My thoughts on CableCard

I would love to get some feedback on if people are actually using CableCard in the comments. Below are just my thoughts on CableCard.

CableCard has been around since 1996 when the FCC told cable companies they had to offer it. It was a few years for them to get the standards and a few more years for third parties to access it. It is now the end of 2007 and there are still few good options for CableCard. Most cable companies can give you a CableCard which will allow you not to use their set-top-box, but use just your TV instead. I find this very convenient because I don’t really want an extra box being used as the middle man to give me content. While this setup seems to work alright there are still issues with certain TVs, On Demand services, and premium content. Most people opt for the set-top-box in frustration with the services that don’t work. There is also an issue that most TVs don’t include a CableCard slot. Just do a quick search over at Best Buy and look for TVs that are digital cable ready, there are some but not a lot. And the option is usually only included on expensive TVs.

I can’t blame the TV manufactures for the lack of CableCard. Most people don’t even know that analog TV is coming to an end. They sure aren’t going to know what a CableCard is or how to use it. But the real benefit for CableCard isn’t in the TV. It does eliminate the set-top-box but most people don’t mind a set-top-box. The advantage for CableCard comes in the form of people’s own set-top-box, the Home Theater PC.

A Home Theater PC or Media Center PC has a lot of potential. It isn’t for everyone as it generally involves setting up and maintaining a computer system connected to your TV. Before satellite and digital cable became so popular it was a great way to watch, pause, and record TV. Analog TV didn’t have encryption to stop you from doing whatever you wanted with it. But those days are over. Unless you want over the air HD you will need to buy an encrypted HD package from your cable provider. Maybe your a sports fan so you buy the sports package which is also encrypted. CableCard on your Home Theater PC would allow you to watch, pause and record this encrypted content. Sounds great, where would someone sign up for such a service. Well don’t get to excited because you will need to buy a new computer that comes with CableCard. The computer you built yourself won’t support CableCard and probably won’t anytime soon.

CableCards for PCs are only available through select retailers and not to be sold separate from the computer. There are good reasons for this and none of them are good for the consumer interested in technology. Below are the things required for CableCard to work on your computer.
1. graphics card that supports HDCP encryption
2. monitor that supports HDCP encryption
3. at least 5.1 surround sound card
4. a special Windows Vista install that includes the activation code
5. and a special computer bios

Basically since it’s hooked up to a computer they treat you as a criminal and lock it down so tightly it doesn’t work worth a damn. CableLabs also has the information and your computer will ping their servers to make sure that your activation code and bios are correct. If they’re not then no more CableCard for you. I feel like I should have the local police sitting next to me to make sure I’m not doing anything wrong. I’ll ask permission before I pause the TV when the phone rings.

All jokes aside you can see that CableCard doesn’t look that promising even for a Home Theater PC. So what is left for CableCard? I don’t think CableCard is going to last much longer without some significant changes. People that are interested in using a Home Theater PC have already come up with ways to get the digital content on them without using CableCard. The easiest way is to use IR blaster to change the channel on the set-top-box. This setup works pretty well and doesn’t involve as many headaches as CableCard. There are also people reporting that some Motorola set-top-boxes will send the HD signal out of the box in clear QAM.

I really think that CableCard, an idea that started in 1996, is way out of date. Technology has passed it up but they are still trying to make it work. It’s kinda like Cable companies. They are way out of date but they try to make their old analog programing hold strong. Shouldn’t if you order digital cable you get digital cable?

I don’t want to just talk bad about a product without giving some suggestions. Below is what I think can be done to make things better.

1. You can’t have a special bios and special Windows Vista install. Most people that you are marketing this technology too build their own stuff. Make it appeal to more people. I’m fine with hardware requirements.

2. Set-top-boxes suck. I already have remotes and enough things under my TV. I don’t need more. Why not have an authorization CableCard at the entry of the house. It will give the house access to the content I paid for. If you want On Demand you will need a box but that’s it. That way every TV in the house can have the content and only one device at the entry of the house for the cable company to enable/disable features.

3. If you set on using CableCard for Home Theater PCs then cut out most of your security. Why not use a small water mark on recorded TV that could be used to identify files that were uploaded to the internet. Or go with Apple’s strategy and put some identification in the file itself.

4. Buy a tuner for your Home Theater PC that supports clear QAM. My cable provider sends local HD in the clear so you can still record that in HD. And really my locals is what I record most of the time.

Let me know what you think.

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