Like a proud parent with a picture of a baby, Comcast is ready to show off its newest creation.
The cable giant started in November to roll out its X1 cable box in Chattanooga for free to all new Xfinity triple play customers, and will now offer it to existing triple play customers if they're willing to pay for the installation.
"It's a whole new service," said Jim Weigert, general manage and vice president of Comcast in Chattanooga. "It's a whole new way to view TV."
The new device is more than just a piece of plastic and silicon with a nice digital clock on the front. Inside, the cloud-enabled platform sports a brand-new interface that marks the biggest upgrade cable subscribers have seen in years. Pulling information from servers across the country, the new X1 box allows a host of new functions, like listening to Pandora or watching traffic cameras to scope out a morning work commute.
Can't stand a new show? X1 lets you tweet about it using the remote, or even post about it on Facebook. Sick of hunting down HD channels? X1 automatically switches to HD when it detects one is available.
The new interface is faster, too. Pushing a button on the remote has an immediate effect. Loading a piece of OnDemand content takes seconds. Searching for content is now a viable option, as well. The search tool allows users to find their favorite actor, and then search the Xfinity library for every single show and movie featuring that actor, for instance.
"Having the information in the cloud gives you so many more options," Weigert said. "You don't have to worry about that piece of equipment being more limiting."
The humble cable box has come a long way since the faux wood grain, push-button models that graced America's living rooms in the early 1980s. Back then, the buttons were the interface. Yet, the expanded live TV channel line up was a huge upgrade from the handful of local over-the-air channels, so millions signed up to see ESPN, CNN, and the Discovery Channel.
Things have changed since then. Despite today's huge library of OnDemand titles, the ability to fast-forward commercials, and a bevy of mobile options for watching content, customers are still cutting the cable cord in droves. According to Reuters, more than 400,000 American homes stopped paying for TV service between January and August alone. Of that number, Comcast lost 176,000 subscribers, Reuters reported.
Instead, consumers have turned to services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Apple TV and Amazon Instant Video for their content needs, streaming the shows they like and paying individually for shows from premium channels like HBO or Showtime, according to Wired.
Even more threatening to cable's dominance, today's mobile technology allows smartphone users to watch almost any show at any time using a 4G connection, cutting out the need for traditional subscription packages altogether.
The big picture
And yet, the television remains the favored screen in most homes, and the one most often used for group activities, said Weigert.
"We think we have the advantage," he said. "The TV is the biggest screen in the house, that's where you want to go if you have the option."
Visually, X1 is Comcast's latest attempt to win back the hearts and minds of subscribers who may have been wooed by alternatives to cable. The interface is instantly recognizable to anyone who has streamed a movie through Netflix or purchased a TV show using Amazon's Instant Video service.
Gone is the blue bubble interface, replaced by the movie poster design favored by others.
"The trend is for more visuals," Weigert said. "Seventy-five percent of people we surveyed prefer the movie poster look."
Sports fans get a huge upgrade, gaining the ability to follow one game on live TV while tracking another in real time using a handy tool.
"The sports app is hugely popular so far," Weigert said.
There's still a slight delay when changing channels, but the pause is filled with a stylish rendition of that channel's logo, rather than a black screen some other interruption.
Comcast is still working to roll out additional applications for its platform, Weigert said. As the company releases new programs and adds new ways to view content, it will hopefully bring users back to the couch.
"This will be a platform on which we continue to build," Weigert said. "This is a great box."
Comcast plans to eventually roll out the device to all of its digital cable customers.