HTPC Windows Media Center

Why CableCARD Self-Installs Are a Bad Idea

Disclosure: While Adam Thursby does mention this in this article, we want to make it very clear that he is a cable technician for a national cable company.
–Editor

motorola_cablecardAs of August 8th, cable TV operators that offer set-top boxes for self-install are required to allow customers to self-install CableCARDs.  This is great for those of us who use Ceton’s InfiniTV4 or will be using one of the devices that will be launching soon.  You’ll save money by not paying for a truck roll and normally, CableCARD install just means getting the device into your tuner and making a phone call.
Like most things however, solving one problem can cause many others.  The vast majority of readers here, and those who use CableCARD tuners are very technically minded.  They typically know what they’re doing when it comes to PC hardware, software and networking.  Many even understand RF signals and what’s needed to provide a good experience.  The first issue that can come up however, is someone who is technically inclined believing that they have all the knowledge necessary to make changes to their cable system without all the information or needing a truck roll.

A full 50% of the trouble calls (TCs) that I’ve seen are the result of someone adding outlets, splits and using poor quality cable and equipment.  Let’s look at an example to show what I mean.  Understand, this isn’t me digging on technically inclined people.  This is me hoping people understand that paying for that tech to show up might be a better idea:

A year ago you got digital cable but had STBs provided by your cable company.  The tech showed up, did what he had to do and got you up and running.  Your STB has been running perfectly ever since, including internet and maybe even phone.  A year later you decide it’s time for CableCARD and a new tuner.  Good for you because the experience in Media Center can’t be beat.  Now that you can self-install CableCARD, you go to your local office, pick up a card and TA if needed and off you go.  You get behind your TV (or wherever your HTPC is) add a three-way splitter to power your modem, TA and tuner.  You bought some stuff at Radio Shack and paid good money so you figure it must be good stuff.

Once pairing is complete you have full premium digital cable in your HTPC.  Awesome!  You ditch the STB and move ahead with flipping your family to Media Center.  About two weeks later, you realize that you’re seeing a lot of macroblocking, channels are dropping and in general, the experience is starting to go south.  Your family is upset because the STB was always reliable and now you’re having issues.  Finally angry enough, you set an appointment to get a tech out to your house to take a look.  The tech knows that you have say, four outlets.  He arrives and discovers you now have six.  Oh, and he also notices that you have some really bad RG-59 cable with crimp on fittings.  The ones you paid good money for at Radio Shack.  Awesome.  Now he has to spend the next hour or more re-configuring your entire system in order to get you the levels you need.  In the back of his mind, he knows all of this could have been avoided had the customer simply called for an upgrade and paid for the service in the first place.

In the example above,  the customer thought he knew better.  The bad part is that not only did he not know better, but he spent a good bit of money for nothing anyway since the first thing I’m going to do as a tech is rip out the “Radio Shack Specials” he just installed.  Sure, he didn’t pay for the service call but still had to deal with the interruption and the lack of quality that has upset his family.

Many people who use Ceton’s InfiniTV4 tuner believe they can use the diagnostic pages to troubleshoot their issues.  This is a great start as Ceton provides a ton of information on these pages that cane be really helpful in finding issues.  Again, these pages are a great START.  To really see what’s going on however, you need other equipment that 99.9% of people don’t own.  As someone said to me earlier today, “signal level does not equal signal quality” and that SNR reading simply doesn’t provide the whole picture.

Solutions

Saying that something is bad without providing an alternative is easy.  So how do we fix it?  How do we ensure that a cable technician isn’t going to screw up our HTPC but still ensure that we’re going to get the best experience possible?  First, just suck it up and take the truck roll fee.  You probably know a lot more than that tech about your HTPC and you may even know more about how CableCARD works but you don’t know signal issues that can come up.  Because we’re combining two technologies, it takes different disciplines to ensure we get a system that’s going to perform as expected.

Let the tech do his job.  If he’s any good at it (and yes, like any other service position, there are bad ones) you’ll have the signal you need for a great HTPC experience.  Be sure to be ready to explain to him what you want since most, if not all cable techs, have never seen an HTPC and probably haven’t done many CableCARD installs.  The ones they have seen have been for TiVo so the concept of an HTPC goes beyond their experience.  If you work together with the technician instead of assuming that he’s going to screw everything up it’ll be a much smoother process.  Cable isn’t an exact science.  Many a time I’ve walked in to a home thinking I knew the solution and discovered that a second trip is needed because of something I missed.  It’s easy to do since so much goes into ensuring a good signal.  No one is perfect and we can all miss things.

Your job is to help him where he doesn’t have experience.  Getting the card into your tuner, bringing up the setup pages and the Ceton (or other company) diagnostics, etc.  He’s probably never seen these before so cut him a break.  Again, working together is a requirement.

Conclusion

You can take the $40 that you’d spend on a truck roll and head to your local Radio Shack if you want.  Pick up that CableCARD and have at it.  I wish you luck.  In my opinion however you’re better off working with your cable company and technician to ensure you get the best experience possible.  You’ll avoid a TC down the road.  While there, any cable tech worth his salt will make sure you’ve got a good drop, new splitters and fittings, etc.  (If you have any crimp on or blue colored fittings, make him change them.  RG-59 drop?  Tell him you want a new one.)

In the end, how you spend your money is up to you.  While having the option to self-install CableCARD is a good thing from a competition and freedom of choice standpoint, you’ll want to put a lot of thought into it before just grabbing one and giving it a go.

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