Comcast Accessible Talking TV Guide Review

Three cheers for the Comcast X1 Accessible Talking TV Guide DVR!

Released as a beta here in Pittsburgh on their X1 operating system in late 2014, this audible guide and menu system, available on Comcast set top boxes and digital video recorders (DVRs), grants near full usability to vision impaired and blind television watchers to the vast world of cable television content.  It’s like a screen reader for your cable TV service!  Plus, since Comcast is building this voice enabled television feature into their X1 Platform, blind subscribers will be able to enjoy breezy access to upcoming X1 product offerings including various Internet and cloud-based products. Comcast says that this is the first television interface that is voice guided, and is being rolled out in our area (Pittsburgh, PA).  We noticed that it works on our X1 DVR but its version indicates that the system is still in beta testing.  . As of 2015-01-06, the talking guide beta has been released in the Pittsburgh market.  We had to upgrade to the X1 platform DVR previously, so that we’d be ready for this feature, when released.  We’ve set up program recording schedules, played recordings, fast-forwarded and rewound through them, and deleted them, all without relying at all on the visual screen prompts.

Benefits, Features, Advantages, and Pros of the Comcast Talking Guide

Makes digital video recorders blind accessible.  Enables sightless and low-sight users to hear and navigate the Comcast xFinity program guides that heretofore, have only been available visually on the television screen. Comcast solicited the American Council for the Blind for input and feedback during product development.

First voice prompted DVR   system in the cable TV industry.

Extends DVR programming and setup features to blind users.  DVR scheduled recording listings, commands, and other settings can also be heard and changed now.

Highly intelligible voice prompts.  Clear female voice reads the channel listings, on-demand movie listings, and information about specific programs, such as descriptions, and program ratings from Rotten Tomatoes and Common Sense Media.

Design based on much blind user input.  The development of this functionality was overseen by a blind viewer, who is intimately familiar with how best to engineer accessibility features.

Talking guide is a free service.  Free to current X1 platform xFinity DVR subscribers, although if you’re not currently an X1 user, you may have to pay an installation fee and a monthly DVR rental fee in order to upgrade to X1 in your home.

On-remote access.  The feature can be turned on simply by pressing the A button twice, on the X1 remote control.

Comcast has an accessibility help telephone line.  The number is 1-855-308-9989.  They offer assistance here specifically to blind and vision impaired customers.

Stations and options easily navigated.  The system describes each station in the visual guide as you scroll through it with the UP, DOWN, LEFT, and RIGHT arrow keys.

Remote control accessible.  You can work the system via the voice prompts from your easy chair.  The voice comes from your TV, and program audio is reduced in volume (ducking) when the system makes an announcement.

Disadvantages, Limitations, Problems, and Cons of the Comcast Talking Guide

No audible percentage-complete indications.  When fast forwarding or rewinding through a recorded program the system does not announce how far your are into the program.  This would however, be a handy feature, to facilitate fast jumping around within recorded shows, and reduce frustrations when you find, upon releasing the control, that you’ve way overshot or undershot the desired program position. 

Voice is softer in volume than program material.  We’d prefer the voice to be as loud as, or slightly louder than the TV program audio.  As it is, we sometimes must raise the television’s volume to comfortably hear the prompts.  Then, we must lower it again when returning to program listening.  Also, the program audio is COMPLETELY muted while the DVR speaks.  However, being able to hear it a reduced volume during speaking would be useful.  Ultimately, being able to control ducking parameters like how loud the guide voice is as well as how loud the program audio is while the guide voice is talking, would allow blind users to set each of these levels for greatest effectiveness for them.

Needs improved accessible guide search feature.  Currently, the search features in the on-screen program guide are not easily accessed via this audio television guide feature.  The speech settings themselves are not yet fully accessible either. But future enhancements to this product promise to address this little shortcoming.

May require equipment upgrades.  Only available on Comcast set top boxes and DVRs running the X1 operating system.  So you may have to upgrade your equipment if you got your current cable equipment prior to January, 2014, when Comcast began distributing X1 boxes.  You’ll also have to learn how to use a new remote (the X1 Remote).

Learning curve for cable technicians.  A cable guy came on 2014-11-20 to install the X1 DVR.  The installation went well.  However, the technician did not know how to activate the talking guide.  So, he could not instruct us on how to activate the accessibility features.  He called his supervisor for guidance, but the supervisor seemed not to know about it either.  Nonetheless, all folks were helpful, understanding, and eager to work with us to get the system up and running in our home.  These are symptoms of a very new product that has not yet been completely rolled out and taught to the techs.  But we expect this problem to resolve itself as the technology matures.

Some menu items are not spoken.  This may fixed in subsequent beta and production release versions of the product.

Slow speaking.  We’ve noticed when scrolling through channel listings in the guide as well as configuration options, that the speech can lag what’s displayed on the screen by as much as ten to fifteen seconds.  So rapid navigation relying only on the voice prompts, is not possible yet.

Talking guide instructions could be improved.  While we’ve found some introductory video tutorials that specifically address how to use the talking TV guide, our blind users just starting out with the X1 DVR required sighted assistance for several days, until they learned how to interpret the voice prompts (or lack of voice prompts).

No voice prompt on exit key.  The system gives no audible indication when you press the exit key, that you have in fact, exited a menu, recordings list, or the guide.

Our Rating

Some close blind friends signed up for this within minutes of first hearing about Comcast’s accessible DVR and television service, and are quite appreciative of Comcast product managers and engineers, for seeing this difficult project through to completion.  The service appears to address the most egregious accessibility complications on DVRs for the blind, enabling them for the first time to manage their DVRs and set top boxes, without sighted assistance.  Independence.  This represents a major advance in ease-of-use of DVRs, which themselves have been commonplace in the average cable TV consumer’s home for nearly a decade now.  Very happy now that vision challenged users can now enjoy the best features of DVR recording and cable TV watching.  We therefore rate the Talking TV Guide at 95 out of 100.  We’re hoping that other cable products, like Verizon FiOS, Tivo, and Atlantic Broadband DVR service, will follow suit and eventually offer this feature on their platforms as well.  Thanks, Comcast!  You’ve definitely set a new accessibility standard with this offering. We’ll add more to this piece as we become familiar with this service and Comcast rolls out future upgrades to it.

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Revision History

  • 2015-12-16: Added more appropriate tags.
  • 2015-10-06: Added appropriate tags.
  • 2015-01-21: Suggested allowing users to set program and voice volume levels independently for more intelligible and useful audio ducking effects.
  • 2015-01-12: Updated content to reflect that the talking guide product has been released as beta in Pittsburgh, and to document our initial experiences with it now that it’s working.
  • 2014-12-17: Tweaked content.  Added whitespace for clarity.
  • 2014-11-20: Added details of the X1 DVR installation experience.
  • 2014-11-13: Originally published this piece.