Why CableCard isn’t on the Mac

Over the last year there’s one question that keeps floating up in e-mail I get from readers and on our forums: Why can’t Mac users in the U.S. record digital programming from some source other than over-the-air ATSC broadcasts? (Sure, you can attach your Mac to a cable or satellite box via something such as Elgato’s line of EyeTV products. But that’s an analog capture of a formerly digital signal.)

Take this note I received last week from reader Robert M:

Hi Jason, I’m interested in recording TV on my Mac, but I don’t want to use over-the-air programming. I want a way to use an EyeTV with a cablecard somehow. How do I do this?

CableLabs' CableCard is a congressionally-mandated standard that lets companies other than your local cable outlet create devices that work with digital cable, including scrambled premium and high-definition content. (Yes, satellite subscribers, you’re completely out of luck—the satellite companies escaped the wrath of this particular law.) CableCard is, basically, a digital cable decoder in a small card. Your cable company is mandated by law to offer them. And when you plug one into a TiVo HD or a Home Theater PC, those devices suddenly have access to all the same digital content as your cable box would.

So imagine a world where you could buy an add-on device for a Mac that would let you use the EyeTV software to turn your Mac into a complete high-def DVR via cable, rather than over-the-air digital. Sounds like a cool idea… but there’s a catch.

I asked Elgato Product Marketing Manager Lars Felber to explain what the deal is — Elgato's products will record over-the-air digital signals, analog signals from cable and cable boxes, and unencrypted over-cable signals that use the ClearQAM method, but don't support CableCard—and here’s what he told me.

ATI currently makes the only CableCard ready tuner for computers. However, it cannot be sold standalone, it must be sold with a new Vista PC as a CableLabs-certified solution. One requirement for such a certified tuner/PC package is that the PC’s video-out preserves the encryption and the digital rights of the content (it needs to support HDCP).

Currently, Macs don’t come with HDMI and DisplayPort content protection is not available to third parties.

So in other words, it's a bunch of bad stuff combined together. There are the copy-protection issues around CableCard, mandated by content owners who are terrified of piracy. There's Apple’s lack of interest (at least, so far) in creating a CableCard-ready Mac. There are access issues with the new DisplayPort connection. The result is a situation where Mac users are basically out of luck when it comes to CableCards. It looks like if you want to buy a computer that can use a CableCard, it’s going to have to be a Vista PC. At least for now.

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