I’ve had a TiVo for about two and a half years now and it definitely did change the nature of my personal entertainment, probably forever. There is no way I will watch television without a PVR/DVR sort of device again. The TiVo is far from perfect, but it does provide an overall excellent interface to what is actually a fairly complex technology underneath. There is one important thing my TiVo is unable to do, though. It can’t record Comcast’s HD channels.

Since I got my HD-capable television I have increasingly wanted to watch as much HD content as possible. It is difficult to go back after experiencing HD video with digital surround sound audio. Split between the TiVo interface and the Comcast supplied HD DVR (dual tuner) service, I decided to go with the one that could record the stuff I wanted to watch. I don’t think I’m the only one who would have made this decision, and I’m pretty sure TiVo knows that. TiVo has signed a deal with Comcast to provide them with a TiVo branded DVR device for use with their service. Knowing that, I figured I could deal with the Comcast DVR interface for a little while even if it really sucked.

Well, now I’ve been using the Comcast DVR almost exclusively for a couple of weeks and I’ve developed some opinions about it. It’s a very usable device, but there are some thorny parts of the interface and some annoyances with how it operates. The main differences I’ve noticed seem to center around the fact that the TiVo is a PVR first and foremost, while the Comcast box is a cable box first and then a PVR second. That makes sense, but it takes some getting used to after a TiVo. Also, there are some inexplicably confusing and strange aspects to the way the interface and menu system work.

Here’s a good example that I think applies to both of my gripes at the same time. There is a ‘My DVR’ button for the Comcast DVR. I assumed it would work like the TiVo button on a TiVo, but it doesn’t really at all. The My DVR button takes you to see your list of recorded shows, and that’s it. You can sort the list by Date, Channel, or Title. To go to your list of series recordings (Season Pass in TiVo-speak), you push the ‘Menu’ button once which brings up the quick access menu, and you select ‘DVR’ from there. That somewhat oddly takes you to a menu where you can choose either ‘DVR Recordings’ (ie, where the My DVR button takes you) or ‘DVR Schedule’ where you can view upcoming scheduled recordings on a date grid, view your list of series recordings in order of priority, or create a manual recording. It is pretty well organized, but why is there no option to create a series recording from that screen? That befuddles me. To create a series recording, you go back to the quick access menu and choose ‘Find’, search for the show and then create a series recording. I probably am TiVo-trained now, but I think it’d be more convenient to be able to pick Search directly from the DVR area instead of having to go back to the menu. It’s not a huge difference, but it still trips me up.

The cable box interface itself is pretty good, but the DVR part feels a little tacked on. From the quick access menu where you can choose ‘DVR’, you can also choose ‘HD’ to explore available HD content (very nice!), ‘Movies’ to see movies playing, ‘Sports’ for sports, etc. It’s pretty handy! Also, the currently playing recording or tv channel continues playing in the upper right-hand corner of the screen while you fiddle with the programming guide, the menus, or the DVR component. TiVo should take some notes from that!

Overall, the Comcast DVR gets the job done and I’m gradually forgetting about the TiVo. The TiVo interface is more intuitive and well-designed, but the Comcast interface is usable and has some nice features I’ve gotten used to. Being able to record and playback HD movies from HBO HD with the full digital soundtrack pushes the Comcast DVR over in my book. TiVo needs to provide a very compelling product for Comcast subscribers in mid to late 2006 or they could be facing a long hard decline from relevance as these competing DVR products mature. At the end of the day, it’s the content that people want and they’ll put up with a lot to get it. TiVo’s interface lead is not enough to keep them going for long.