Fear And Loathing Over Comcast All For Naught.

Comcast came in on Tuesday and while I haven't been able to bury myself in my theater room as much as I'd like I've seen enough to know that my fear and loathing regarding Comcast's HD image quality was for naught. I'm not 100% clear on where Comcast stacks up with DirecTV in HD image quality yet in absolute terms, but I've seen enough to know that it's far from the disaster I'd feared. But, that's with me going into the set-top box's service menu and double-checking the settings to get them right. Lemme explain.

I'm now in the Seattle area and Comcast brought out two Motorola DTC3416 I set-top boxes, which is a new high-speed, low-drag HD DVR. While both of my boxes came properly configured for 1080i output, both were set up with audio compression set to "heavy." While that's easy to find and change in the user Menu, the video output information is not. It requires entering a service menu by turning the box on and then hitting the Power and Menu buttons consecutively (and relatively fast but not too fast- it took me a couple of tries to get the timing right, but then I have no natural rhythm whatsoever). I confirmed both my boxes are sending out 1080i.

I'm guessing that the poor images I saw from Comcast HD previously, which were really bad, were more than likely set-top boxes defaulted for lower output resolutions than HD. In addition to choosing 720p or 1080i output, both 480i and 480p outputs are also selectable in the service menu. And as for the existence of the service menu itself, I only learned of it by asking the Comcast tech directly when he was setting up the service. I didn't receive a user manual for the set-top box, just a generic booklet about Comcast digital cable and Internet service. I understand that this is complicated stuff and that Comcast wants a seamless experience for the unititiated, but those in the know should be able to verify their video output settings in a simpler fashion.

So far, while the menus on these aren't quite as spiffy as what I was seeing on DirecTV's HR20 HD DVR, much of the functionality and connectivity I liked on the HR20 is here on these comcast boxes. Specifically, it has HDMI out, when you call up the menu with your recorded shows a graphic tells you what percentage of disc space has been used, and it has a SATA port. The latter, as I understand it, allows the connection of an external serial ATA hard drive to expand recording space exponentially. According to the Comcast tech who came out, my box currently has a 60GB hard drive. I'm about to pull the trigger on a 500GB SATA drive for just $135. I'll report here if that SATA port is active and if this works as I hope it will.

One thing I miss is the "native" output of the HR20, which as the name implies passes each channel's signal at the native rate of the broadcast. 720p signals from ESPN and Fox are sent as 720p with no upconversion, as are 480i signals from the standard def channels. Since I have superior video processing in both the Anthem AVM 50 pre/pro I'm using and my Marantz VP-11S1 projector, I prefer to let these devices do any signal conversions. With the Comcast boxes you must manually set 720p or 1080i output in the service menu mentioned above if you've want your HD in HD.

Back to the image quality, I'm not convinced I'm seeing quite as sharp an image on Discovery HD Theater, Showtime HD and Universal HD as I saw from DirecTV on the HR20 (which is noticeably sharper than the previous generation DirecTV HD TiVo), but HBO HD looks crisper overall so far. I've set the DVR up to record a number of movies I saw in HD over DirecTV previously, including Batman Begins and a couple of movies I watched on HBO HD and Showtime HD, so those comparisons should help. But nevertheless, even if I conclude that DirecTV looked a little better here or there, there's nothing here that's going to keep me asleep at night instead of watching movies on Comcast HD. And hopefully Comcast will hook us up with HDNet and HDNet Movies ASAP. Not only does HDNet Movies have superb image quality, the programming is tops- they get great movies, real movie fan movies.

One last note, I'm also hugely impressed with Comcast's On Demand features so far. First thing Tuesday I punched up the On Demand menu and found a boxing match from HBO that had aired the pervious Saturday and that I'd missed. I've also found some HD movie trailers and other fun stuff including some nature shows for my kid to watch. Good stuff so far, so this is helping to dry my DirecTV tears quite a bit. Stay tuned as I keep going with this, and look for some preliminary reports on the Apple TV box, which is in house and streaming music and video from my Mac G5 to my home theater...

PS- for those of you wondering about the monkey, I did a Google Images search on Comcast and this came up with a caption of "Comcast Monkey." Reminded me of me for some reason.

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