A Tale of HD and DRM

About a month and a half ago I finally upgraded to an HDTV. The old SD set has been on it's deathbed for a while, plus I wanted to get both an AppleTV and an X-Box 360 (the former of which requires an HDTV and the latter is certainly a much better experience in HD.) So I made the jump, bought the TV, and then tried to get an HD cable box from Time Warner Cable.

That's where it starts to get complicated.

TWC, you see, apparently does a really bad job of actually keeping their HD boxes in stock. There's almost always a waiting list, sometimes as long as two months. In my case, I only had to wait about six weeks. Not as bad as it could have been, but still absolutely ridiculous to have to wait that long. What's the problem here? Why can't you keep these things in stock? They can't possibly be that popular and hot (and, even so, if that's the case then maybe you might consider upping your orders on them. You think?) It's not like they're a Wii or anything.

So, the day after I got the call that they actually had a box for me, I ran out at lunch and picked it up (their offices conveniently close at 5pm during the week. Man, customer service really is an alien concept to these guys.) I had a ton of other errands to run after work, so never got a chance to stop somewhere and pick up an HDMI cable for it. So, instead I just borrowed the cable from my AppleTV for a day.

I hook it up. Everything seems to be working okay, but I'm really, really unimpressed by the quality of the HD channels. They look barely better than the SD channels. Stupidly, it turns out the box came set up to run in SD mode, and had to be re-booted and explicitly set to HD mode. There's no instructions on how to do this in the accompanying documentation, mind you. I had to search the web to figure this out. There's that stellar customer service again.

The next day, I finally have the HDMI cable to hook it up permanently. So I hook it up, and switch over to that input on my HDTV to make sure everything is working correctly. What do I see? A big error message claiming there has been a copy protection violation, telling me my TV doesn't support HDCP so I can't use the HDMI connection. It's also now reset itself back to SD mode. Huh? It worked yesterday, why not today? Back doing some research and testing, it would appear that HDCP is only active on my HDTV when that HDMI port is the active input. No problem, reboot and set it back to HD mode. Right? Well, kinda…

Here's where it gets even more complicated.

I have a Series 2 Tivo. I love the thing, it's so much more robust, reliable, and flexible that the crappy DVR service the cable companies provide. No way am I going back, so I have to figure out how to get the old SD Tivo box to play friendly with the HD cable box. (It only supports the analog cable channels internally, you still need a box to get any of the digital channels. (More of that consumer friendliness from the cable industry.) I disconnect my old SD cable box and replace it with the new HD cable box, and everything works perfectly. I run the composite outputs from the HD box into the Tivo and connect the HDMI output from the HD box straight to the TV. When I want to watch an HD channel, I just have to change the input and watch it straight from the cable box. (The Tivo can display the HD channels, but it only shows them in SD.)

So, where's the problem? Okay, say I'm watching something on my AppleTV, or perhaps playing an X-Box 360 game. The Tivo wants to record something on one of the digital channels, so it switches channels on the HD cable box. Apparently, the HD box checks for HDCP every time you change the channel. Since the HDMI port that the HD box is connected to isn't active, there is no HDCP. This trips the DRM again, re-sets the box into SD mode, and the Tivo just recorded an hour of a copy protection message.

So, I'm left with a small handful of options on where to go from here:

1. Get a cable splitter, put the old SD cable box back connected to the Tivo where it was before, and run the new HD cable box on it's own. So, now I've got two cable boxes connected to the same TV, not a great option. Plus, I kinda wanted to move the SD box into the other room with my old SDTV.

2. Connect the HD cable box to the Tivo via the component output. There's no HDCP on component connections, so the DRM issue won't come up. Thing is, I've only got two component inputs and they're both used, one by my DVD player and the other by my 360. So I'd have to move the DVD player to the last open composite input and possibly lose quality as a result.

3. Buy a Series 3 Tivo and forget all this cable box nonsense. Not an option. The Series 3 is absurdly over-priced, it would be too expensive at half it's current price. Also, they've already announced they're working on a lower-cost HD device for release later this year, so not a wise purchase. Besides, I've read that it's like pulling teeth to get a Cable Card out of TWC, even worse to get the two cards you'd need to support both tuners on the Series 3.

4. Ditch the Tivo and just use the cable DVR. The Tivo is superior in every possible way to the cable DVR, so, as I stated earlier, there's no way I'm going back. Besides, I still have a few months left in my contract, so I'm paying for the Tivo whether I use it or not.

5. Box up the HD cable box, take it back to TWC, and tell them where to stick their DRM'ed piece of junk. Considering the tiny selection of HD channels even available right now, few of which I watch with any regularity, is it really worth all this hassle?

In the end, I connected my DVD player to both a composite and component input and did some extensive A/B comparisons. I really couldn't tell any difference between the two (which means it probably wasn't upscaling like I thought it was) so I went with option 2 for now, though I may still exercise option 5. If I don't find myself watching the HD channels with any regularity, it will be pretty hard to justify continuing to pay for it. But, I'll give it a month or two before I decide.

I have to wonder though, why is this so complicated? I'm a pretty tech-savvy guy, can you imagine the pain the average Joe or Jane Consumer would have gone through? It's time to stop wondering why HD adoption has been going so slowly, it's pretty clear to me now. Between confusing and difficult set-up, an equally confusing variety of HD formats, two competing and incompatible HD DVD formats, and a lack of much HD content via cable or satellite, it's in a pretty pathetic state right now. And that is why people are so slow to make the switch.