joe-d-horizontal_1I’m mad at my set-top boxes (STBs). They cost too much, they’re too big, and their performance stinks. Are these reasons enough? I think so. About a year and a half ago, my cable service provider, Cablevision, decreed that every TV in the house would need its own STB for evermore—at a cost of $9.99 each for the STB and remote.

Prior to that dictum, I got along by renting one STB for one TV and then connecting the cable directly to my other TVs. Of course, I couldn’t receive premium channels on the TVs connected directly to the cable, but that was okay by me.

If you do the math for four TVs, Cablevision used this change to jack up this part of my monthly bill to $39.96 from $9.99!

The way Cablevision weaseled all these STBs into my home was by giving me the extra three boxes for free for one year. Naturally, at the end of the one-year period, I kept all of them.

Then, my stepson started complaining about the cost of getting a second STB in his home—and his was only $5.99 per month. He asked me what I thought of using an antenna for his HDTV. He said that the money he saved by not ordering an STB would eventually pay for the antenna. He also told me how much he hated recurring costs.

Time For A Solution

I never thought much about it, except when Cablevision first made the change. My stepson got me to think about my own situation, though. He couldn’t get the antenna to work in his area, so he gave it to me. But by that time, I had thought of a way to get one STB to service two TVs—just connect the cable output to the other TV. This assumes you’re using HDMI out for the first TV.

I was able to do this from my kitchen STB to my upstairs bedroom TV. The only knock is that you can’t change channels in the bedroom. But my wife and I only watch one channel in the bedroom—local news followed by Jay Leno.

The antenna also worked on the bedroom TV, picking up about 30 channels. But the reception had those stop and start fits common with ATSC channels. So, we kept the cable in place.

In any case, that eliminated one box. The other box that irks me is the one I use with the basement TV—a very nice analog CRT model. Short of purchasing an analog-to-digital converter and hooking an antenna to the converter, there’s not much I can do about it, even though I rarely watch TV in the basement. So this STB’s primary job is collecting $9.99 for Cablevision each month.

Cablevision, though, has instituted a service that undermines its plan to put an STB under every TV. It’s called the Optimum app for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch. Since I have an iPod Touch, I downloaded this app and it works rather well, playing all the channels available from your STB, as long as you’re at home.

Apple also sells an HDMI cable for its products. For about $40, you can connect your Apple device to your big-screen TV, and the device becomes your STB. It’s neat, but there’s no remote control. (Or maybe there’s an app for that, too.)

STB Performance

What about performance? I’m still in awe of how much time it takes to change channels on an STB. There are technical reasons for this delay, which you can easily find on the Internet.

Maybe Cablevision buys the cheapest STBs available with the oldest technology to save a few bucks. Why else would these STBs be so big and bulky, instead of small and sleek like the latest technologies? I’d really like to see Cablevision and all the other cable companies get out of the STB rental business and let the market take over.

The other performance problem that bothers me concerns the DVR in the STB. The DVR is hooked into the cable guide, which makes recording shows fairly simple. However, certain programs go beyond the time limits set by the guide, such as sports events, and the DVR cuts off before the end of the program. How does this make any sense? My DVR seems to have an override for this, but it makes the whole procedure counterintuitive.

Cablevision’s guide has to be the worst on the planet, too. There’s no searching—only a small window and other features guaranteed to frustrate anyone searching for a particular show to record.

By the way, I was inspired to write this by yet another press release extolling the latest STB chip. I’ve seen chips like these for years at trade shows like International CES, but apparently those chips have never made it into STBs purchased by Cablevision. I hope some of the other cable providers are taking advantage of the latest technologies.