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in late August 2008, included two-year-old drivers for the ATI tuner, and the tuner’s firmware was also woefully out of date).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.