My friend Carlos recently lamented the fact
that he didn't come speak to me before buying a new HDTV. He purchased a 50-inch Panasonic plasma, which was fine, but he ran into trouble with CableCard, an option that's finding its way into many new HDTVs. CableCard makes your set Digital Cable Ready (DCR), eliminating the need for a set-top box from your cable provider to get both standard and high-def programming. Theoretically, CableCard is a step up from sets that offer built-in HD tuners, which are basically useful only if you get HDTV over an antenna.
This logo identifies a TV as Digital Cable Ready.
Instead of a box, the cable company provides you with a CableCard, which looks a lot like a PC Card you'd stick in your laptop. You (or, typically, the cable guy) slide the CableCard into a slot on the back of your set, plug the cable from the wall into your TV, and you're good to go. No ungainly box. No extra remote to deal with (you change channels with the TV's remote). And fewer wires cluttering up your entertainment system.
All good. Or so Carlos thought.
"I had the plasma mounted on the wall," he said, "Then I discovered I couldn't get an electronic program guide and I couldn't do video on demand. The salesman in the store didn't tell me there were certain things I wouldn't be able to do. I was infuriated."
Alas, it cost Carlos an extra $200 to have his installers come back, take the TV off the wall, install an HDTV cable box, and remount the TV. "I ended up paying extra money for something I didn't use," he said. "You should write a column about that."
And so I am. Here are five reasons to avoid buying an HDTV with CableCard--or at least not making it a factor in your buying decision.
1. No video on demand (VOD) or electronic program guide (EPG).
One of the problems with the current generation of CableCard is that it's only a one-way device--it can accept downstream signals but can't send anything upstream, so you can't interact with the cable company's content. As a result, you can't get video-on-demand services or even most pay-per-view programming. And digital cable customers who've come to depend on those easily scannable program guides and channel banners will have to do without. If you're used to those features, you'll definitely miss them. Yes, some TVs now come equipped with Gemstar's TV Guide On Screen EPG, but in our tests, it hasn't been terribly reliable--the EPG fails to update itself at times. We expect TV Guide to improve as the company updates its software, but for now it's still buggy.
2. You very well may get a DVR anyway.
My local cable provider, Time Warner Cable of NYC, is offering a dual-tuner HD DVR (digital video recorder) for $12.95 a month that records high-def programming while you're watching another program. Senior Editor David Katzmaier immediately went out and got one--like just about every cable company, Time Warner lets you trade up for free. I'm waiting for one that also has a built-in DVD burner (it would downconvert the high-def video to standard def when making hard copies). But dream DVR discussions aside, you get my point: a good portion of cable subscribers will opt for DVRs in the future, obviating the need for a built-in tuner like CableCard.
3. CableCard-equipped sets are more expensive--for now.
Do a little comparative shopping, and you can see that CableCard adds to your bill at the checkout counter. Take the Pioneer PDP-4340HD vs. the 4345HD, two identical plasmas except for the CableCard feature. The 4345HD costs almost $1,000 more. But as CableCards become standard DTV equipment (in 2005), the price differential may begin to shrink. Samsung's new DLP line, for instance, will transition from its current non-CableCard configuration (such as the 50-inch HLP5063W) to a CableCard-enabled version, the HLP5067W, without a likely price spike. And all Sony Grand WEGA LCD rear-projection TVs now come with CableCard. But don't think that you must use it just because you have it.
4. It's kinky.
Not that way. But the fact is since this is new technology, and it's not without its kinks. For instance, we've heard reports that when Time Warner New York recently added a handful of new HDTV channels--including HDNet, INHD, and ESPN HD--CableCard users were unable to receive the channels, despite the fact that they were immediately available to anyone with an HD cable box. Also, since not that many people are currently using CableCard, customer support can be a little sketchy. That should change with time, but for now you may actually know more about your problem than the customer support staff.
5. It's obsolete.
Yes, the sad truth is there's already a new CableCard on the horizon that presumably fixes many of these issues--and current CableCard sets won't be able to take advantage of those fixes. In October, Samsung became the first consumer electronics manufacturer to sign a license to manufacture two-way CableCard products, known as Interactive Digital Cable Ready. We can't say when we'll start seeing next-gen CableCard functionality, but we assume it'll be by this time next year. Until then, don't worry about it.
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David Carnoy is an executive editor for CNET Reviews.