For years you've probably paid about $6 per month to your cable company for a set-top box that lets you surf between Cops on Fox and Weeds on Showtime. You may hate the remote and the interactive program guide, but to get the shows you've had to take whatever box the cable company has given you. Thanks to a Federal Communications Commission order, that may soon change.
Starting July 1, cable companies will offer new boxes equipped with CableCards--PC Card-like security devices that give you access to the cable package you've paid for. You'll see new CableCard-ready set-tops in stores, too. But you may not want to trade in your old box just yet.
The new cable-company set-top boxes will look and act much like the ones you lease now; you will have an interactive channel guide and will be able to select pay-per-view and video-on-demand programming. In contrast, retail devices available this year will communicate in one direction only: Your high-def HBO shows will come in fine, but you won't be able to order PPV or VOD programming with the press of a button. Also, many CableCard devices support only a single tuner, so you give up picture-in-picture and the ability to record one show while watching another. And setting up any CableCard box still requires an in-home service call by the cable technician.
New third-party boxes, however, should be more user-friendly and feature-rich than cable-company set-tops. For example, TiVo's Series 3 HD recorder, out now, offers dual CableCard slots, so you can watch one program while recording another, and it holds up to 32 hours of HD shows. Dell's Dimension XPS 410, outfitted with an ATI TV tuner and a CableCard reader, soon will bring similar features to a Vista Media Center PC. And Digeo's Moxi Multi-Room HD Digital Media Recorder, due out this fall, offers a snazzy interface and the ability to record at least 16 hours of HD shows on a central unit and access them from TVs in three rooms. One other advantage to owning a box: When you move, you just return the card to your old cable company and pop in the card from your new one, so you don't have to master a whole new set-top interface.