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Ah, the end of August. School is about to start. American college football is about to get underway. Hot Chips is now in full swing. I guess the end of August caters to all sorts of people. For the people who are most interested in Hot Chips, the amount of information on next generation CPU architectures is something to really look forward to. AMD is taking this opportunity to give us a few tantalizing bits of information about their next generation Steamroller core which will be introduced with the codenamed “Kaveri” APU due out in 2013.
AMD is seemingly on the brink of releasing the latest architectural update with Vishera. This is a Piledriver+ based CPU that will find its way into AM3+ sockets. On the server side it is expected that the Abu Dhabi processors will also be released in a late September timeframe. Trinity was the first example of a Piledriver based product, and it showed markedly improved thermals as compared to previous Bulldozer based products, and featured a nice little bump in IPC in both single and multi-threaded applications. Vishera and Abu Dhabi look to be Piledriver+, which essentially means that there are a few more tweaks in the design that *should* allow it to go faster per clock than Trinity. There have been a few performance leaks so far, but nothing that has been concrete (or has shown final production-ready silicon).
Until that time when Vishera and its ilk are released, AMD is teasing us with some Steamroller information. This presentation is featured at Hotchips today (August 28). It is a very general overview of improvements, but very few details about how AMD is achieving increased performance with this next gen architecture are given. So with that, I will dive into what information we have.
I often think of ASUS as the PC’s answer to Apple. Their products are not up to Apple’s rigorous engineering, nor is the customer service as accessible, but ASUS does offer a number of products that were obviously designed to meet a set of high standards. I’ve always enjoyed the company’s G-Series gaming laptops, ultraportables like the U33 Bamboo and high-end multimedia laptops like the N53 and N56.
The original Zenbook didn’t impress me, however. PC Perspective never reviewed it, but I did have some hands-on time with one courtesy of Intel’s CES 2012 ultrabook giveaway. The build quality wasn’t great, the touchpad was quite poor and the overall look and feel proved a bit tacky (the cursive lettering below the display panel being the most obvious example).
ASUS has now followed up the original Zenbook with the new Zenbook Prime. There are a couple of different variants. We received the 13-inch UX31A which come equipped with the 1080p IPS display panel. As for the rest? Well, see below.
This is one well equipped ultrabook, which explains why it comes with a nearly $1500 price tag. You don’t have to spend that much, however. The basic Zenbook Prime, which still has the IPS display but downgrades to a Core i5, is $999 on Amazon.
Does the flagship of ASUS design deliver the goods? Let’s find out.
Introduction and Features
Earlier this year, SilverStone released two brand new enclosures designed for HTPC enthusiasts, the Grandia Series GD07 and GD08. The two cases are nearly identical except for the front panel and some differences in the internal drive cage layout. The GD07 sports a stealthy clean look with a lockable front door for security that conceals all the drives and I/O functions while the GD08 comes with a traditional exposed front and classic black anodized aluminum front panel. Both enclosures have been completely re-engineered and include the latest features like oversized motherboard and expansion card support, USB 3.0 ports, and excellent case cooling while being less expensive than some of SilverStone’s premium HTPC enclosures (the GD07 is currently selling for $139.99 and the GD08 is selling for $149.99 USD). We are taking a detailed look at the SilverStone GD07 HTPC case in this review.
SilverStone Technology was one of the original manufacturers to enter the HTPC case market and they continue to offer one of the largest selections of HTPC enclosures available today. SilverStone currently offers 18 different HTPC enclosures spanning three different series including the Crown, Grandia and Lascala lines. In addition to designing premium HTPC enclosures, SilverStone has a long-standing reputation among PC enthusiasts for providing a full line of high quality computer chassis, power supplies, cooling components, and accessories.
SilverStone Grandia Series GD07 HTPC Chassis Key Features:
• Full-size HTPC enclosure
• Positive air pressure design for excellent cooling with minimal noise
• Quick-access air filters helps prevent dust buildup
• Lockable front door and power button ensure system security
• Supports Micro-ATX, ATX and Extended-ATX motherboards
• Supports extended length graphic cards up to 13.6” long
• Four external 5.25" optical drive bays behind front door
• Five internal 3.5" and two internal 2.5” drive bays
• Excellent case ventilation with multiple dedicated vents
• Three 120mm cooling fans included
• USB 3.0 ports
Lenovo has become an important player in the mainstream laptop market. Five years ago the offerings from Lenovo were not great, but today the IdeaPad line has matured. This has been reflected in Lenovo’s growth. The company has posted gains in global market share over the last few years.
