CableCARDs: Cause for Joy, and Pain

motorola_cablecardI’ve been hearing about the CableCARD for years. How this little device — just about the size of an extra-thick credit card — will eliminate the need for a cable box. How it’ll cut down on the clutter surrounding my TV. How it’ll make my entire TV viewing experience easier, better.

And maybe it will. If I can ever get the darn thing working.

CableCARDs slide into the back of TVs, DVRs and other devices, delivering decrypted cable signals without a cable box. The newest version of a CableCARD is the multistream card, also known as an M-Card. An M-Card offers dual tuners, so you can, for example, record one channel while watching another. A single-stream CableCARD can tune in to only a single channel. You get CableCARDs from your cable company, just as you would get a cable box, and pay both an installation fee and a monthly rental fee that’s comparable to what you’d pay for a cable box, maybe a few dollars cheaper.

While a CableCARD may not save you tons of money on your cable bill, it offers other benefits. A CableCARD not only eliminates the cable box, but it cuts out all of the clutter that goes with it. You can say goodbye to your extra wires, numerous remotes, and IR blasters. And it has benefits for the cable company, too: A CableCARD must be paired with one specific device, whether that’s a TV, a DVR, or some other set-top box. If you remove it from the device, it won’t work, which should eliminate the problem of stolen cable.

So cable companies should love CableCARDs, and we should, too. Still, there are few devices and consumers who are taking advantage of what CableCARDs can offer. Why?

One reason is price. Sure, a CableCARD is cheaper than renting an HD DVR from your cable company. But buying your own HD DVR can set you back anywhere from $300 to $600 — or more. And if you’re looking for a TV with a CableCARD slot, you’re not looking in the bargain bin.

Another issue is lack of awareness. Try telling someone who’s not an entertainment junkie about CableCARDs and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare. You also have to factor in that CableCARDs can’t always offer everything that a cable box can, such as access to an on-demand library of shows. That could be a deal breaker for many people.

Then there’s the hassle. I have a Verizon FiOS HD DVR. I ordered it; the man showed up in the van, hooked it up, and before I knew it, I was DVR-ing Lost to my heart’s content. Contrast that with my CableCARD experience: Sure, the tech guy could carry it in his pocket, but it took two days, multiple calls to tech support, and four different visits from Verizon technicians to get it up and running. (Remind me again how it’s easier than using a cable box?)

I know many people have had a much easier time getting their CableCARDs up and running, but I also know I’m not the only one who’s had installation woes. And still more people have had trouble getting their hands on the cards at all. Online forums are littered with stories of people who’ve been unable to get the cards from their cable companies, but it’s unclear whether that’s because the phone reps were unfamiliar with the technology, or because the cable companies were pushing people toward their own products, rather then third-party alternatives like TiVo DVRs.

And the more that those third-party products die out (though I’m still holding onto hope that TiVo will survive), the less chance there is that anyone, anywhere will be using CableCARDs. So where does that leave this technology? Will it ever break through and reach mainstream status? I wish it would. I’d love to ditch my cable box, while still having access to all its features, of course. I think that day will come. I just wish it would get here a little bit sooner.

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