Understanding Digital Cable TV

Like its name suggests, digital cable gets the signal into your home digitally. Unlike analog cable signals, which can be prone to noise and interference, digital cable signals are completely noise-free. This gives you a sharper, cleaner image than conventional cable.

Digital cable gives you everything you’re accustomed to with regular cable — a wide variety of programming, including all of your local channels. Most digital cable providers offer a selection of programming packages, from basic channels to premium movie packages. The exact packages available depend on location, so check with your local cable provider.
Digital cable and HDTV

Some digital cable programs are broadcast in stunning high-definition, offering up to five times the resolution of standard-definition. In fact, some stations broadcast all their programs in HD. However, keep in mind that just because something’s digital doesn’t mean it’s HD. The term “digital” simply refers to how the signal gets into your home. A digital signal can provide both high-definition and standard-definition programs.
What you need

You have three different ways to get digital cable: a cable box, CableCARD, or an HDTV with a QAM tuner. We’ll discuss each of the three options below.

Cable box
A lot of folks use a set-top box in order to receive digital cable signals. There are a few different types of cable boxes. In addition to regular boxes, most providers offer some that are capable of receiving high-definition programming. Other boxes give you a built-in hard drive (DVR) so you can easily record your favorite shows. You may also find HD DVRs that allow you to watch and record programs in high-definition. The kind of box you need depends on the services you select. Your cable company will provide the box when you sign up for service.

Keep in mind that you don’t own the box, you simply lease it, so a small fee will appear on your cable bill each month. The good news is since you don’t own the box, you can easily get a new one from your cable provider if you decide to upgrade your service at a later date.

If you have more than one TV, you’ll need a separate box for each television. A small fee for each additional box will also appear on your monthly cable bill.

QAM tuner
Many new HDTVs include a built-in QAM digital cable tuner. These tuners allow you to tune in unscrambled digital cable channels without the need for additional hardware such as a cable box. Simply connect the “coax” cable coming out of your wall to your TV, and you’re good to go. You still need to subscribe to your local cable service, but you get the advantage of watching crystal-clear digital cable programs without another box taking up space in your component rack. QAM tuners typically let you watch you all your local network programming, including high-definition shows if your cable provider offers them.

CableCARD is a relatively new technology that provides an alternative to a set-top cable box. Similar to a cable box, it decodes encrypted digital cable information so you’re able to watch it on your TV. It’s about the size of a stack of credit cards, and plugs into built-in slots on compatible televisions, DVRs, and other Digital Cable Ready devices, letting you enjoy digital cable without the need for a separate box. See our article on understanding CableCARDs for more information.

On July 1, 2007, a new FCC mandate kicked in which requires all newly manufactured digital cable boxes to be compatible with CableCARD. This could benefit consumers by allowing them to purchase their own cable boxes and DVRs. You’d be free to buy whatever box had the features you’re looking for, and you wouldn’t have to return that DVR with hours of recorded programs if you move and change providers. After buying a box, you would contact your cable company for the CableCARD, and the card would give you access to your provider’s cable system.

Cable companies argue that it gives the box no added functionality, and the changeover to a CableCARD-based system will drive up costs which would be passed on to consumers. Since many cable companies will be using boxes produced before July 1, 2007 for a while, this issue probably won’t affect consumers for quite some time.

Similar to CableCARD, tru2way (formerly known as “OpenCable”) is a technology that could potentially eliminate the need for a set-top cable box. TVs equipped with this technology could give you access to your cable company’s program guide without the need for additional hardware. It’s currently in the testing phase, so it may be awhile before tru2way-compatible equipment is available at Crutchfield and other national retailers.

If you’re a new cable subscriber, a visit from your cable company is required for installation. If you already subscribe to regular cable and are stepping up to digital, a technician’s visit may or may not be needed. To find out exactly what installation in your area entails, contact your local cable provider.
Connecting a cable box

When a technician hooks up your cable box, he or she will typically use RG-59 (or “coax”) cable to connect the box to your television. This type of connection is fine if you just want to make sure the box works, but it’s not the connection you want to use for daily viewing since it won’t give you a very good picture and sound. The technician may be willing to hook up the box using better connections if you have the proper cables on hand, so you might ask him or her at the time.

For the best picture, you’ll want to use the highest quality video connection your cable box and TV have in common. Any of the familiar analog connections will do if you’re not interested in high-definition or your TV doesn’t have a digital input, though component video is still the best. For more information on component video and other analog connections, check out this info on video connections.

If your TV has a digital input, you may want to consider making an HDMI connection. This all-digital interface can yield the best picture and also carry audio, letting you make a simple, one-cable connection between your cable box and TV. Plus, HDMI is backwards-compatible with the older digital video connection, DVI. For more information, read our article on the ins and outs of HDMI.

However, not all cable boxes have HDMI connections, so be sure to check with your cable provider if you’d like to use this connection. If your HDTV or cable box does not have HDMI, you can use component video instead — it’s also capable of carrying a high-def signal.

Of course, the picture is only half the experience, so you’ll need to make an audio connection as well. If you’re connecting your cable box directly to your TV, good old audio patch cables will do the trick. However, quite a few programs are broadcast in surround sound. We recommend taking advantage of it, especially if you already have a home theater system. Most digital cable boxes can send audio to your receiver via an optical or coaxial digital connection.

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