In this review we’re looking at the Z580, a laptop that’s smack dab in the middle of the company’s IdeaPad brand. It’s a 15.6” laptop that starts at $469 but can be optioned to around $900. Our review unit is a well configured version which includes an Intel Core i5-3210M processor. Lenovo’s website prices it out at a cool $599.
What else will six Benjamin Franklins buy you? Let’s take a look.
The $600 price point is important. Studies of the laptop market have consistently shown that the average price of a new laptop hovers around $600 (much to the dismay of manufacturers, who’d rather people spent more).
This market is extremely completive as a result. If you want a portable laptop with an IPS display you don’t have many options, but consumers who want a powerful and competent laptop for $600 have a buffet to choose from. Can the Z580 make room for itself in this crowd?
Most IT workers or computer enthusiasts tend to ‘accumulate’ computer and electronics gear over time. Over the years it is easy to end up with piles of old and outdated computer parts, components and electronics–whether it’s an old Pentium machine that your work was throwing out, RAM chips you no longer needed after your last upgrade, or an old CRT monitor that your cousin wasn’t sure what to do with. Tossing the accumulated hardware out with the next trash pickup doesn’t even enter the equation, because there’s that slight possibility you might need it someday.
I myself have one (or two, and maybe half an attic…) closet full of old stuff ranging from my old Commodore 64/1541 Floppy disk drive with Zork 5.25” floppies, to a set of four 30 pin 1 MB/70ns SIMM chips that cost $100 each as upgrades to my first 486 DX2/50 Mhz Compudyne PC back in 1989. (Yes, you read that right, $100 for 1 MB of memory.) No matter if you have it all crammed into one closet or spread all over your house, you likely have a collection of gear dating back to the days of punch cards, single button joysticks, and InvisiClues guides.
Occasionally I’ll look into my own closet and lament all the ‘wasted’ technology that resides there. I’m convinced much of the hardware still has some sparks of life left. As a result, I am always looking for a reason to revive some of it from the dead. Since they’ve already been bought and paid for, it feels almost blasphemous to the technology gods not to do something with the hardware. In some cases, it might not be worth the effort, (Windows Vista on an old Micron Transport Trek2 PII-300 laptop doesn’t end well for anyone). In others cases, you can build something fun or useful using parts that you have sitting around and are waiting for a new lease on life.
Introduction, Design And Features
The gaming keyboard market seems to rigorously follow a common rule of consumer products - more is more. If a keyboard is for gamers it should include lots of fancy gaming related features, and the more that are included, the more hardcore the keyboard. Macro buttons, customizable back-lighting and LCD screens are all features of modern gaming keyboards–and you don’t see many companies going the other direction.
But there are products that buck the trend. One of them is the CMStorm QuickFire Rapid, a mechanical gaming keyboard that became available in North America earlier this year. Unlike most competitors, the QuickFire rapid cuts features instead of adding them. Back-lighting? Macro keys? You’re kidding me, right? This keyboard doesn’t even include a numpad.
Cooler Master (the company behind CMStorm) has not cut out the features that matter, however. This keyboard comes with Cherry MX keys (the blue variant, in this case) and also supports PS/2 connections for full NKRO. For those who’ve seen the light of day recently, this gobbly gook means the QuickFire Rapid scans key activation individually and therefore can detect new key activations even when other keys are still depressed. It’s a feature hardcore gamers love because of their tendency to press multiple keys simultaneously.
Cutting back on unneeded features has a notable side effect–it reduces price. Currently this keyboard is available for $79.99 at retail or as low as $65 on Amazon.com. Only Razor’s bare-bones version of the BlackWidow keyboard sells for less, and it only beats the QuickFire by $5 dollars.
So can you really buy a decent gaming keyboard for $65, and will you miss the numpad? Let’s find out.
Introduction and Features
Cooler Master is a well know name among PC enthusiasts and they are currently celebrating their 20th anniversary! In addition to a full line of PC enclosures, Cooler Master offers power supplies, coolers, and numerous accessories for mobile computing, notebooks, servers, and gaming. In this review we will be taking a detailed look at the new Cooler Master HAF XM enclosure, which is a very interesting mid-tower version of their popular HAF X series full-tower enclosure.
