Tired of paying $20 a month for your HD DVR cable box rental? What if we told you you could be paying just $2 a month using your own computer? All from the comfort of your own home! That's how an infomercial might start for the once mythical CableCARD boxes that are finally starting to crop up en masse and at reasonable prices. We break down the pros and cons as well as highlight a few options for keeping some of your hard earned cash in your pocket while still getting your Game of Thrones from the boob tube.
What is it?
CableCARD is a PCMCIA (PC) Card provided by your cable television provider that is inserted into a computer or set top device that lets you watch cable television without having to rent their expensive set top box. The current crop of devices let you use a computer running Windows Media Center (WMC) to watch and record cable television. You can even get the premium channels that a regular antenna can't receive and normally you would need a cable box for. With WMC extenders such as the Microsoft X-Box, you can share recorded content across multiple rooms and devices. Being on your computer doesn't limit you to watching in front of your small screen - simply attach your computer to your big screen TV.
Low monthly cost: Aside from having to purchase the device itself, you'll need to
You own the equipment: Other than the rented CableCARD, you own all of the hardware necessary to watch TV. No more threats to charge you $800 if you don't return your cable box at the end of your term.
Record more than two shows at once: With cable box DVRs, you're generally stuck with just two tuners allowing you to record two shows at once or one show in the background as you watch live TV. Many CableCARD devices allow you to record more than two shows at a time, with up to six tuners available in fairly inexpensive devices.
Infinitely expandable DVR: With computer CableCARD devices, you're no longer limited to having only a set amount of shows recorded at any given time before stuff starts getting auto-deleted before you've had a chance to watch it. Adding more space is simply a matter of adding more hard drives to your computer.
Customizable and expandable: Cable companies provide useful updates to their set top boxes as often as rarely ever. With PC CableCARD devices (and sometimes the set top ones) you can customize and upgrade your software to suit your tastes. Windows Media Center and other OS' and applications can be skinned to your liking.
High initial cost: Unlike renting your cable box from your provider, you'll have to purchase your CableCARD device outright and up front.
PC devices must be close enough to your TV to run your HDMI video output: For those purchasing CableCARDS for your computer, it'll need to be reasonably close to your TV so that you can connect the HDMI cable from your HDMI capable video card. Considering those without dedicated HTPCs, your computer may be nowhere near your TV. Consider audio as well - it'll either run through HDMI to your TV speakers or you'll need to run a separate audio cable from your computer to your sound system.
No default provider menu/guide: While your set top or PC CableCARD setup might have a method for viewing a guide, you won't have access to the default menu or guide that you're used to seeing with your regular set top box. This isn't all bad though, as the default menu/guide generally sucks.
No pay per view or video on demand content: Without access to the default provider menu/guide, you won't be able to access special pay per view or video on demand content. So no overpriced rentals and pr0n for you, but that's not so bad if you use Netflix/Redbox for the former or understand how to use the internet for the latter (presumably we all do here).
Current Crop of CableCARD Devices:
Hauppauge WinTV-DCR-2650 ($130): Hauppauge's upcoming dual tuner USB device is designed to work with Windows Media Center on your computer. Its low cost near 100 bills might just be what it takes for some of us to make the jump to finally ditching our expensive cable box.
HDHomeRun Prime HDHR3-CC/HDHR3-6CC ($250/$500 for 3/6 tuner): This three or six CableCARD tuner lets you record and watch even more channels at one time on your Windows Media Center computer.
Ceton InfiniTV 4 ($300): The InfiniTV can record four live HD channels at one time. It's PCI-Express interface allows you to keep it tucked inside your computer without taking up space and adding devices and wires to your setup.