PC + Digital Cable: Update

PC + Digital Cable: Update

With apologies to Maximum PC readers for my tardiness, I’m finally updating my blog regarding an important issue that I raised in the August edition of the magazine: Home-theater PCs and digital CableCARDs.

A Comcast service tech finally managed to get a home-theater PC connected to the company’s digital-cable service for me. It’s anyone’s guess as to what went wrong earlier, but you can read the sordid—and hilarious—tale here. The three home-theater rigs I reviewed in that issue included S1 Digital’s Media Center FX, Velocity Micro’s Cinemagix Grand Theater, and VoodooPC’s Aria.

As you’ll recall, the only way to get your hands on a CableCARD digital tuner is to order an entire PC preconfigured with the technology; you can’t add one to an existing rig and you can’t put one in a machine you’re building yourself. S1 Digital wasn’t offering digital CableCARD tuners back then, but they are now. VoodooPC shipped us a CableCARD system then, but doesn’t seem to offer the technology today. In any event, Velocity Micro offered their machine up for a second go-round with Comcast.

The installation process involves a long telephone song and dance during which the technician exchanges serial numbers and MAC addresses (for each card) with a company dispatcher in order to authorize and activate the cards. Once this is accomplished, you can begin enjoying protected digital TV programming on your PC.

One thing you can’t do with today’s digital CableCARD is order up pay-per-view or on-demand services or browse the cable-company’s channel guide. These limitations are due to the fact that current CableCARD technology is a one-way street from the service provider to the PC. Each of these services represents a potential revenue stream for the cable companies, which leads me to suspect that is one of the reasons they haven’t exhibited much enthusiasm for the technology (the FCC has forced their hand on this issue).

Image and sound quality on CableCARD was every bit as good as it was through the Motorola set-top box Comcast had provided me , and the Velcocity Micro's 3TB of storage and built-in Blu-ray drive trumps anything that any set-top box can offer. On other hand, I still think TiVo’s user interface is superior to that of Windows Media Center, and it’s a whole-lot cheaper.

But now that I’ve now moved into my newly constructed home, I have another problem: I live in a rural area that’s not served by any cable company. That leaves satellite TV as my only means of access to premium channels such as HBO, and there is currently no OCUR equivalent for satellite. So I’ve gone back to renting a couple of set-top DVRs from my service provider. Although Microsoft and DirecTV announced plans to collaborate on solutions for extending the reach of digital TV in the home way back in January 2006, they don’t seem to have made much progress since then. AMD, for its part, claims they’re not even working on such technology (but I suspect that’s simple misdirection on their part).

Assuming you’re a cable-TV subscriber then, the bottom-line question is this: Does a home-theater PC equipped with a digital CableCARD deliver a superior price/performance ratio compared to a digital set-top box or a CableCARD-equipped TiVo? If you’re interested only in watching and recording TV, it absolutely does not. But once you move beyond that, the PC’s value proposition becomes increasingly compelling: Put a PC in your living room and you can play games, surf the web, watch Blu-ray movies, listen to CDs and Internet radio, view digital photos, create your own movies, and so much more.

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TheGreatPumpkin

I work for a Cable Company. I think I know what might have changed that let the cable cards work this time and not before. In July the FCC mandated that cable providors allow customers to use their own digital equipment to receive digital services. Actualy, it took effect in July, it was mandated 11 years ago. After July 1st (the effective date), we implemented the FCC's Separable security program. Separable security separates the authorization from the boxes internal circuitry. see : http://broadcastengineering.com/news/separable-security-mandate-0702/ Obviously I dont know for sure this happend, but it is an idea.

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mattboyd33

If I have a Velocity Micro PC with the OCUR cards and eventually upgrade the optical drive to Blu-Ray or HDDVD, do you know if the cable cards will still work? Or will me opening up the machine somehow "break" the chain of DRM requirements that allow only OEM's to provide OCUR card slots?

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