We can't say we saw this coming, but a little technology company we never heard of until CES '09 is going to not only be the first to market with a multi-stream quad tuner CableCARD device, but will probably be the only one for some time. It is for good reason too, as Ceton (pronounced sē-tən or seaten) has been able to pick up where AMD left off with its ATI Digital Cable Tuner for Windows Media Center and improve it in the best way we can think of. This startup seems to have some special sauce that no one else has, we can't even start to think of how hard it would be to decrypt four HD streams at the same time and re-encrypt them at the same time -- and apparently that is just the beginning. We say this because we sat down with Gary Hammer, the president and CEO, and to say he is on the same page with the Media Center market, is an understatement.
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Ceton CableCARD tuner
Gary came to our meeting with a bunch of tuners including what he calls "the kitchen sink" which is aptly named because it really does just about everything. Of course it is just for testing and won't come to market but it allows Ceton to test just about every configuration you can think of. As we talked about previously, the initial offering will be a quad tuner PCI-E device, but also on the table for the future is an external USB, a low profile PCI-E card with either the CableCARD or the RF input offloaded -- or even both if an OEM was trying to fit it into a small form-factor PC -- four tuners is a good place to start too because the main version of Windows 7 Media Center has a four tuner per type limit. Speaking of types, Gary tells us that it would be possible to offer an ATSC/CableCARD hybrid, if the demand was there -- although he admitted the current designs only had one RF input so something would have to change. Gary explained how Ceton was a technology company who was started about three years ago by some "really smart people" with some "really good ideas," and although the first quad tuner CableCARD tuner will be the initial offering, there are many other solutions currently in testing including one for hotels that will help them make the digital transition. So while AMD paved the way for other companies to produce a digital cable tuner, Ceton's implementation is its own.
No AMD to be found.
Speaking of AMD, we also had a meeting with them today where we asked why AMD seemed to be MIA from the show -- or at least from Microsoft's booth. You see while there is plenty of hardware from partners on display at Microsoft's booth, including Ceton, Hauppauge, and Avermedia, there was no sign of AMD. Don't get us wrong, we can't wait until the new firmware update comes out and adds SDV support and relaxed DRM, but at this point we would be surprised if AMD was actually still making it -- although AMD said it was still in production. At this point it seems that after years and years of investing in the Media Center ecosystem, AMD has had enough and is taking the wait and see approach going forward. When we directly asked them about new tuners, the response was that the lack of OEM requirement news was just announced, and that it would take them some time to respond accordingly. This means it'll be some time though, because we all know that CableLabs certification isn't an overnight process.
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Hands-on with the Ceton CableCARD tuner
Ultimately we really don't care what company produces the products we want, just so long as we get the solution we're looking for -- and we believe that there are plenty of people looking for for a quad CableCARD tuner for their PC, whether they know it or not. We were happy to hear Gary say that he could see a Ceton tuner on the shelf at a big box store one day, and although we still have our reservations, he might have actually convinced us that he can do it. What it'll really come down to though is price, especially with the great foundation that is Windows 7 Media Center. The extenders are still a missing piece from a total solution, but even if Ceton was able to sell a CableCARD tuner to half of Xbox Live Gold subscribers -- since they already own an extender that is connected to the network -- we are still talking millions and millions of customers.
Of course the key is the price -- isn't it always -- and when we asked Gary how much it would be, he asked me how many we wanted. So we said it depended on the price and he said the price depends on how many are ordered. You can see where this went, so after some going back and forth we went with balpark estimate of less than $600, but more than $300. This might seem like too much at first, but not when you consider that four AMD Digital Cable Tuners cost $1200, and you need four CableCARDs instead of one (so rental fees of $12/mo instead of $4). Obviously if a Xbox Live subscriber could just pay $300 for a quad tuner for his Windows 7 PC instead of a TiVo HD at the same price, it is a no brainer, but the amount of volume needed to drive the price down that much seems difficult, at least initially.
For us the price really isn't as important, because dedicated HD geeks like us will pay just about anything for this capability, but what will be more difficult is the wait. Gary says there is still a chance the card will make it to market this year, but officially it is scheduled for early 2010 to ensure Ceton can get off to a good start by delivering on its promisses. Which of course includes producing a product that is rock solid, with the support to go with it. So now we wait.