Preparing For The Digital Cable Conversion

digital_cableFor the last two years, we’ve been subscribers to Comcast for our TV and Internet connections. To have access to the premium channels, my wife and I decided to get the digital cable service which requires the use of a Set Top Box (STB) to unscramble the signals. It was kind of a bummer having to use a special remote for operating the STB, but over time we got use to it. Fortunately, my Desktop PC’s TV Tuner card was still able to receive channels 1 through 99 from our digital cable connection (without a STB), so I could still watch and record all of my favorite TV shows.

This will all change as of next month (June) when Comcast changes how they plan to send their digital signals to our cable line. As it turns out, only channels 1 through 29 will be unencrypted while all channels 30 and above will require a STB. As such, my current TV tuner card setup will only work for a limited number of channels. To have access to the higher channels, I’ll need to get a STB for my PC as well. The problem is, The TV Tuner card will no longer be used as a “Tuner”, as the STB will be controlling what channel signal is decrypted and sent as video output. Thus, I need to find a way for my main recording software (Vista Media Center) to interact with the STB to change the channels when programmed to do so.

After lots of Internet searching, it appears that I must use an archaic method involving Infrared Red (IR) emitters attached to the front of the STB box to do the channel changing. So to make this happen, I’ll need to buy a very specific Windows Media Center Remote system to connect to my PC.

Once setup, the Vista Media Center software will send a command to the IR emitters (or “Blasters”) which will be pointing to the IR receiver on the STB. The command will tell the STB to change the channel to the specified channel to be recorded. This operation is exactly as if you were holding the remote control and changing the channel manually. Once that is done, Vista Media Center will begin recording the TV show.

The fact that you have to use IR Emitters to “pretend” to be a handheld remote seems very stone-age. What if the STB doesn’t receive the signals just right? What if there’s a glitch? In those cases, the channel won’t be set correctly and you’ll be recording some random TV show! It’s ironic that this latest and greatest “Digital” technology requires a McGyver like system to make it work with Vista Media Center. 😦

Unfortunately, there are no other better options. You can’t buy a special TV Tuner card to replace the STB (unless you get one that uses a “CableCard” which are only sold with pre-built media systems). And, there are no special interfaces or ports on the STB that allows your PC to control the channel changing. Thus, I have about a month before I will need to get an extra STB from Comcast and a Windows Media Center certified Remote to continue recording my SciFi Channel and History Channel shows. Or, maybe I’ll just go back to watching only the Prime Time TV broadcasts (which are free OTA)?

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