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Will Tru2way Open the Cable Box? Tune In Later...

I spent yesterday afternoon wandering around the Washington Convention Center looking in vain for one thing: a digital video recorder that you could buy in a store, then use with the cable service of your choice.

cable_show.jpg

This unsuccessful search took place at the Cable Show, a convention organized by the Washington-based National Cable and Telecommunications Association. At this year's show, one of the headline attractions is a technology called tru2way.

Unlike earlier attempts at interoperable standards for cable reception -- the widely supported but severely limited QAM and its more capable but largely ignored sibling, the CableCard -- tru2way works with both regular channels and encrypted, premium fare like HBO. It also supports a cable operator's full range of interactive services, such as electronic program guides and video-on-demand services. And it should be available by the end of this year.

Its appeal should be obvious to anybody who's had to ante up $7, $10 or more every month for a cable box that takes up too much space below the TV, features a button-festooned remote control designed with minimal consideration of its usability, and uses too much electricity.

Put simply, you won't find a more fundamentally broken market anywhere in the electronics business because the people who use cable boxes aren't the ones who buy them. Only cable operators do that, and they don't have to deal with such problems as wasteful electrical consumption or ugly, awkward onscreen interfaces.

You can't count on the cable company to fix these problems in any sort of hurry, either. At the Cable Show, TiVo showed off the same Comcast-branded, TiVo-powered digital video recorder I saw demonstrated in the summer of 2007, but still couldn't say when it would be available to subscribers in the D.C. area because it's still in testing in the Boston market.

tru2way.jpg

Tru2way could break the cable-box market wide open. But what I saw yesterday suggests that, at least for the first few years, it will only provide a slightly wider choice of boxes. Motorola, Panasonic and Echostar all showed off tru2way digital video recorders, some with interesting features. For example, the Echostar units included a built-in Slingbox for remote viewing. But each company's representatives said they only planned to sell these to cable operators, not individual customers.

Panasonic did display a pair of plasma televisions with tru2way tuners, each tuned into a live feed Comcast had switched on for the show. But they couldn't pause or record a cable broadcast.

At the back end of that company's small exhibit, however, I found a different sort of device -- a compact, cable-compatible, high-definition digital video recorder with an enormous hard drive that could also burn your recordings to a DVD or copy them to an SD memory card for offline viewing in other devices. This model, however, didn't feature a tru2way logo on the front. Its remote control didn't even feature English characters, because this recorder is sold only in Japan. There, Panasonic chief technology officer Paul Liao explained, the government brokered a different cable-reception standard.

That's the kind of device I'd like to see tru2way (or, better yet, a broader standard that also covered satellite reception) make possible. But it seems that I'd have to emigrate to buy such a thing. Suppose instead that you didn't have to move to buy the video recorder of your choice, and that you could choose from a wide range of products that would all work with the TV service of your choice. In that case, what features would you want to see on that video recorder?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  April 2, 2009; 12:20 PM ET
Categories:  TV , Video  
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Comments

Actually, if the industry could just step up and make it like analog cable now, where you don't need a separate boxes/remotes to just watch different channels on different TVS, that's all I ask. Because then I'm sure the digital equivalent of simple VCRs will start to show up.

Posted by: koalatek | April 2, 2009 2:00 PM | Report abuse

I have a Comcast DVR and like it do some extent. However, like the previous commenter, I don't like boxes in general. They are very slow and take up way too much room. So, I would very much like to have a box (if I have to have one) like the one sold in Japan. In any case the following are my wish list for features:
1. High Definition.
2. Interactivity so that the cable company's offerings for the evening can be chosen easily for recording.
3. A chasing feature.
4. Burn to disc.
5. High capacity hard drive
6. Small physical footprint.
7. Very high speed in reacting to commands.

Posted by: Edgemoor | April 2, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse

The Cox DVR, with a logitech Harmony remote, is Good Enough.

Ideal would be an iMac with Boxee, and an EyeTV dongle that you could plug a CableCard into. Use the iMac as the DVR.

Posted by: wiredog | April 2, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

There was one lurking at the Digeo/Moxi booth, Rob:

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_gw?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=Digeo&x=17&y=21

And of course a home DVR that runs off a CableCARD is what TiVo sells at retail.

Your main point is well taken of course. But such products would be more likely to be featured at CES, where retailers shop, than at NCTA, where the cable operators shop.

Bob S

Posted by: rschwartz1 | April 2, 2009 5:28 PM | Report abuse

Bob - thanks for the reminder. Will check that out tomorrow afternoon. (But isn't the Moxi box a CableCard-only--i.e., not tru2way--device?)

- RP

Posted by: robpegoraro | April 2, 2009 11:54 PM | Report abuse

Digeo's retail Moxi box is not tru2way. It's one-way CableCARD device, like the TiVoHD.

Posted by: davezatz | April 3, 2009 7:56 AM | Report abuse

Rob -- Yes, did not mean to imply that the Digeo and TiVo products are Tru2way. But took your laudable theme as the paucity of retail HD-DVR products that work on cable. These do, as well as connecting on-line. Keep up the great work and coverage.

Posted by: rschwartz1 | April 3, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse

Rob, glad to read your changes in internet viewing. We are also Post weekly subscribers. I enjoy reading your articles.
I tried connecting my Verizon FIOS cable directly to my HDTV digital tuner and found that I could view quite a few channels, some in 720p resolution. Do you think Verizon will come up with a way to block this reception so we would have to have one of their cable boxes on every TV in the house?

JJW

Posted by: jjw7210 | April 3, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

"...you won't find a more fundamentally broken market anywhere in the electronics business because the people who use cable boxes aren't the ones who buy them."

Actually, this sounds an awful lot like the American health insurance market -- just substitute "healthcare services" for "cable boxes".

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | April 4, 2009 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Is there a Directv compatible DVR that doesn't require a monthly subscription? It really annoys me to pay monthly fees, when I'm perfectly capable of programming it myself (reminds me of the old "people can't figure out how to use VCR's so all over the country VCR's sit there with blinking lights becasue people can't figure out how to use them" argument).

Posted by: stevehc | April 6, 2009 2:48 PM | Report abuse

I have often wondered about the same thing Rob. Back in 1996 DirecTV equipment purchase and install cost $1,400.00. Today it is almost zero but with strings like minimum contracts and or fees for DVR use. The result is higher and higher monthly costs forever.
A good example is the old fashioned telephone. In the early '70's, it was owned and serviced by the telephone company. Today they are customer owned and the service is less expensive. Everyone buys as much or as little as they need. If ownership of the "standardized" equipment produced lower monthly fees for content, I would be all for it. Also paying for only those channels you want would be great.

Posted by: george_b_42 | April 7, 2009 5:39 PM | Report abuse

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