CableCard with Comcast: So far, so good...

CNET experiments with Comcast's CableCard service

After repeated attempts to get CableCard up and running with Time Warner in Brooklyn failed to produce a signal, we decided to shift our CableCard operations to CNET's northern outpost in Concord, NH. We sent back Velocity Micro its CineMagix Grand Theater for some fine-tuning, and it then turned around and sent the system up here.

Those green lights mean CableCard is working. CNET Networks

New Hampshire is Comcast territory. I called Comcast and scheduled an installation last week. The technician had done a handful of installations on CableCard-equipped TVs and DVRs, but this was the first time he had seen a CableCard-equipped PC. After complimenting me on my strong signal (why, thank you), the technician popped a CableCard into each of the two ATI TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner cards, called HQ to get the cards provisioned to my hardware and account, and then declared we were ready to roll. We fired up Media Center, ran through the setup screens, and selected Live TV, only to be met with nothing but snow. After some head scratching and rebooting, we decided to change cables. We swapped out the DVI-HDMI cable we had been using for a DVI-VGA cable. (My Vizio P42 plasma gives you only the option of HDMI, component, and VGA, and the CineMagix provides only DVI.) With the VGA connection, we were able to get a picture, which proved the CableCards were working. We were left staring at a standard-def picture, however, obviating the primary reason for a CableCard-equipped PC--HD cable TV via Media Center.

A call to Velocity Micro revealed the culprit: overscanning. When I set up the PC with my plasma, I selected an odd resolution of 1176x664 even though the Vizio P42 is a 720p set. At 1280x720, the Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTS graphics card overscans the picture on HDTVs so that the edges of the Vista desktop are cut off. Since I like seeing the Start button and my task bar, I chose 1176x664, which Nvidia added as an underscan mode for 720p HDTVs (there's another underscan resolution for 1080i/1080p sets). While Nvidia is working to update its drivers to correct this overscan issue, I'd like to point out that Vista has been out for over six months now.

While running at 1176x664 solved the overscanning problem with the Vista desktop, it wasn't a resolution that HDCP supports. After I switched to 1280x720 and switched back to the DVI-HDMI cable (and wrestled with some Media Center stops and starts, and a hard drive failure), I had a beautiful HD picture. I have yet to find a way to correct the overscanning on this system, so I'm currently stuck switching resolutions when I hop between TV and the Vista desktop. Television--both HD and SD channels--are displayed correctly at 12870x720--no overscanning. And since most of the menu options in Media Center are centered, it's only when dealing with the regular Vista desktop where I feel the need to switch resolutions.

Since getting up and running, I've experienced a stable, stutter-free TV signal. As good as it is though, I still don't think I'd pony up for a CableCard-equipped PC. I've become too accustomed to my cable box's VOD programming to give up that feature. Seems like every week there's more free HD content on demand. (CableCard 2.0 promises two-way communication, but its release date is still unknown.) Still, my opinion might change later this week when I take delivery of an Xbox 360. I plan to set that up in the bedroom with a 22-inch LCD to test out Media Center's streaming capabilities. Perhaps then, I'll dub it Comcastic. Until that point, however, I'll keep banging away on CableCard and report back with anything interesting. And I'm taking requests--let me know what you'd like me to try out; I'll answer as many of your CableCard questions as I can.

 

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