Goodbye, Comcast (or 'How I Learned to Love the Internet')

Are you ready for the digital upgrade? According to Nielsen, 2.5 percent of the U.S. populace isn't. That works out to about 2.8 million people whose screens could go dark today. Statistics I see in reports and on the news tell me that "Younger, African American and Hispanic homes are disproportionately unready." They forgot to mention another demographic: stubborn nerds who are fed up with how Comcast handles cable's version of the analog-to-digital transition.

Like me. I'm a TVholic. I have a Media Center PC, with three digital tuners. I have a couple terabytes of storage for the stuff I record. I stream out shows to my Xbox 360 and PS3. I should be psyched for the digital upgrade, right?

Wrong.

This is more of a personal story of how I'm fighting back against being forced to:

(a) Use a crummy cable-provided tuner box with an interface ripped off from a third-grader's crayon drawing of how a ReplayTV worked.

(b) Sift through "riveting" channels that cater to underwater basketweavers just so I can watch the three shows I want to see.

(c) Pay too much.

(d) All of the above.

And my hope is that I can help a couple of you fine folks out there in the process of sharing my mini-rant with you.

Confessions of a Media Center PC Owner

What I have in common with some 13 million (according to Microsoft) other people: Thus far we've avoided the cable-provided tuner boxes like the plague. TiVo and ReplayTV were good; but I found the Media Center interface clean and easy to organize, and I've been a fan of the additional features that have accumulated over the years. I'm talking everything from simply streaming TV to my Xbox and Internet TV to the recent addition of Netflix to the app. I took it for granted, too; my Costco-flavor HP desktop handled the job just fine. As the years went by, I added more digital tuners (one ATSC jack, one analog cable jack--I was thinking "ahead"). I just plugged the cables into the computer, and I was all set.

But with the cable digital upgrade, The Man is forcing me to use a box just to see the few channels I care about. My griping with editorial partner-in-crime Melissa Perenson inspired her to write "How the Unknown Digital TV Transition Could Screw You." It's a fantastic, helpful read. Check it out.

The short version of my story is this: Suddenly I need multiple cable boxes and IR blasters heaped on top of my PC. Or I can go out and buy a computer that supports CableCards, which I can then jam into my PC to descramble the extra channels. (I haven't bought a CableCard-capable PC, by the way. Instead I consulted Microsoft's Ben Reed, who makes these magical machines.) Apparently, it's a select group: ACE Computers, Aspen Media Products, Cannon PC, Exceptional Innovations (Life|ware), Fluid Digital, Inteset, Moneual, Niveus, S1Digital, and Velocity Micro. Okoro and Vidabox are not licensed directly from Microsoft, but rather have agreements with third parties. Will you see any of these brands in your local store? Probably not. I didn't.

What next? Well, bucko, it's time to buy yet another HD tuner--this time one (like AMD's ATI TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner) that actually has a CableCard slot. The trick is that you need a special BIOS to make any of this feasible. Bonus headache: The card isn't sold independently; you're supposed to buy it already installed in the PC. Infinite loop.

My hat is off to the fine folks at EngadgetHD and this step-by-step guide for the truly hardcore; but after I took in the dimensions of the mess that was in store, the realization hit me: "Can't I just watch this stuff on Hulu?"

As the Internet Slowly Kills My TV

Yes, yes, we've done plenty of stories about this already. We've highlighted "The Best TV on the Web." A couple of weeks ago, I went into detail about using a $40 software package to stream everything from Hulu to Adult Swim onto your PS3 or Xbox 360. But what really clicked is when Hulu recently released the beta software for its desktop application. (You can download the app here.) This stand-alone software wins on a couple of levels, even though it's only in the beta stage as yet.

For starters, it has a first-rate interface that helps you quickly find whatever shows you want--from the popular to the obscure. In fact, it found a couple of shows that I've subsequently gotten hooked on. In the second place, it has most of the shows that I want to see. And as a bonus, it works with the remote control I already use with my media center. Today, I'm watching the episode of Burn Notice that originally aired last night.

For many people, picture quality is a sticking point. It's true that a lot of the streamed content isn't the best-looking video around. But I'm okay with that for now--even when I stream it to my HDTV. Over time, I hope, bandwidth will go up, thus allowing me to stream more high-definition content. Heck, if Microsoft can promise to deliver streaming 1080p video to Xbox 360 owners with updates coming this year, I should be all set. Oh, and Microsoft spokesfolk are quick to point out that Windows 7 incorporates even more broadband content.

Meanwhile, I'm sitting here, praying to my couch potato gods that the day will come quickly when Hulu content marries Windows Media Center software. (Neither party has formally announced a Microsoft-Hulu deal yet, but seeing the Netflix integration got me thinking about the possibilities.) Truth to tell, I don't care where my content comes from; I just want it funneled into one simple place. Is that asking too much?

In my opinion, no. And that's what settled it for me.

Let's Make a Deal

I finally put my foot down while talking to someone from Comcast's retention department. Nice enough guy, really. He offered me discounts. He offered me money off my bill. Free HBO!

But you know what would've kept me around? Not foisting this whole CableCard/descrambler box DRM nonsense on me to begin with! Because it couldn't resist making that power play, Comcast is losing money I would otherwise have happily paid it, and I'm on the prowl for other places to watch my shows.

Heck, I download free video versions of the nightly news and watch that on the morning commute these days. Everything I want to see on Current.TV is a free podcast..

And yes, I said all this to the poor customer service guy on the phone (sorry about that).

The cable digital upgrade push gave me a big kick in the keister that I'd needed. I'm now a full-blown Nethead, I'm saving some money, and I'm watching only the few shows I actually care about. Sometimes I just go outside and forget about all this tech for 5minutes. You know, read a book. On a Kindle.Or an iPhone.

Need even more nerdity? Follow Casual Friday columnist and PC World Senior Writer Darren Gladstone on Twitter (gizmogladstone) for game-swag giveaways, odd links, and time-wasting tips.

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