the Fancast site and kicking the tires on this puppy. The bottom line: It’s pretty good. Not perfect—but pretty good. And considering its beta status, Comcast will no doubt add content, functionality and navigation prowess to Xfinity in the coming months, as well as work out any lingering kinks. Here’s the current lowdown:
 
Signing Up
Comcast still has a few bugs to work out when it comes to getting up and running. I didn’t mind having to download a 66-megabyte piece of software to authenticate the content and register my computer (Each subscriber can register up to three devices). But even after I downloaded it and installed the ComcastAccess client, the Fancast Web site got somewhat confused about whether I had actually downloaded it, had it running on my desktop and was actually authorized to watch the content. On a few occasions, I logged out, logged back in, tried to play another video and was told that I needed to download ComcastAccess once again—even though it was already installed on my computer. After activating it to run on the desktop, Fancast still couldn’t see it. To watch a video, I had to restart my Mac, remember to open ComcastAccess before I went to Fancast, and then finally stream the content. This is far too cumbersome. I hope that Comcast figures out a way to detect the software and—instead of inexplicably asking a customer to re-download it—simply open it automatically for the customer (or at least remind the customer to open it and try again). People have been trained by Hulu and other sites to point, click and watch. Comcast needs to make its authentication system equally simple.
 
Basic operation
Once it’s up and running, Xfinity works nicely. Videos load about as fast as Hulu, and they play as smoothly. I tried out several cable shows in full-screen mode on my 21-inch monitor, and they all pixelated somewhat during fast motion but were otherwise watchable. Hats off to CTO Tony Werner and his minions at Comcast. They have built a nice back-end system.
 
Navigation
I’ll say this for Xfinity. It’s a lot easier to find content here than through my set-top box’s VOD menu. Yes, that’s a bit of a back-handed compliment—but Comcast and every other operator knows they need to improve their TV-based VOD menus, so I’ll let that drop. When it comes to Fancast’s navigation menu, no one is going to win any prizes for Web design or creativity here. The interface is relatively bland. But you know what? That simplicity makes it exceedingly easy to find content (And I’d rather find what I’m looking for than be dazzled by animations, widgets and other nonsense that will crash my browser). A search box at the top makes it easy to find specific shows. And browsing is a cinch, with shows listed by title, genre, network or featured selections. Comcast also tells users about the top streams for those who want to join the crowd. Again, no bells and whistles here. But it’s easy to find content—and that’s more important than aesthetics.
 
Content
On video quality, some shows look better than others, but most are slightly grainy—especially when shown in full-screen mode (And it’s not my connection; I subscribe to one of Comcast’s fastest residential broadband tiers). Some also aren’t available in 16X9 aspect ratio. That's unfortunate. Availability of shows is also spotty. Why, for example, are all six seasons of “Entourage” listed—but only Season 2 is available for viewing? I could understand if it was a windowing issue and more recent episodes weren’t available yet. But Season 2? Why not Season 1, which is older. I don’t get it. Of course, HBO isn’t alone in this regard. Several networks—both premium and paid—offer less than complete catalogs with little logic as to which ones are included or excluded. Other nets list shows but then don’t provide even one full episode, choosing instead to offer up a few clips. That’s maddening. Either put up a full episode or don’t list the show. Consumers want to watch full episodes in an authentication universe. If you have something to promote, then do it in a pre-roll before a full episode of a similar show. 
 
Overall Grade: B
Despite all my knit-picking above, I applaud Comcast for being out front on this. And for a beta, Xfinity is impressive. Many of the little annoyances and quirks will likely get cleared up in the coming months as Comcast moves to full rollout mode, adds more content and (hopefully) improves some of the video codecs. I can’t wait. If Comcast keeps striving for excellence, this could very well evolve into an A+ product in no time.

(Michael Grebb is executive editor of CableFAX)
 







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