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CICIORA’S CORNER - Personal Digital Transition

Sat, 07/31/2010 - 8:25pm
Walt S. Ciciora Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues

A continuation.

You may recall that my last column discussed my experience with trying to adapt to an all-digital television world. I have about eight analog television receivers in my home (and, of course, some digital receivers) and several more VCRs and other NTSC devices. These things seem to live forever! Getting rid of them would constitute a large ecological insult to the town dump, to say nothing of my just being opposed to waste.

Walt CicioraContinuing with the theme from the last column, I stopped at several more television receiver retailers and asked two questions: 1) Do you have any digital cable set-top boxes for sale, and 2) Do you have any television receivers with CableCard slots? I would have asked a third question (Do any of the digital cable set-top boxes have a CableCard slot?), but I never got beyond the first two questions.

Regarding the first question, in most cases, I was directed to a pile of broadcast digital set-top boxes. Nowhere was I shown a cable digital set-top. Frequently, I was greeted with a blank stare, indicating no knowledge about what I was talking about. Regarding the television receivers with CableCard slots, I got a similar answer, along with some insisting that such products aren’t made.

I also spent some more time on the Web searching for these products. They appear to be “vaporware.” I only found one television receiver with a listed CableCard slot. It had two negatives. First, it was a projection set, which is not what I am looking for, and second, the listing came with a discouraging note: “Currently unavailable.”

When I Googled “TV receiver with CableCard slot,” I got a long list. But instead of a CableCard slot, these receivers had slots for SD cards to view digital pictures from a still camera and a long list of other features, such as an Internet connection (sometimes with Wi-Fi) for access to Internet movie services (such as from Netflix, Amazon and others), as well as a Skype camera and microphone. They had all of this broad capability, but not for CableCards.

The closest I could come to a digital cable set-top box was from TiVo. The TiVo settop boxes do come with a CableCard slot, and TiVo’s website has a nice discussion on the CableCard and some advice on its use. The older TiVo boxes have two CableCard slots, and the newest model requires a multi-stream CableCard (M-Card). This allows the recording of two different channels while watching either one of them or something previously recorded.

Given the insistence from the consumer electronics industry on these issues, it’s surprising how little has come to pass. For years, the consumer electronics industry has complained about proprietary scrambling forcing the use of set-top boxes that defeat the features of their tuner and remote control systems. They also lusted after the set-top box business. The CableCard was to be the solution that allowed them into both of these markets. About the only significant impact has been the requirement that cable-supplied set-top boxes include the extra and unnecessary expense of a CableCard slot to “level the playing field.” Strange! They seem to have abandoned the field.

For many years, I have had a couple of TiVo boxes connected to agile analog modulators, which piped those signals from the first-floor television room to the upstairs bedroom. A couple of IR extenders converted the upstairs infrared remote control signals to radio frequency upstairs, received these RF signals downstairs and re-converted them back to IR to control the TiVo boxes. This has worked well over the years, and I thought I’d just expand the system to include the new digital cable settop boxes from the cable company. While RadioShack still sells the IR extenders, it no longer sells the agile modulators.

So I went back to the Internet and found a company that makes multiple agile modulators for home use. They also make an IR extender that communicates over cable and an eight-output amplifier. I bought two of the four channel/agile modulators, intending to add the front door video camera and a camera to monitor my wife’s horses. That one will likely use a consumer-grade microwave relay from the barn to the house. So now all of the old analog TVs in the house have eight analog channels to choose from. This includes a DVR from the cable company, a non-DVR digital box from the cable company and a TiVo satellite receiver. Later, the video cameras will be added, and probably a TiVo box with a CableCard. Just a word about the TiVo satellite receiver: I feel it’s important to have experience with “the competition.”

Also, the satellite service has an equestrian channel that is important to my wife but not carried on cable. I did some expert witness work on behalf of a satellite company against a lame patent that would have been used against cable if it hadn’t been stopped. (Interesting how you can justify almost anything if you just try hard enough.)

E-Mail: wciciora@ieee.org

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