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CableCARD - Coming to (Any) PC Near You

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: M.S. Smith•updated: 10/22/2009

CableCARD has existed as a cable broadcasting standard for years, but it has been traditionally kept under close guard. Only pre-built PCs approved by CableCARD's inventor, Cablelabs, could use it. But that is now changing, and HTPCs will be better for it.

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    Closing the Analog Hole

    As many readers are likely aware, there has been a strong push across the globe to end unencrypted TV broadcasting. In the U.S. this has manifested itself in a congressional mandate forcing the situation to digital television. Although digital television ostensibly offers a better picture and stronger single, it is a problem for HTPCs used to record video cable television. New digital encryption has threated to make it impossible for HTPCs to record digital cable.

    But there is a new hope in the form of an old standard - CableCARD. CableCARD has never been a hugely popular standard, as most cable companies prefer to use their own boxes for controlling cable access, but it does offer a standard for encryption and decryption of digital television.

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    What is CableCARD?

    CableCARD devices are usually small, card-like devices, but CableCARD abilities canbe added to other devices CableCARD is both a standard and a physical item. The standard, currently known as CableCARD 2.0, was developed by a group called Cablelabs. Cablelabs itself is run by major cable companies, which is hardly surprising. It is essentially a method of encrypting and decrypting the information being sent from the cable company to your home so as to make sure that no party can gain access to that data without authorization.

    Typically, authorization is provided by the use of a physical CableCARD, a small card-like device similar to a PCMCIA card. Normally a cable company making use of CableCARD would require a technician to install the CableCARD at the initial setup of cable service in the home. It should be noted, however, that devices capable of decrypting the CableCARD standard can take any form, so the "card" portion of the name is somewhat misleading.

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    What's the Big Deal?

    Since the creation of CableCARD its inventor, Cablelabs, has been extremely stringent about how the standard was used. While CableCARD always has promise as a method for decrypting cable television on a PC, Cablelabs would not allow CableCARD to be used on computers they did not specifically approve. As with most things in the open-format world of the PC, Cablelab's tight clamp on usage meant that CableCARD never picked up steam.

    However, Microsoft has somehow made a deal with Cablelabs to let go of that restriction. Cablelabs will instead allow CableCARD to function on any computer which meets certain requirements. Those requirements will be checked by a CableCARD compatibility tool that will be developed by Microsoft. In addition, CableCARDs for PCs will be able to use the Copy Freely flag, a DRM flag which was not previously enabled, thus disallowing users to copy programs decrypted by CableCARD.

    What this means is that it should soon be possible to rent and/or buy CableCARD products which can be placed inside a TV and used to record encrypted digital television. This is significant, as it was until now unclear how HTPC users would be able to record cable television as unencrypted sources continue to disappear.

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    The Bad News

    The fact that CableCARD will lose many of its restrictions is great, but there are a few downsides. The most obvious is that a CableCARD will obviously be an additional piece of hardware which must be dealt with. This will add another cost onto an HTPC. It would also be good to have a standard which did not require physical hardware, but at this point it seems that CableCARD will only be available as a physical device.

    The other bit of bad news is that all of this is still a little muddled. It isn't quite clear when CableCARD devices will become available. In addition, the press release which announced this development indicated this is a Windows 7 only feature, and there has been nothing said to the contrary. Lastly, it isn't clear what requirements a PC will need to meet in order to allow CableCARD to function on it.

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    Coming Soon

    Despite the foggy outlook, CableCARD for HTPC should be widely available in short order. The fact that Microsoft has announced this as a Windows 7 feature at least indicates that Microsoft would like this to debut in step with the release of Windows 7. The release of CableCARD openly to PCs is a major development, and one that any HTPC should keep an eye on.