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Making the case for CableCard

Living with CableCard

As with any first-generation product, CableCard has received its fair share of criticism. The cards are one-way devices, which means no pay-per-view or video on demand. The cards are also single-tuner devices, which means no recording one show while watching another unless you double up. There's no option for a DIY installation, and a visit from technician doesn't guarantee you'll be left with a signal.

I've been using Comcast's CableCard for a couple weeks now, however, and I've been pleasantly surprised. So much so, that I may turn in my cable box at the end of my trial instead of returning the CableCard loaners. Why am I so smitten? For starters, the installation went smoothly, and I've had a steady signal ever since (aside from the occasional Media Center hiccup, which I'll get to in a minute). Nvidia's latest drivers fixed the overscanning problem. The Velocity Micro system I have on loan accepts two CableCards, so I get the same dual-tuner experience I get from my Comcast DVR set-top box. And giving up PPV and VOD is easy when weighed against the advantages of a CableCard-equipped, PC-based DVR.

Before Nvidia's latest ForceWare release, I had to toggle back and forth between resolutions so that I could get a TV signal (at 1,280x720) and get the Windows desktop to fit on the screen (1,176x664). ForceWare driver 162.22 adds an option called "Resize the HDTV desktop," which let me adjust the size of the desktop via two sliders so it didn't bleed over the edges when set to my display's native (and HDCP-compliant) resolution. I wish the updated drivers just did away with the overscanning issue automatically, but it didn't take too much fine-tuning to get the desktop resized to where its edges matched those of my HDTV.

Even after a successful installation and correcting the overscan problem, I didn't expect to find myself favoring CableCard over my DRV cable box for the simple fact that I like my video on demand. Like a drinking buddy, it's just nice to know it's there when nothing's on TV. But the additional--and easily expandable--capacity that a PC provides lets me store a lot more HD content. A longer list of recorded shows means you don't need to wade into the VOD waters as often. I can't record more than a couple movies or sporting events in HD on my Comcast box without quickly filing the drive. I tried recording a six-hour block of Wimbledon one Sunday in June, and the recording got cut off in the third set of the Federer-Nadel match. Not an ideal user experience. With the ability to store more HD content, I don't miss Comcast VOD, the majority of which is standard-def content anyway. The last time I went trolling through Comcast's list of HD movies on demand, the titles were so few and uninteresting that I briefly considered watching Sly Stallone's Cliffhanger. Hang on, indeed.

In addition to having more shows in HD at the ready, I like the Media Center experience because it automatically switches the aspect ratio when I go from, say, Comedy Central in SD to the Food Network in HD. With my cable box, I have to hunt for my TV's remote and adjust the aspect. Media Center also doesn't charge me a monthly subscription fee, which is even nicer in light of a letter I received yesterday from Comcast that informed me that my monthly DVR charge will be increasing from $9.95 to $12.95. Media Center also lets me easily burn TV shows to disc, and watching photo slide shows on a 42-inch plasma is much more engaging than on a 13-inch laptop.

Although Media Center is stable for the most part, it's still more annoying when it stutters or freezes than when my Comcast DVR box gets tripped up. It's probably just because I spend most of my day sitting in front of a Windows PC, so I'm quicker to curse Windows when it acts up in the evening than Comcast's DVR application. To its credit, Media Center has a slicker, better-looking interface compared with Comcast's, but that might change whenever Comcast finally comes out with its TiVo interface.

I'll be setting up an Xbox 360 this weekend for some CableCard HD media streaming. Look for a report next week on that endeavor.