A CableCARD ready TV lets viewers receive digital cable programming without the use of a traditional set-top box. While this seems more convenient and easier in many respects, there are some drawbacks as well: Without a cable box, users lose certain features and capabilities. Understanding a bit about the technology involved in each device as well as the capabilities will help users decide which options best fit their needs.
Digital Cable Television
Cable companies generally encrypt digital television signals to ensure that only customers who pay subscriber fees can view the appropriate transmissions. For many viewers, this involves the use of a set-top box. This device receives and decrypts the signals, and it also provides access to additional features.
Many people don’t like set-top boxes because they’re bulky and unattractive. The boxes sometimes need resetting to receive information, and they may not contain the most current technology. In addition to costs for digital television services, subscribers typically have to pay an extra monthly fee to lease a set-top box; units that receive high-definition signals may cost even more.
CableCARD ready TVs, also known as digital cable ready (DCR) TVs, eliminate the need for set-top boxes. These televisions already contain the technology to receive digital signals; they just need a CableCARD to decrypt them.
Using a CableCARD can simplify the addition of other entertainment devices, such as DVRs or other peripheral equipment, because viewers can connect them directly to the television without running wires through a set-top box. Additionally, the cards often handle remote control use for various devices.
Viewers insert a CableCARD into a port provided on a DCR TV, and the cable provider then activates the card. Self-installation options may be available with activation over the phone, or subscribers may elect to have a technician perform the installation.
In some cases, viewers need to have two CableCARDs to record one show while watching another, requiring the television to have multiple ports. Since CableCARDs usually only cost a few dollars per month, two cards may still cost less than one set-top box. Some companies may provide a multi-stream card instead, which can receive two signals at once.
CableCARDs are paired with a particular TV and location, meaning that they cannot be swapped between televisions. If viewers want to use a CableCARD with a new or different device, they must lease and activate another card. Likewise, CableCARDs must be reprogrammed if the subscriber moves to a new location.
One-way Versus Two-way Signals
Perhaps the biggest difference between using a set-top box and a CableCARD ready TV, other than the aesthetic component, lies in the services that each allows. Traditional set-top boxes use two-way communications, receiving signals from the service provider and sending them as well. Subscribers receive the decrypted television signals, and they also have access to features such as On Demand programming, Pay Per View services, parental control settings and interactive programming guides by sending signals from the box. The two-way communication provided by set-top boxes allows viewers to access all available features through a remote control device.
With a CableCARD ready TV, many of these features become unavailable because the cards only function with one-way signal transmissions; viewers lose all features that require returned signal transmissions. There’s no current projected date for technology that allows two-way transmissions without a set-top box; however, a few limited workarounds are possible in the mean time:
- Many DCR TVs come with an electronic programming guide (EPG) to replace the one that viewers lose by using a CableCARD. However, an EPG may only provide digital listings without any interactive features, such as searches or program reminders. Parental controls and other capabilities that require two-way transmissions remain unavailable.
- Viewers can order Pay Per View programming over the phone rather than through the television.
- Viewers can purchase a set-top box from an unaffiliated business to avoid monthly rental fees. A third-party box must be compatible with the cable provider, and it will still require rental of a CableCARD to decrypt television signals. However, a box that is compatible with most available systems can be carried from place to place and may save on lease fees in the long run.
DCR Versus Integrated Digital Tuner
A television with an integrated digital tuner (IDT) is not the same as a DCR TV. An IDT TV receives standard and high definition digital signals that are broadcast over the air. It does not have a CableCARD slot, and any signals that need decryption require a set-top box. This type of television is appropriate for people who prefer to receive free transmissions without a cable subscription; they may also use the traditional cable box.
Recording Programs With a CableCARD
For the most part, viewers cannot make permanent digital recordings, including to DVD, with a CableCARD ready TV. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has enacted protections against copying digital content as part of the technology of CableCARDs. Most programmers take full advantage of these copy protections.