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Xfinity TV app enticing but limited

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / March 10, 2011

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One television set in the house is enough for me but not for my cable provider. Comcast Corp. is determined to pump video into every screen in sight, including any nearby tablet computers.

The latest upgrade to Comcast’s Xfinity TV app for Apple Inc.’s iPad lets users stream thousands of hours of programming right to the tablet, any time the user is in range of a wireless Internet connection. TV junkies should not get too excited, though, as the video pickings are fairly slim. And the Xfinity TV app has plenty of irksome limitations, especially in its alternate role as the biggest TV remote control you have ever seen. Still, it is an enticing free download that gives Comcast subscribers a handy new way to view the shows they are already paying to see.

Comcast and other cable companies have offered mobile device apps for years. For instance, Verizon Communications Inc. has iPhone, iPad, and Android apps that manage video recording for subscribers to its FiOS cable network, and let the devices act as TV remote controls.

Comcast’s earliest apps benefited users of the company’s Internet and telephone services. The Xfinity Mobile app for Apple iPhones and phones running Google Inc.’s Android software lets you check your Comcast e-mail. It also serves up a list of incoming phone calls. You can see who has left voice mail on your home phone and listen to messages just by tapping the screen.

Comcast later added TV channel listings and the ability to remotely program your home’s digital video recorder, or DVR, to ensure your favorite show is always waiting for you at home.

Comcast launched its iPad app late last year. The first version lacked video streaming, instead serving up DVR programming and a sharp new interface for seeking out favorite shows. Instead of the cramped and confusing onscreen program guide, the entire iPad screen displays an orderly grid of viewing choices. If you see something you like, just touch it. Up pops a description and the option to record the show, or tune it in immediately. The earlier smartphone apps offered the same functions but never with such elegance.

But while the iPad makes a fine viewing guide, it is a lousy remote. It can switch channels by sending an Internet message to the cable box. But the iPad has no infrared transmitter, so it can’t talk to your TV set’s volume control. To boost or reduce the audio, you’ve got to grab the standard remote (although Comcast says it is working on a solution). The same problem crops up when trying to view Comcast’s array of “on-demand’’ shows. Punch one up on the iPad, and an on-screen message tells you to press “play’’ on the regular remote.

Turning an iPad into a full-fledged remote might require something like the RedEye device from ThinkFlood Inc. in Waltham. RedEye picks up Wi-Fi signals from an iPad, then translates them to the infrared light used by traditional remotes. But RedEye costs a painful $188.

While you wait for the price to come down, get caught up on your TV watching. The Xfinity iPad app will serve up about 3,000 hours of video programming. It’s especially valuable to those who subscribe to the premium channels like HBO and Showtime. Many of these channels’ most popular series, like HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire’’ and Showtime’s “Dexter,’’ are now iPad-viewable. Picture quality, while not high-definition, is decent enough for comfortable viewing.

The app isn’t nearly as much fun if you’ve only signed up for basic cable. Then you can pick through a smattering of reruns from the likes of TBS, TNT, and Cartoon Network. It’s rather like the early days of Netflix’ online movie streaming service, when there was hardly anything to see but low-budget leftovers from the 1970s. But like the selection at Netflix, the Xfinity TV roster is bound to get better. Comcast has promised to add thousands more programs in coming months. Better yet, Comcast is working on a way to let an iPad user watch any show on the cable network, although only when the user is at home.

Comcast is also promising more choices to users of Android devices. A first-generation Xfinity TV app for Android was published last week. Like the first version for iPads, the early Android edition doesn’t offer TV streaming yet, but Comcast promises to come through later this year.

They’d better hurry. Rival cable companies are also bringing TV to tablets. Verizon has tested an iPad TV viewing app, and plans to roll it out sometime in 2011.

Mobile cable isn’t exactly something for nothing; each month’s bill proves that. But Xfinity’s tablet app is still an enticing giveaway — a free TV with every iPad.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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Graphic Xfinity Mobile