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2004-12-31 17:17:28

Streamlined Cable TV in a Card

Don't expect this from your local cable company anytime soon.

What if I told you about a new product that could improve your TV picture, eliminate one of your remote controls, simplify your home-theater setup and save you money every month?

And then what if I told you that your local distributor wished, in its heart of hearts, that nobody even knew about it?

The brilliant invention really exists. It's the CableCard, a small metal card (a so-called PC card, actually, like the ones designed for laptops) that slides into a slot on the back of many new high-definition TV sets from nearly every manufacturer. The CableCard's simple mission is to eliminate your cable box. The card stores all the account information that used to be monitored by the box, like descramblers for your movie channels - a bit of circuitry miniaturization that's about 15 years overdue.

Life without a cable box is blissfully simple. The cable-TV cable from the wall plugs directly into the TV. You change channels using the TV's own remote control. (Both the box and its remote go back to the mother ship. Incidentally, getting rid of the box makes an especially big difference when it comes to smaller screens, like kitchen-counter TV's.)

Losing the box frees up one power outlet on your wall, one valuable input on the TV and one component's worth of space in your equipment rack or wall unit.

Furthermore, if you ever move, you won't have to learn how to use a new cable company's box. You'll operate the same TV using the same remote in the same way.

Eliminating a detour through the cable box also spares your video signal an analog-to-digita 4e20 l conversion or two. As a result, the picture may be noticeably clearer and sharper (depending on which box you had and how it was wired to your system).

On top of all these advantages, it costs a lot less to rent a CableCard than a cable box. For example, the monthly CableCard fee is $1.25 at Cablevision, $1.50 at Adelphia and $1.75 at Time Warner, as compared with $4 to $7 a month for a cable box. (Your cable programming package costs the same. This parenthetical remark is provided for the benefit of the customer who, according to a cable-industry spokesman, bought a CableCard TV last week because she thought it would provide her with free cable TV.)

Could all this be true? Is it really possible that the government, cable companies and TV makers all sat down one day and cheerfully agreed to a new, advanced standard designed to save you money and simplify your life?

Don't be silly.

As it turns out, hammering out the CableCard standard wasn't especially quick or amicable.

In fact, it took years. What everyone wanted was a technology that duplicated every feature of today's digital cable box. But the cable companies and the set makers first had to learn to work with and trust each other, and meanwhile an F.C.C. deadline was looming. So what emerged at the end of Round 1 was only a partial solution: a one-way CableCard.

In other words, today's CableCard can't send information back to the cable company from your television set, a loss that has several ramifications.

First, you no longer receive the cable company's onscreen TV guide. Of course, most CableCard TV sets (marketed as "Digital Cable Ready") have their own built-in channel guides, and so do hard-drive recorders like the TiVo.

Second, you lose the ability to order pay-per-view movies with your remote control. You have to order them using your cable company's Web site or by calling its toll-free number.

Third, today's CableCard can't handle video-on-demand services. (They're like pay-per-view movies, except that you can start a movie whenever you like, and even pause it while it plays.)

Now, you may not particularly care about losing these features. Plenty of people, perfectly content with sources like HBO, Blockbuster and Netflix, have never ordered a movie through the cable box and never will.

But there are people who care deeply about pay-per-view and video-on-demand services: the cable companies. They've spent years and millions of dollars cultivating these services, some of which satellite services can't match. To the cable companies, the one-way CableCard represents not only a huge new headache (involving billing, inventory, business development, customer service, installer training and so on), but also a potential kick in the spreadsheet.

So if you're interested in the CableCard at this early stage, you may have to take on a relentless "60 Minutes" persona. All cable companies offer the CableCard, but few promote it, and the front-line operators may not even know what you're talking about. Last week, for example, Cablevision mailed a brochure to its customers listing the price increases for 2005 and describing its latest services, with nary a word about the CableCard.

By DAVID POGUE, from The NY Times (

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