Set-tops, as components, should continue to rule

Tools

I once owned a combination turntable-AM/FM radio unit. The turntable, as those things were wont to do, broke. And, while the radio continued to work just fine, the whole thing got tossed into the trash (this was in the days before we all became conscious of what we were doing to landfills and the future) because I wanted to listen to records and the radio.

Ok, so now I've shown I'm old--and I still have a turntable and listen to records. The point is, to my mind at least, the concept of components versus integration holds as true today as it did then. Which is why I still think there's a place in this world for set-top boxes.

Sure, set-tops can get in the way and even negate features built into televisions--often at added consumer cost--and, sure, they're not the most attractive of home entertainment center devices. But they serve a very specific purpose: receiving, decoding and displaying approved television signals from satellite, IPTV and cable services.

And sure, set-tops have gotten smarter and bulkier at the same time smart TVs, connected TVs and other consumer electronics devices like Blu-ray players and tablets and even smartphones have integrated many features that once belonged in set-tops. CE makers and stores, of course, continue to hype those features to sell newer and bigger devices.

And finally, sure, it costs service providers two arms and a leg to buy set-tops and it generally costs subscribers an extra fee to use them, which is hardly good for customer relations.

Set-tops, more than any device probably in the history of electronics, have always been surrounded by negativity. And, unlike many devices in the history of electronics (turntables, VCR players, cassette tapes, 8-track tapes), they've hung in there through thick and thin.

That's because, when it comes down to it, set-tops have lived life dedicated to one purpose: Deliver video content, no matter how it's packaged, to the television set, no matter how it's configured. A set-top is--c'mon, admit it--a requisite component in any home entertainment center.

That's why, all these years after that turntable stopped turning, I'm still surprised to hear everyone from service providers to vendors suggest that set-tops have served their purpose and that set-top functionality should now be integrated into consumer electronics.

Maybe so, but before there's widespread abandonment of the component approach to television, consider this. That turntable/radio combo unit cost about $79.99 at Grant's. And while that was a lot of money at the time, it doesn't come near the price tag attached to many of today's high-end TVs. When the turntable gave out, I could bite the bullet and trash the unit without great remorse. If the tuner, or the IP receiver, or the brains of a $2,500 TV set fried, I think I would be a bit more upset. -Jim

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