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Why is my cable box a horrible, energy-sucking beast? (Morrison's Mailbag)

Reader Michael wants to know what can be done about his power-hungry and horrible-looking cable box.

CNET reader Michael writes:

About a year ago I downgraded my cable service for the purpose of getting rid of the huge cable box. The thing is an electricity sucking beast, and worst of all, it gave me a poor picture.

So my question: Why is it that we can now stream media to a cell phone yet we still need a huge clunker of a device to watch a TV? I can understand having a box, but one so large, that filters out all the HD goodness, and takes up precious real estate on my shelf? Have you seen anything on the way to eliminate that antiquated chunk of home theater?


Well Michael, I don't think you're going to like the answer, cause it's equal parts depressing and annoying.

There's two main problems you're having: stunningly bad equipment, and bad picture.

I'll address the first last and the last first. The bad picture shouldn't have to do with the cable box. If you're using HDMI, the signal coming out should be the same signal it's receiving from your provider.

Your provider's picture quality is, of course, highly variable. They may be getting crap from the content provider (as in Discovery, HBO, etc.), and/or they could be compressing (possibly recompressing) the channels themselves to offer you more (but uglier) channels. Not much way around this other than changing providers (if possible).

On the equipment side, you've noticed something very interesting. Many economists and anthropologists discuss the importance of incentives. I vaguely recall articles by Malcolm Gladwell or the Freakonomics guys. The question is, what incentive does a cable company have to offer a good box?


There is absolutely no benefit to any cable operator to offer a quality cable box. In fact, quite the opposite.

In most areas, cable (and I'm including FiOS/U-verse in that term) is a monopoly. Even where it's not (here in LA I have U-verse, but could get Time Warner), the competition is based on features, channels, and most important, price.

By the time a customer gets to the point of using a cable box, they're already in. They already have the service. So the motivation is to make the box just barely not awful enough so that customers don't flee from the sheer annoyance of using it.

Cable companies purchase these devices in huge bulk, from the lowest bidder. Motorola (this division is now part of Google), Scientific Atlanta (Cisco) are the two biggest providers. Neither make a good product. They are slow, lock up, lack features, and when it comes to electricity, suck like a vampire at a narcoleptic convention.

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If a way can be found to make it cheaper, you bet it'll be tried. Unlike every other consumer electronics product, you are not the customer. Cable companies are the customer. Your needs are relevant only as far as the cable companies don't lose you as their customer. Not much incentive there to make a good product available.

There's no punitive incentive, either. There are no federal standards regarding energy consumption of cable boxes, and don't expect any in this political climate. All the players in this fight (Cisco, Google, Kabletown Cablevision, Time Warner, etc.) are big S&P 500 companies, and will likely lobby the bill to death. This is because the boxes would cost more to the cable providers, even though energy-efficient boxes would cost you much less to own (if you have two DVRs in your home, they're drawing way more power than your fridge).

What's to be done?

Part of the problem is that a portion of the product has to be on 100 percent of the time to be ready to record a show. You can ditch the DVR and get some channels on your TV, but...wait, are you seriously considering getting rid of your DVR? That's too frightening to contemplate.

Energy Star just released its first requirements for DVRs to receive its logo. Keep in mind, this doesn't mean any are energy-efficient, just that those with the label are more efficient than others. Many of the newer models from Cisco and Motorola get the label. If you have an older box, Energy Star recommends contacting your cable provider to find out if you can upgrade your box.

You can read about Energy Star's Set-top & Cable Box Qualification here.

The Department of Energy has stated a desire to add cable boxes to its appliance standards, creating energy-efficiency guidelines; we'll be interested to see how that goes. 

You can try TiVo, though you'll probably need to rent a CableCARD, pay for the TiVo service, and pay for the box. Also, there's no guarantee TiVo is that much more energy-efficient than the others.

Lastly, both David Katzmaier and I found that in theory you could ditch cable and still watch your favorite shows, but it was neither convenient nor overly cost-effective.

Got a question for Geoff? Click the "E-mail Geoffrey Morrison" link below to e-mail, wait for it...Geoffrey Morrison! Put "Morrison's Mailbag" somewhere in there. If it's witty, amusing, and/or a good question, you may just see it in a post just like this one. I can also offer advice on how to grow a crappy beard. I cannot, however, tell you what TV to buy.