Control Your Cable Box With Your Mac On The Cheap!
I've been doing some experimenting recently and came across something that I thought might be useful for some people. If you're a digital cable TV subscriber in the United States you may have noticed the FireWire port on the back of your cable box. The most common assumption about this port is that it's something for service technicians only. This is not completely the truth and it's something your cable company doesn't advertise.
Back in 2004 a little-known ruling was made by the FCC that stated any cable customer that requests a FireWire-enabled cable set-top box must be provided with one. Chances are your cable box already has a FireWire port but whether it is enabled or not is another story. If it isn't then you can call your cable company or visit one of their service centers and request one. As stated above, by law they must provide one upon request.
So with a FireWire-enabled set-top box what can you do? The first thing you're going to need is a FireWire cable. You might already have one laying around but if you don't they're pretty cheap. I highly recommend MonoPrice.com for all your cable and adapter needs. You're also going to need to find and download something called "the FireWire SDK". This is the OS X Firewire Software Developer's Kit and is free to anybody who wishes to download it. If you Google this you should be able to easily find it. You can get it for free from the official Apple FireWire software development site but you have to sign up for a free account before downloading it. If you're persistent in your Googling you can find other locations to download it without having to sign up for a developer's account. but signing up only takes a moment. Inside the FireWire SDK are a few applications that will help you access your cable box and hopefully control it to some extent. There's even an application that will record unencrypted video feeds from your cable box!
This tutorial explains how to set this up and get it working so you can watch on your Mac - this is the first stop to using OS X to control your cable box for the TV, so follow the steps in the tutorial then come back here: Watch and Stream Cable TV with your Mac via FireWire!
Now there's some caveats to doing this. You obviously need to have a TV in reasonably close proximity to your Mac, or at least within sight of where you sit when using your Mac. There wouldn't be much point in doing this otherwise. Also, every cable company is different so it's really hit or miss as to whether the "AVCBrowser" OS X software from the SDK you downloaded will even recognize your cable box or not. I'm using a Scientific Atlanta Explorer 4250HD digital cable box. For whatever reason it didn't work in the FireWire 800 port on my late 2006 24" iMac but it did work in the FireWire 400 port. If it does recognize your cable box then it's also hit or miss as to how much control you'll have over it. And if you want to try to get any of the HD video feeds on your Mac and record them that completely depends on how many channels your cable company provides "in the clear". Typically you should at least get all the major broadcast networks (NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, and the CW). As long as your cable box is HD capable, any of those channels you get to successfully appear on your Mac look fantastic!
But the main focus of this article is not about watching and recording video feeds from your cable box on your Mac but rather controlling your cable box. As I alluded to above this is hit or miss meaning what you can do is going to be different with every cable company. In my case the only things that work are the "channel up" and "channel down" buttons, plus the field where you can type the channel number you'd like to go to works as well.
This doesn't sound like much but it's been incredibly convenient for me. Instead of having to reach for a mouth stick to use the cable remote or fumble around with it with my arm I can simply use my Headmaster Plus to do those few things. While it would be nice if the "mute" button worked, I've discovered a workaround for it. Channel "999" on my cable service puts up a silent service screen that actually turns into a screensaver after a short time. So if I get a phone call or something I quickly click over to that channel to mute the TV sound.
Now, if you're lucky you may actually get more functional buttons than I do. But if not you may, like me, find that just a few functional buttons are incredibly useful. And if you discover that nothing works for you at all, or the software doesn't even recognize your cable box, you've only wasted a few bucks on a FireWire cable (or if you already had a FireWire cable it didn't cost you anything at all!).
On a related note, if this kind of thing really interests you and you wouldn't mind spending some money on it then you could always check out something like The ZephIR. This will give you quite a bit more control over electronic devices which use a remote control, including cable boxes, and it's relatively inexpensive.
- Paul Natsch