High-tech purists and standup comedians alike may heap scorn upon it, but cable is by far the most popular way to get high-definition TV. High-def programs require a digital TV and tuner, either built into the TV set or in the set-top box supplied by the cable company—like my Comcast Motorola DCT 6412, which has a builtin hard-disk recorder, otherwise known as a DVR (digital video recorder).
We’ve been in our Northern California home approximately as long as Comcast has been offering HD service. When it was first made available in our neighborhood four years ago,Comcast trucks were seen on every street for weeks. The two overworked young hotshots who installed our system said they were expected to complete dozens of installations per day, and they ran from truck to house and back to complete their tasks before dashing to the next customer. Their energy and enthusiasm exceeded their technical knowledge, however—despite their professed expertise, neither of them had ever seen pro-style BNC connectors as on the back of my preamp/processor, and their initial setup was a letterboxed image that didn’t fill my 16:9 monitor screen.
Technical confusion pops up elsewhere with Comcast. Nowhere in the company’s DVR manual does it state how to set video output to match a display’s native rate—480i, 480p,720p, or 1080i. To do this, you must turn the box Off, then hit Menu which puts you in setup mode. It’s one of those secrets cable customers learn by watching technicians and then share with each other. Comcast’s customer service can be less than exemplary and dial-up tech support can be discouraging. When the DVR required a reset from headquarters, a phone support person insisted that I “autoprogram the TV” even after I patiently explained that I didn’t have a TV, but a monitor (a TV with no tuner).
Even so, Comcast’s service is generally good. While its HDTV offerings could be more extensive, I have nothing but praise for the company’s high-speed Internet service. It’s a huge leap over Verizon DSL, which we used before—so fast that Web sites pop up almost before I’ve finished typing the URL. We’ve had very few outages, and service calls have been prompt and courteous.
The DVR is the beating heart of the HDTV experience. TiVo cultists dismiss DVRs from other companies, but for me Comcast’s Motorola DCT 6412 has always been easy to use and very reliable. Its two drawbacks are its 120GB hard drive, which is not big enough to accommodate all the HD recordings I’d like to keep, and you can’t offload recordings to an external hard-disk the way you can with Dish Network’s DVR.
Gripes aside, the 6412 excels at conflict resolution. The Dolby Digital 5.1-enabled box has two tuners so you can record two shows simultaneously (both in HD, if desired) or watch one while recording another. Outputs include HDMI, digital audio (coax and optical), analog component video, stereo analog audio, S-video, and composite video. All outputs are active simultaneously, allowing feeds to multiple displays and audio systems, which I have done a couple of times out of sheer curiosity.
The back of the DVR also has a USB connector, an Ethernet port, two IEEE 1394 (FireWire) jacks, and a connector labeled SATA, supposedly to feed a SATA external hard drive. None of these are explained in Comcast’s user guide; Motorola’s Web site calls them future features. As far as I’ve been able to determine, none are active—I tried connecting a freshly formatted external hard drive to the USB and FireWire ports, but there was no indication in any deep probing of the DVR’s menu that the cable box recognized the drive or that I could transfer recordings to it.
Although it’s used only a few hours per week—I’m no TV junkie—the Comcast DVR is a central fixture in my home entertainment system. The DVR and my Linn Unidisk SC universal disc player feed an Optoma HD-7100 projector (1280 x 720), the DVR via analog component video, the Linn via HDMI. Both look excellent on my 80-inch-wide VuTech screen. My sound system consists of a Parasound Halo C2 preamp/processor, Halo A51 fivechannel power amp, and DALI Ikon speaker system with a James 10 SG powered subwoofer. All electronics are powered by a 20-amp dedicated line feeding an APC S15 power conditioner. The cable is triple-grounded: where it enters the house, at the outlet, and directly outside the wall opposite my equipment rack, with a hollow copper rod driven into the ground. My experience has been that video and audio background noise is vanishingly low and playback fidelity astoundingly high. When I sit down to watch a movie or favorite TV show, it’s a total immersion experience.