August 9, 2007

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One less box on your TV
Supposedly, eventually
By John ďjaQĒ Andrews† jandrews@hippopress.com

If youíve been shopping for televisions or media-centric computers lately, you might have noticed an odd-sounding new feature being touted. Itís called CableCARD.

No, itís not a plaintively emotional song from pop sensation The Fray. Itís an interface that will allow ó in theory, at least ó your TV to connect to any cable system without the need for a cumbersome set-top box supplied by the cable company. Essentially, as of July 1, all cable companies were required by federal law to pump signals that could be read by a CableCARD and not just their proprietary cable boxes.

I say ďin theoryĒ because anything that allows consumers more control of and access to content at the expense of media companiesí control tends to have a hard time in the marketplace. There were lawsuits over the very concept of VCRs when they first came out, and the music and movie industries are diligently going after fans who use or copy content in a way companies didnít think to sell them. That July 1 deadline came after multiple delays, and support for the standard is still spotty.

You already know what a CableCARD interface looks like if youíve ever used a laptop computer. Itís the same as the PCMCIA or PC Card slots on most laptops, and indeed, thatís part of what makes it so versatile. By creating a standard that fits right into a well-established hardware market, the consumer electronics industry ensured that people could start using CableCARD even if they donít have the latest hardware. Itís also cheaper to manufacture because assembly lines are already set up for it.

As for software support, well, that news isnít quite as good. If youíre planning to record high-definition cable shows on your computer, Windows XP wonít do ó youíll need Vista. If youíre going the TiVo route, youíll need one of their latest Series 3 models, and even then, if you want to record two shows at the same time, youíll need two separate CableCARDs.

The earliest CableCARDs were also limited to one-way communication, which meant they could receive all that blessed digital cable but not send anything. That meant no interactive program guides or Pay-Per-View. That might have worked for our grandparents and their three grainy channels, but we demand more. More!

Devices meeting a newer CableCARD 2.0 standard are starting to hit the market, but both the card and whatever device youíre sticking it in will need to be 2.0 in order to reap the rewards.

If youíre willing to wait just a little bit longer, thereís a technology on the horizon called Downloadable Conditional Access System (DCAS). Instead of a physical card, a device can just download a small program and run it to accept the cable companyís signal. Of course you canít actually use this technology yet, so you might want to stick to your grandparentsí TV a little while longer after all.