Here’s why CableCARD isn’t mainstream yet

I’m in the process of setting up a second CableCARD-equipped system here. Sounds insane, I know, but there’s a good reason. One system is for our household’s everyday TV/music/picture/video activities. It does not get beta software installed on it, period. I manage it like an appliance and do the absolute minimum of tinkering or tweaking with it. That second system is the one I’ll be using when Windows 7 betas begin appearing, and I’ll be able to tinker with it and even break it without blacking out the TV in the living room.

I set up that first system about a year ago, and it’s been running smoothly after we got past the rough spots. I figured that this one would be easier, but sadly, that’s not turning out to be the case. Yes, the hardware has improved, and the software support is much better, but the system is still complex, and there’s no way around that.

So, yesterday afternoon I spent just over an hour on the phone with my friendly local Comcast rep (and there is not a word of irony in that statement – she really is awesome). When we finally finished, the CableCARD tuner and its card were registered in Comcast’s database but I still wasn’t getting a signal. I actually tracked down part of the problem this morning (I needed one particular software update) and the tuner is now accepting analog cable signals and should be able to tune in premium channels when it gets another “hit” from the Comcast head end. (Update: Yep, that’s all it took. CableCARD tuner now working perfectly. The installer will be out on Thursday to set up a second tuner, and hopefully it will go more quickly.)

This is research for me, and my expectations for success were low going in, so I didn’t find it overly frustrating. But I would not wish the experience of CableCARD setup on the average TV viewer. Not yet.

The biggest problem in troubleshooting is that it’s impossible to locate where the system is breaking down. Consider all the pieces involved:

  • Windows Vista has to be installed, and digital cable support has to be enabled.
  • Drivers and firmware for the cable tuner have to be up-to-date (my new HP system, delivered in late August 2008, included two-year-old drivers for the ATI tuner, and the tuner’s firmware was also woefully out of date).
  • The digital tuner has to be set up in Media Center, a process that might require additional software downloads and can be thwarted by third-party firewalls.
  • The cable company has to physically deliver a CableCARD.
  • After inserting the CableCARD, the user or an installer has to read back the card serial number and the Host ID and Data ID from the tuner to a technician at the remote office, who then enables access.
  • The remote technician sends a series of three “hits” to the system.

And then you wait. Could be 5 minutes, could be 45. If the system doesn’t work, how do you know what’s gone wrong? Is it a bad CableCARD? Is the tuner itself defective? Is there a missing DRM component? Did the hits not arrive? Is a firewall getting in the way?

I now have enough experience with these touchy devices to make the troubleshooting go smoother, and the Vista Media Center forums at The Green Button help a lot, too (like this thread, which offers a great snapshot of the frustration and success involved in setting up one of these systems). But still…

My Comcast contact says she hasn’t worked with any other Media Center owners but has had plenty of experience with TiVo HDs. Because those are closed boxes, some of the problems I listed above aren’t applicable. But still, she tells me, they have plenty of CableCARD issues with TiVo devices, and they’ve learned to send installers out with a sack full of CableCARDs each time, because they don’t always work. (And I didn’t mention the difference between S-Cards and M-Cards in the list above, or multi-stream cards, or SDV, or any of the other issues that can get in the way.)

In the long run, this issue will resolve itself as IP-based services become more popular and the need for content delivered directly over cable or satellite diminishes. But that will take years and years to reach critical mass. In the short term, I think the best way to solve this issue is for someone, maybe even Microsoft, to create a Windows-powered device that’s designed and built from the ground up to be a digital media device: headless, quiet, packed with storage, with all drivers and firmware installed from the start, and not intended for use as a general-purpose PC. Hmmm. Maybe I need to start a company.

17 thoughts on “Here’s why CableCARD isn’t mainstream yet

  1. Ed, I am still waiting on the CableCard for my system, and I have a feeling that I am going to using alot of blue words before it is all over with. Comcast, has always been one of the better cable companies out there when compared to Charter, and Mediacom.

