CableCards Let You Lose Your Cable Box

Boxes, boxes, boxes--ugh. Between your digital cable box, DVD player, home theater tuner, digital video recorder, and trusty old VCR, it's difficult to keep a home entertainment center looking sleek. Some newer TVs have special slots that let digital cable subscribers eliminate a box--but you may not want to chuck your cable box just yet.

How They Work

The size of a credit card but slightly thicker, a CableCard slides into a special slot in a CableCard-ready TV and handles authentication and decoding functions.

Since July 1, under an agreement between the consumer electronics and cable industries and the FCC, cable providers must offer CableCards to customers who request them for use with the CableCard-ready sets that are already available or about to hit the market.

CableCards can save you a few bucks: Monthly card-rental fees hover in the $2 vicinity, compared with $5 to $13 for digital set-top boxes. So what's not to like?

The big flaw is that today's CableCards are not capable of two-way communications: They can receive instructions but cannot make requests or send information. That means you can't enjoy interactive services: no video on demand, pay-per-view programming, or interactive program guide.

If you're using a TiVo or ReplayTV DVR, you might not be pleased: The IR blaster technology that these boxes use with digital set-top boxes (it allows the DVR to change channels according to your recording requests) may not work with your CableCard set. At press time, TiVo officials said they were talking to TV manufacturers to figure out which sets can work with existing TiVos. Keep an eye on TiVo's Web site for updates.

A Fix in Sight

Companies such as Motorola are already developing CableCard-ready video recorders, and while neither TiVo nor ReplayTV would comment, it's likely they'll follow suit. At least one cable operator, Insight, is offering a free CableCard to customers who pay $12.95 a month for its combination high-def set-top box/DVR. This two-decoder setup lets you record one live show on your DVR while watching another live show via the CableCard.

If you're thinking of buying a CableCard-ready TV now in anticipation of the time when two-way cards become available, think again. CableLabs, which developed the CableCard spec, says today's CableCard sets will not be compatible with those cards. And no one is speculating on when two-way cards will happen.

CableCard Primer

Photograph: Marc Simon
What it is: A card that slides into a TV and acts as a digital cable decoder.

What it does: Replaces your digital cable set-top box.

Where you get one: Your cable provider.

What you need: A CableCard-ready TV.

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