Do CableCARD PCs Really Matter?

Dave Zatz —  May 17, 2007 — 10 Comments

Given the title of this post, you might (correctly) assume that I don’t believe CableCARD PCs matter. Sure there will be a small niche that embraces the technology as a home media center hub, but the average consumer won’t bother overcoming the learning curve and paying the associated premium. It’s nice to hear that CableCARD equipped PCs can be had for as low as $1500, but that number still doesn’t compete with the set-top box market… Not to mention most folks don’t want a PC (that looks like a PC) in their entertainment center and don’t realize they may be able to extend this content to an Xbox 360. And the possibility of bidirectional, M-Card PC functionality doesn’t change the mindset or marketplace.

For several years, my “set-top” box was a HTPC and my living room “TV” was a projector. Maintaining it was a constant source of frustration (and I managed PCs for a living). CableCARDs may add additional channels but with it comes additional complexity. The Average Joe doesn’t have the skills or the budget and won’t be interested. Not to mention, it doesn’t appear that CC support can be added to existing systems or later migrated to new machines.

Having said that, the current crop of set-top decoders/DVRs (computers disguised for the CE marketplace) are in need of GUI and functionality enhancements.

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10 responses to Do CableCARD PCs Really Matter?

  1. It is my opinion that PC based solutions will never replace the average user’s $5/month cable or sat STB.

    PC based solutions are for the people who want more. They want the extra features, the ability to extend the content to other rooms and devices. They want to add photos, music, online content, syncing to portable device, etc.

    “Average Joe” is likely never going to use the PC as the center of their entertainment solutions. While these PC based devices need to appeal to “Average Joe” to develop their products as easy to use and user friendly, there will never be a time where there is a PC in every living room or a PC driving most people’s entertainment in their home.

    Personally, I want more so I use a PC to drive my entertainment solutions because I want more than what a TiVo or standard cable or sat STB/PVR can provide. For example, very few solutions other than very high end solutions will support home automation.

    All that said, CableCARD PC do matter because for those who want to use a PC to get more it’s the next logical step to get HD into a PC. There is still much more than needs to happen here. Price still needs to drop, mainly on the tuners themselves. At about $300/piece it’s not a good solution to have a PC with dual CableCARD tuners already costing ~$600 in just tuner costs.

    I’d also note that DIRECTV tuners will be coming to Vista Media Center and should be a better solution that CableCARD.

    Chris L

  2. It matters to you, but does it matter to the broader market (customers and vendors) as a viable product category?

    I assume you don’t utilize HTPCs because you like ugly and expensive boxes with complex configurations, but because you want additional capabilities. So how about we stuff more functionality into a set-top box while retaining a manageable interface?

    I might be less grumpy if my 360 would consistently maintain it’s connection to my (non-CableCARD) Vista desktop.

  3. Depends. Do the customers have digital cable and want HD inside a PC? If yes, then it matters. Is no, then it doesn’t matter.

    For vendors, same question. Do their customers have digital cable and want HD inside a PC? If yes, then it matters. Is no, then it doesn’t matter.

    Since PC’s have really only been on the market for a month or so it’s really too early to tell. HP, the first top tier OEM is just now shipping these PCs.

    And another important part of this is marketing. Microsoft has done a great job nearly killing their platform because they don’t market the thing. If they don’t step up, you are right that CableCARD PCs don’t matter because no one knows what they do.

    Adding to STB’s is always an option, but can anyone pull off an STB with with all the toppings without running into the same problems seen on a PC? Cost, noise, stability.

    The main problems with PC’s can also be seen in STB’s that are still basically PC’s underneath. Adding these extra features that can be done on a standard PC is basically going to mean running Linux, XPe, CE.NET, etc. They are going to be PC’s. Everything is getting more complex, and until we have SoC solutions that can handle everything, STB’s are likely to become more of a PC then they are a STB.

    The market is still growing for PCs, and the prices keep dropping. While TiVo S3′s keep going on sale, I don’t know if it’s because they are really trying to gain market share and just accepting the dollar loss to make money on the monthly sub, or if they are mfg’ing them cheaper and cheaper.

    Clearly, if any STB comes to market at sub-$500 and can do all these advanced features, I would be taking a hard look at it.

    Until then, many people need/want a desktop PC. It also can double as a Media Center and can be extended to the Xbox 360 that the user might already have. It’s all about choice and need.

    And of course you forget to bring up the other reason that both TiVo and CableCARD PC’s might not matter; the move to SDV.

  4. The reliability issue is kind of scary. If you hard drive goes down, you can’t watch TV. That blows.

    You are right about set-top boxes. If they had better interfaces, htpcs are not as necessary. Cable co’s have little incentive to make boxes better though.

  5. Patrick Sowell May 18, 2007 at 11:20 am

    @Chris L:
    I’m waiting for the DirecTV solution. The fact that the cableCards must be purchased with a new PC totally ruins it for me. I have a fast enough machine running Vista Ultimate right now I built myself a year or so ago. I’m not going to turn around and buy a whole new PC just for CableCards…. Not to mention the fact that my cable company just blows in general. (Charter)

    @Dave Zatz:
    I feel you on the 360 maintaining connection. The 360 as a media center extender seemed like a great idea at first, but it really still needs work. Also, the 360 is just way too loud to be used for that…. especially in a room like a bedroom, where you don’t have your 5.1/7.1 system cranked to cover up the fan noise.

    @Kevin:
    Most of the HTPC solutions you’ll see will have at least a choice to go with RAID 1, that way you can lose a drive but not your HTPC… or your media.

  6. the problem is that you can not replace your digital cable box with a CableCARD-equipped MCE.

    Want HBO OnDemand? you need a cable box.
    Want PayPerView? you need a cable box.
    Want to record 2 channels? You need a dual-CableCARD MCE.

    Digital cable is cool and all but without on-demand, dual recording, and PPV, I’ll stick to having a cable box and a dual analog tuner MCE.

  7. Plus there’s the obvious problem that until the DRM is bypassed, as it presumably will be, the Microsoft implementation of cable card doesn’t allow you to do anything with your video that you would want to use a media PC for… transcode to your portable device? sorry… save to DVD? sorry… transcode to another format to save space? sorry…

  8. amen Glenn amen

  9. Glenn: Does your TiVo or cable/sat DVR allow you to do those things?

  10. Yes actually. I have a Windows XP MCE machine, and I can pull the MPEG out with DirectShowDump and then edit out the commercials or whatever. There are automated methods to do this, and various programs like VideoReDo that support the format natively as wel. I also have Tivos and running TivoToGo, I can transfer the recordings to my PC, and from there convert them for my iPod or burn them to DVD. In this latter case these functions are offered by Tivo themselves, though I use utilities that bypass the copy protection and again do what I want with the files.

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