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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

April 6, 2009 at 2:26 PM

More on Comcast digital: TiVos, Media Centers, HD and “free”

Lots of great questions came up after this morning’s piece on Comcast’s digital switch and how it will affect people with TiVos and Media Center PCs.

One reader asked when Comcast is switching expanded basic from analog to digital. The transition is happening in areas south and north of Seattle, and it will be done throughout this region by the end of the year. It started earlier with the switch in Western Oregon, and it’s also happening now in the San Francisco area.

Here’s the most recent schedule for the Puget Sound region and a list of affected channels.

A few readers have had hassles getting the free digital boxes. Expanded basic customers are eligible for one free basic set top box and two smaller “DTA” converter devices. One reader said she received her third free box only after talking to a customer-service supervisor and mentioning today’s article.

Several pointed out that “free” is a relative term. For instance, some noted that when the free converters are connected, they no longer receive high definition signals. An excerpt from a note a received this morning:

They informed me that yes, it was true that the digital box wouldn’t allow an HD signal but they could “upgrade” me to HD for an additional $6.95 per month. I do not understand why I should pay more for an HD signal that I was already receiving before Comcast so generously “gave” me a digital box.

Another had the same experience, but managed to get the fee waived after several rounds with customer service:

I said what happened to the Comcast ads that said if you’re a Comcast customer you don’t have to do a thing for the change over, you’re ready? I further added that I wouldn’t pay for a HD box given I was already getting HD channels before this latest change, plus I never wanted another box to deal with & what happens to my HD television that came with a remote control that does many a thing now I’m stuck having to use Comcast’s box for HD?

We were given a larger still box, now HD ready & a remote to program so we didn’t lose what our remote already does. ‘I’ll reduce your internet bill by $6.50 to settle the charge you don’t want to pay, it’ll be good for a year.’ What do I do after the year when I still don’t want to pay? ‘Come back in and ask for the promotion again & they’ll give it to you’ was the answer I got.

Another asked about delivery of the boxes. To get them for free, you have to pick them up at a Comcast storefront. You can also have them delivered or installed for a fee.

A number of people asked about their TiVo setups. The company actually has a really handy guide online that shows what TiVo owners need to do if their cable service is transitioning to digital format. It explains the variations for different TiVo generations.

I also heard from a tech savvy TiVo user who noted that Series 3 users will need two CableCards to get multiple streams of cable signal from a multistream card. Newer TiVos — the HD series — are fine with a single card.

A few asked about VCRs being affected by the digital switch. Here’s an earlier piece about that topic, plus some previous FAQs that cover a lot of questions about the Comcast switch.

Finally, a reader on Phinney Ridge suggested people consider his setup: Bare bones basic — up to channel 29 — supplemented with free over-the-air, high def digital broadcasts. The basic service qualified him for bundle pricing on Comcast broadband, cutting his overall bill.

Lastly, if Media Center PC users would like to hear directly what Comcast suggests, here are verbatim answers I received when I asked how the switch would affect those systems.

Answer one:

Customers with a Media Center PC with an analog tuner would need to use a DTA to convert the signal to analog to then feed into the PC TV card — however, the PC is then no longer the tuner, which means the DVR software can no longer change the channel on the PC. The solution would be for the customer to get an IR blaster in addition to the IR input the customer already had on his Media Center PC. The Microsoft DVR software has the ability to learn new IR codes to control external devices through a process of trial and error. The customer will go though the device set up process that exists on the Media Center setup screens. At the end of this process the PC will be able to pass IR commands to the DTA to tune a specific channel at specific times for DVR functionality.

I then asked about Media Centers with digital tuners, and whether they can watch and record shows at the same time with expanded basic and a converter box. The answers:

Regarding a digital tuner in an MCE PC:

This is the same as if they had a QAM tuner in their television. Once the channels are encrypted, they would need a DTA or set top (box).

Regarding watching and recording simultaneously:

In a typical installation, customers would not have the ability to watch and record when using a DTA or set top. However, if the customer has a device with two RF inputs, they could use a splitter on the incoming cable feed, with one output from the splitter going through the set top or DTA, and then into the first input on the device, and the second output from the splitter going directly into the 2nd input on the device. This would allow them to watch or record all channels offered on the DTA or set top that are part of their package on the first input, and allow watch or record functionality for the Limited Basic channels only on the 2nd input (because the Limited Basic channels are still available in analog).

Comments | Topics: Comcast, digital TV, media center pc


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