The Future of High-Def CableCards
Only Microsoft's Vista Media Center taps the functionality of the latest CableCards. But who owns the future of this technology?
Want to record a high-definition show on that big screen and share it throughout your house? You can do that with a CableCard (right) that fits into a CableLabs certified Microsoft Vista Media Center.
August 30, 2007 by Gordon van Zuiden

Sure, the computer card–sized CableCards that are supposed to fit into the backs of some TVs and replace the dreaded cable box have taken a beating. After all, the present generation is one-way, meaning you sacrifice interactive services such as pay-per-view and video-on-demand. But high-definition CableCards are becoming readily available—and they can be used in a digitally networked home to provide a rich set of home media and control experiences.

Today, these cards can be inserted into CableCard- (or digital cable-) ready HDTVs, Series3 TiVos and even some of the Microsoft Vista Media Center computers (those that have been certified by CableLabs and from companies such as Dell, Sony and Niveus Media). Inserting this card into an HDTV is the easiest installation. It will cost you only about $2 a month, but you can’t enjoy the benefits of an HD recording experience. You can put two CableCards into the new $700 TiVo Series3, but that won’t allow you to share your high-definition recordings with other TVs in your home. Put up to two CableCards in a certified Microsoft Vista platform, however, and you’ll have the ability to record HD television and route that to up to five TVs connected to the Xbox Media Center Extender platform. Depending on the setup, this will cost anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000.

Although the CableCard is one-way, when it’s installed in a Vista Media Center computer that is on a high-speed Internet connection, you can access web-based pay-per-view or video-on-demand services. The Online Spotlight tab of the Vista Media Center provides a number of these interactive video services.

Another real benefit of the Vista solution is that you can now use the same interface that controls your TV to enjoy other media. The Media Center allows you to navigate from viewing your TV to viewing your photos, your music, and your personal videos.

And with a number of new hardware and software peripherals from companies like HAI, Exceptional Innovation, Superna and others, you can add home control to your TV’s Media Center navigation bar. This allows you to adjust your home thermostat from your TV screen—and with the same graphical interface.

This is the same approach that Apple is deploying by extending its music and video iTunes library into the living room with Front Row software controlled by Apple TV. What is missing, however, is the ability to provide TV tuning and recording capabilities, sharing this recorded content with other TVs and home control.

Time will tell who will be the dominant player in this area. Microsoft currently has a lead with its Vista Media Center, the addition of CableCard tuning and recording functionality, and its third-party home control extensions. But Apple’s Front Row control screen may compete with Microsoft Media Center’s portal. (And could the iPhone be a future home remote control?) The next step may be a CableLabs-certified Apple Computer offering the same high-def recording now available in certified Vista computers. Stay tuned to see who wins.

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