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Plug and Play DTV?

By Jim Bray

Get ready for “digital cable ready,” one of the next steps in the move from analog to digital broadcasting.

If you're as old as me (which my kids seem to think is in Methusela territory), you probably remember when TV's and VCR's went “cable ready” back in the old days of analog broadcasting. These were products that included more sophisticated tuners that could bring in all the channels a cable company was likely to offer – up to 180 or so (regardless of how many channels were actually offered by a particular cable company!).

The point was to ensure that TV's and VCR's could handle the widest variety of signals, without the consumer having to buy an add-on device such as a separate set top cable tuner. This is also why manufacturers started adding A/V jacks to their TV “monitor/receivers” (to facilitate better quality hookup for VCR's and, later, laserdisc/DVD players). It was a “consumer friendly” move, in that all the owner had to do was “plug” in the cable, program the channels, and “play” the TV.

Just about everything on the market is “cable ready” now - but that just doesn't cut it any more. Thanks to satellite television and digital cable - and HDTV - the traditional analog “cable ready” tuners that are built into modern televisions are basically superfluous.

After all, what difference does a 180 channel tuner make (or two tuners, if a TV has true picture in picture capability) when you don't use the built in tuner in the first place?

A personal example: my HD-ready big screen was state-of-the-art three years ago and has two tuner PIP built in. But even when it was brand new, I never used its tuners because I get my TV from a set top receiver that interfaces directly with the TV's component video inputs, bypassing the tuner(s) completely.

Which brings us to “Digital Cable Ready.”

Digital cable ready means that, when you've signed up with a compliant cable system, you'll be able to merely plug the cable into your compliant HD TV, then play high definition and digital cable (depending on what the cable company offers) without having to use a set-top box.

Good idea, yes?

“Digital Cable Ready” is the official term for a high definition television that meets the plug-and-play digital cable TV standard using POD (point of deployment or point of delivery, depending on who you ask) CableCARDs. CableCARDs are where the cable “rubber” meets the TV “road,” and they look like a PCMCIA card for a computer.

CableCARDs enable a device (TV, PVR, etc.) to decode encrypted, or scrambled, content delivered from cable systems. This could be specialty channels, HD, PPV, or whatever. It appears to be really just an interface that gives the cable company control over what your “digital cable ready TV” will display in basically the same way the digital cable box does now, but without the box.

The TV's themselves are also going upmarket as far as their tuning capabilities are concerned, with a lot of flexibility built in via new ATSC/NTSC/QAM tuners that should make available just about any type of signal there is.

You'll be seeing digital cable ready TV's from various brands almost as you read this. But don't expect the first generation to offer the “full meal deal.” According to my sources, they won't allow access to on screen channel guides or Pay Per View products, though the second generation – wearing the new “Interactive Digital Cable Ready” label - should take care of this shortcoming.

Alas, there'll be copy protection built in so Hollywood can have its cake and eat it, too.

Of course the TV's and recorders are only one part of the equation: the receiving end. The sending end – the cable companies - also need to get on board for the system to work, though this is probably inevitable.

Canadian consumers, at least initially, won't see as many digital cable ready models of TV offered as in the US, and this is par for the course. Panasonic, for example, will offer a full line of digital cable ready models in the US, but Canadian models will initially be limited to one rear projection DLP unit. If and when the market demands more, however, this will undoubtedly change.

In the meantime, this is a good first step toward getting rid of set top boxes. Other advantages include the associated reduction in the number of connecting cables you need to buy – and not needing a set top box will free up a valuable wall socket!

Having one more place to plug some new and exciting gadget would certainly be a nice benefit in my home theater, where there are never enough plugs (let alone circuits!) to go around!


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