    Mediacom, my current provider, has been nothing but a pain from the first time I had to deal with them. Last week I took half a day off from work to meet their installer. The old someone has to be there between 1 and 5, that they always tell you. So I waited around, and at 3:30 called to reconfirm. At 4:45 with no installer in sight, I called back and was put on hold for about 20 minutes. They then informed me that they had cancelled the appointment. They didn’t call and tell me they had cancelled the appointment, they just went out and cancelled it. You can imagine my overall customer satisfaction at that point. So then I asked why I was cancelled, and they then started the run around and was put on hold again. Forty-five minutes later, they hung up on me.

    I called again. This time I was put through to another CSR, and was told that they cancelled the appointment because they did not offer CableCard in my area. When the CSR checked the availability list, my area did offer it. Then she checked with her supervisor, and then came back and told me that it wasn’t offered in my area. That’s when I proceeded to inform the CSR, that if they are offering Digital Cable in my area, they must offer CableCard. This arguement went on a few more minutes and I was transfered up to a supervisor. The supervisor then contacted a technician, and came back and explained that my local office doesn’t stock CableCards and one would have to be shipped to them and programmed. They would then contact me when it was available.

    I am going to call them again today, to see if once again my CableCard is ready. I expect that the local technicians will not be able to program the card properly, and I will go through this insanity once again.

    Don’t worry, I will have this article and the green button open to do troubleshooting when this does happen.

    I do have a quandry though at this point. I am pretty sure that I am going to have to give up on a DCT system. Should I make the switch to satellite or go with a set top box system from the cable company from hell? . Besides the Green Button, do you know of any other good articles about Satellite and the Media Center Experience?


  2. Except for the Windows part there is already a box just like the one you want: TiVo. If the box is turnkey it doesn’t really matter what OS is on it. You’re buying the functionality, not the OS. With the price of a TiVo box at $250, I think any OEM would be hard-pressed to pay a license fee to Microsoft and stay competitive with that.

    We just got two TiVos with dual cablecards on Verizon FIOS in August. After suffering for a year using the Verizon DVR we couldn’t take it anymore. The service guy came and set up the cards; Verizon doesn’t let customers set up cable boxes or cards themselves. He only walked in with four cards, two for each box, and didn’t need to do any trial-and-error swapping. It was all working before he walked out the door and took about 45 minutes.

    Whatever problems exist seem like they may be on Comcast’s side, which wouldn’t surprise me. We switched from Comcast using a non-HD TiVo to Verizon a little over a year ago. Comcast’s service guys were smart and friendly but their cable boxes and software were horrible. Really, the Verizon DVR wasn’t much better. There’s too much lowest-bidder action going on there, and no understanding of UI design at all.

    We are glad to be back with the TiVos; since we left they’ve added a bunch of great stuff like Swivel Search and transfer between boxes. I thought about going with Media Center or MythTV, but the last thing I wanted was another couple of computers to maintain.

  3. Dave, I covered this last week. The cost of the TiVo system is high, and for me the music functionality via the TiVo box is simply unacceptable. Music is a big reason why I have this system, and with a music collection the size of ours, TiVo isn’t an option. If I wanted to have a separate box for music and another for TV I would just get the cable company DVR.

    And if I didn’t insist on CableCARD tuners this system would be ridiculously easy to set up and maintain.

    But to each his own, and if price were not an issue and TV were the only factor, then for the average consumer I would rank TiVo HD above Media Center, for sure, simply because it’s an appliance and not a complex system. But it sure is expensive!

  4. I recently started playing with Windows Media Center on Vista and it’s very impressive. I’m still waiting for DIRECTV to have satellite cards though.

  5. Man, I think you’re just nuts to want to get into the hardware business. 😉 But just for funsies at what price point do you think you will be offering these systems?

  6. I am, sadly, still waiting for some kind of SDV solution, as all of the new HD channels from my provider (Time-Warner) are being rolled out that way, or so it seems. Has anyone heard anything from Microsoft/ATI about a solution for that? I had hoped the integration ban would stop this kind of nonsense, but I was clearly wrong. Doesn’t SDV violate the spirit of the ban? I remember seeing something about some kind of Motorola box that you could plug into TiVo (for example) to enable two-way communication…what ever happened to that? Let’s not even get started on tru2way…you are right when you say this stuff just isn’t ready for the typical consumer. I have too many friends who don’t even know which (physical) cable to buy and have to call me from the store or get behind their TVs to see what connectors they have.

