Media Center gives digital cable tuners a new lease on life

Last week, I was prepared to write off digital cable support in Windows Media Center. The technology appeared to be on life support on the way to being declared dead. And then, last night at CEDIA, Microsoft made a trio of announcements that revived the technology. Here's why Media Center fans finally have reason to be enthusiastic about cable support.

Last week, I was prepared to write off CableCARD support in Windows Media Center. When I went shopping on the web for new Dell and HP systems last week, I couldn’t find a single one that offered a CableCARD option. Instead, the technology appeared to be relegated exclusively to niche PC makers selling high-end systems. By all objective measures, the technology was on life support, about to be declared dead.

And then, last night at the annual CEDIA show in Atlanta, Microsoft made a handful of Media Center announcements. Several were expected, but this one was a complete surprise:

Microsoft and CableLabs announced that customers will now be able to add digital cable tuners with CableCARD to a Windows 7-based PC with Windows Media Center. A new tool will be provided by Microsoft that assesses the PC's ability to support the solution. This tool will analyze the customer's PC and enable digital cable support if the PC meets requirements, opening digital cable options to Windows Media Center customers across the country.

In addition, a firmware update for existing digital tuners will relax the restrictions that prevent copying some programs. Currently, every program recorded using a CableCARD-equipped tuner is saddled with the most restrictive form of DRM available, even high-definition over-the-air broadcasts that can be freely shared if tuned via an antenna. After the firmware update, any program with the Copy Freely tag can be transcoded, synced with a portable device, or shared with another PC. In theory, that means you won't see this message nearly as often:

The final announcement confirmed that CableCARD tuners will support adapters to enable support for switched digital video (SDV).

Over the past two years, I’ve been using three CableCARD tuners on a pair of PCs in my home. After a rocky start, the technology has settled down to the point where it works very well. It’s still a hassle to set up, usually requiring a visit from the cable company, but once those initial hurdles are overcome, it just works. (For a detailed look at the Windows Vista version of this technology, see “Windows Media Center meets cable TV in HD.”)

When these changes take effect, I’ll finally be able to consolidate multiple digital media functions—recording HD programs from cable and broadcast sources as well as playing back Blu-ray disks—into a single small-footprint PC in the living room. Media Center enthusiasts finally have something to look forward to this fall.

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