The cable industry has deployed tens of millions of here-and-now VOD-enabled digital set-tops. And operators continue to look at futuristic home networking, "media center"-type devices.
But the set-top buzz this week in Chicago at the National Show will likely center on a mix of tomorrow's HDTV and digital-video recorder technology that is entering MSO mainstream thinking.
"PVR and HD are on everyone's radar screen," said Bernadette Vernon, director of strategic marketing, for Motorola's Broadband Communications Sector. Motorola has shipped close to 300,000 of its DCT5100 HDTV boxes. "Demand has been a lot greater than originally anticipated."
Scientific-Atlanta Inc. has shipped more than 230,000 of its Explorer 8000 DVR set-tops and 240,000 HD boxes over the past year.
Pace Micro Technology is in field trials with its DC550 HD set-top and is investigating a DVR set-top. Pioneer is shipping its 3510 HD set-top to Time Warner Cable.
And most set-top vendors are working on a combined HDTV/DVR device. S-A will announce today the availability of its Explorer 8000HD, the HDTV version of its DVR 8000 series. Motorola announced its DCT6208 PVR/HDTV set-top last month at the SCTE show. Pioneer will showcase its Voyager 4000 combined box in Chicago.
The following is a look at where some of the major set-top players stand at this juncture.
Motorola's DCT2000 series has given way to its DCT1700 and DCT1800 set-tops for VOD. The DCT5100 series is Motorola's HDTV set-top. Now, the 6208 series will combine both HDTV and DVR in one box. Motorola also will showcase the BMC 8000 and 9000 product in Chicago.
Vernon said the DCT1800 has the same components as the DCT1700, but includes a volume-control feature many operators like. The workhorse DCT2000, she said, will start to be phased out later this year, as the DCT1700 and DCT1800s take hold in the marketplace.
An upscale version of that box, the DCT2500, includes a 175 MIPS processor. "You're getting more performance," she said. "Things will move faster."
Next up the Motorola scale is the DCT5100, which the company started shipping in the second half of 2002. Motorola has delivered close to 300,000 of those HDTV boxes, but the DCT5100 will be superceded in the market by the 6200, Vernon said. While the cost is roughly the same, Vernon said the 6200 includes an 800 MIPS processor, versus the 5100's 300 MIPS processor.
The DCT6208 features both HDTV and DVR capability. Hard-drive capacity specs are up to the MSO, she said. So, too, are decisions on whether consumers, for instance, will be allowed to skip through commercials. "Our platform can support any application an operator selects," she said.
"One natural move is sending video throughout the house," she said, which is where the BMC media centers fit in. Consumers could record a movie on a living-room DVR, then send it to the bedroom for later viewing, for example.
Pace has shipped 250,000 of its DC510 workhorse digital set-top to mostly S-A systems in Time Warner Cable and BrightHouse Networks, with Comcast soon to come. "We're getting good marks on reliability and stability of the platform," said vice president of marketing David Novak. Pace just passed the integration tested for the Motorola platform, he added.
The company also is having a trial of its DC550 HDTV set-top with Time Warner and BrightHouse. "The DC550 is so advanced, spec-wise, feature-wise, versus cost, it's going to open up new doors," Novak stated.
The set-top contains a 260 MIPS processor and 64 megabits of memory, and the box runs from RAM memory, making it faster and easier to access content. "The performance is better, graphics rendering, channel change," Novak said. "We have full zoom and stretch capability with graphics over HD formats."
Another key feature of the Pace HD set-top, Novak said, is its size: "It's the world's smallest HD set-top, which makes efficient use out of warehousing space and installers can carry more with them."
Additionally, the set-top's "loop-through activity" allows installers to more easily connect to DVDs and gaming consoles, while the tethered IP receiver enables consumers to "hide" the box itself in a cabinet, and still use the remote control.
Pace has not announced any DVR set-top plans, but the company remains interested, Novak said, having sold DVR set-tops to BSkyB. "We know exciting how PVR is," Novak said. "The silver bullet is HD PVR. That's where we want to enter the marketplace."
Pace isn't worried about being behind other competitors. "We want to be able to hit the marketplace with the right product," he said. "The business case has to be a little bit more baked."
Along those lines, issues — including number of tuners, compressing information on the hard drive and overall costs — have yet to be worked out.
Pioneer is selling the Voyager 3510 HDTV set-top, the successor to its 3000SD set-top line. The 3510HD box houses 16 megabits of memory, and DVI and component outputs, said director of marketing Dan Ward. Time Warner has rolled out the box in several markets, and Ward said Pioneer has other U.S. customers it couldn't name.
"It's the first box to deliver graphics over HD," he said. The guide is fully integrated, compared to older versions, where consumers would have to switch from an HDTV channel to standard definition just to see the program guide, he said. "That's a big milestone for us."
"All that is integrated with the Passport navigator," said Haig Krakirian, vice president, software engineering, Pioneer Digital Technologies.
The new set-top also allows consumers to scale HD content to whatever side they want via upconversion and downconversion capabilities. "Users can decide what the optimum output is," Ward said. "They can take 1080i and downconvert it to 720 or 480 and also have aspect ratio control."
The Voyager 4000 HD/DVR box has a dual tuner, an 80 gigabit hard drive and is slated for production in fourth quarter 2003. It will include Pioneer's new Passport Echo. "The DVR has extensions to allow users to playback, pause and contains all intelligent to record automatically," said Krakirian. "It has very extensive functionality."
Sizing up S-A
Scientific-Atlanta will showcase its Explorer 8000HD at the convention, as well as the Explorer 3270HD set-top, designed for retail sale. The 3270HD is a third-generation HD box, according to S-A; Cox is selling it along with local retailers in Phoenix, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Pensacola, Fla., and northern Virginia.
The new set-tops join S-A's Explorer 8000 DVR box, as well as its two HD boxes, the 3100HD and the 3250HD. The latter provides integrated guide and improved graphics, according to Jenifer Cistola, vice president of product marketing, subscriber network systems, S-A. It also has stretch and zoom capability.
The first version of S-A's retail box is currently available in Cox's Phoenix market. "Local retailers are really interested in working with the operators," she added, especially smaller stores. And cable operators need to combat the successful history DBS has had at retail. "We need a retail presence," said Cistola.
In addition to Cox, Cistola added that Time Warner and Charter Communications are also selling STBs at retail in selected markets.
On the Explorer 8000HD, Cistola said S-A is talking to operators about how big they want that hard drive. The non-HD version includes an 80 gigabit disk, but HDTV content will take up much more storage.