  7. Ed-

    I’m completely empathize with the issues you face. They are exactly what I tackle every day at my new media center company. I witnessed too many times these nightmare scenerios when I was at Velocity Micro, and I knew there had to be a better way.

    Well, a year later and I have 100% satisfaction with my CableCARD media servers. That’s because they are locked down and built from the ground up to do nothing but run Media Center as it was supposed to. It wasn’t about the hardware, it was about the OS load and more importantly, the ecosystem it was installed in. My company is owned by an A/V integrator, so we come across issues in the field before our dealers do. Right now HDMI has been our biggest headache, and I guess you can say that’s a victory for us if CableCARD is a distant second.

    Since we’re “slamming trunks” like our dealer network, we know how to properly train them in their own environment how to install and service these machines.

    So far it’s worked out very well. We sell a line of very expensive media servers to people spending six figures on their home theaters. They may have never even seen Vista before, much less know what Media Center IS. But when shown what it can do, they are willing to write large checks.

    So then it’s up to our dealers to make sure everything is 100% by the time they leave the job site. Because, like every other component in the rack, the customer just wants to sit down with his remote and enjoy his toys at the end of the day, not deal with the headaches that we’re all so familiar with.

    It can be done, and I would suggest that we have done it.


    Chris Morley

  8. MCE is hands down better than Tivo, but not for the hassles and price in comparison to a $300 Tivo, or a $5/month DVR.

    That’s why I think that somebody needs to develop a closed system MCE HD machine…only then will MCE really take off for mass use. And I’m not talking about those $1,500 on up Niveus or Lifeware machines.

  9. I think there’s more to it than painful setup. For many enthusiasts CableCards restrictive DRM kills it as an option. Personally, I find the HDPVR to a much better option to record HD cable (of course it doesn’t work with Media Center).

  10. I don’t even want to try CableCard because of all the DRM nonsense… Too bad I can’t watch HD, but hey what can you do? It’s as if it wasn’t even available for me… I’m living like it is 1999 🙂

    Guess I’ll use all that time I spare to read and make programs…
    The day HD gets rid of DRM, I’m buying! 🙂

  11. Good research and reporting, Ed. You should be granted honorary membership in the “Not Ready for Primetime Players” for your efforts.

    My big video acquisition this year was a $12 (with federal coupon) digital converter box for a 13″ analog TV in my kitchen! I wish they made those boxes in white to match my TV and the rest of the appliances.

  12. Hey Ed,

    Very timely article for me, I’m considering delving into a cablecard equipped system and this was a great read. I do have a question, HP only sell single tuners, in your article it said you were going to be installing a second. Where did you get the additional tuner if HP won’t sell you an extra? Dell does sell dual tuners, but I specd out a system on their site and it is roughly $500 more than the deals HP is currently running, which is quite a bit more for one extra tuner. Keep up the great work!

  13. Johnny, I have two tuners that I ordered with my original Dell system way back when. You can buy a second tuner on eBay or through Sony, which sells them as a standalone product. I’ll post the link when I run across it.

  14. In my T-W, they send an installer out. There is one guy who travels with a lap top that has the cable card access program on it and he sat at my computer, read the numbers and input them directly into the head end from my living room. Then he could send the hits and we could watch what he did and when it came in. After 20 minutes he had both tuners registered and working.

    The real answer to this will be in a revision to the procedure to setup the tuners–maybe a chat link you could send the numbers on, etc. You can send automated hits on T-W with the phone menu so you can re-authorize if necessary without a service call or other intervention.

    Besides the security constrains, T-W heere at least wants to make sure the system works when they leave. My VMC was the first cable card install that they did in this district although there are a number of tivos and CC tvs.

    The next hurdle is SDV which MS says they’re working on as well as relaxed DRM for cable card recordings.

Comments are closed.