Here is what Cooler Master has to say about the new HAF XM enclosure: “The pure essence of the HAF X packed into a mid-tower size. The HAF XM supports up to four huge 200mm fans (Top x 2, Front, and Side), a large 140mm rear exhaust fan, and ample space for even the most demanding system builds. Liquid cooling support, an easy-access 90 degree rotated latched side panel, front HDD and SSD X-Docks, USB 3.0, and support for a hidden 2.5” HDD/SSD behind the motherboard tray make the HAF XM the ultimate setup for those that want enthusiast-grade features in a mid-tower package.”
Another GK104 Option for $299
If you missed our live stream with PC Perspective's Ryan Shrout and NVIDIA's Tom Petersen discussing the new GeForce GTX 660 Ti you can find the replay at this link!!
While NVIDIA doesn't like us to use the codenames anymore, very few GPUs are as flexible and as stout as the GK104. Originally released with the GTX 680 and then with the dual-GPU beast known as the GTX 690 and THEN with the more modestly priced GTX 670, this single chip has caused AMD quite a few headaches. It appears things will only be worse with the release of the new GeForce GTX 660 Ti today, once again powered by GK104 and the Kepler architecture at the $299 price point.
While many PC gamers lament about the lack of games that really push hardware today, NVIDIA has been promoting the GTX 660 Ti as the upgrade option of choice for gamers on a 2 -4 year cycle. Back in 2008 the GTX 260 was the mid-range enthusiast option while in 2010 it was the GTX 470 based on Fermi. NVIDIA claims GTX 260 users will see more than 3x the performance increase with the 660 Ti all while generating those pixels more efficiently.
I mentioned that the GeForce GTX 660 Ti was based on GK104 and what you mind find interesting is that it is nearly identical to the specifications of the GTX 670. Both utilize 7 SMXs for a total of 1344 stream processors or CUDA cores and both run at a reference clock speed of 915 MHz base and 980 MHz Boost. Both include 112 texture units though the GeForce GTX 660 Ti does see a drop in ROP count from 32 to 24 and L2 cache drops from 512KB to 384KB. Why?
Spicing up the GTX 670
The Power Edition graphics card series from MSI is a relatively new addition to its lineup. The Power Edition often mimics that of the higher-end Lightning series, but at a far lower price (and perhaps a smaller feature set). This allows MSI to split the difference between the reference class boards and the high end Lightning GPUs.
Doing this allows users a greater variety of products to choose from, and to better tailor users' purchases by their needs and financial means. Not everyone wants to pay $600 for a GTX 680 Lightning, but what if someone was able to get similar cooling, quality, and overclocking potential for a much lower price? This is what MSI has done with one of its latest Power Edition cards.
The GTX 670 Power Edition
The NVIDIA GTX 670 cards have received accolades throughout the review press. It is a great combination of performance, power consumption, heat production, and price. It certainly caused AMD a great amount of alarm, and it hurriedly cut prices on the HD 7900 series of cards in response. The GTX 670 is a slightly cut-down version of the full GTX 680, and it runs very close to the clock speed of its bigger brother. In fact, other than texture and stream unit count, the cards are nearly identical.
Overclocked and 4GB Strong
Even though the Kepler GK104 GPU is now matured in the market, there is still a ton of life left in this not-so-small chip and Galaxy sent us a new graphics card to demonstrate just that. The Galaxy GeForce GTX 670 GC 4GB card that we are reviewing today takes the GTX 670 GPU (originally released and reviewed on May 10th) and juices it up on two different fronts: clock rates and memory capacity.
The Galaxy GTX 670 GC 4GB graphics card is based on GK104 as mentioned below and meets most of the same specifications as the reference GTX 670. That includes 1344 CUDA cores or stream processors, 112 texture units and 32 ROP units along with a 256-bit GDDR5 memory bus.
The GC title indicates that the Galaxy GTX 670 GC 4GB is overclocked as well - this card runs at 1006 MHz base clock, 1085 MHz Boost clock and 1500 MHz memory clock. Compared to the defaults of 915 MHz, 980 MHz and 1500 MHz (respectively) this Galaxy model gets a 10% increase in clock speed though we'll see how much that translates into gaming performance as we go through our review.
Of course, also in the title of the review, the Galaxy GTX 670 GC includes 4GB of frame buffer, twice as much as the reference cards. The goal is obviously to attract gamers with high resolution screens (2560x1600 or 2560x1440) as well as users interested in triple panel NVIDIA Surround gaming. We test both of those resolutions in our game collection on the following pages to see just how that works out.
7950 gets a quick refresh
Back in June, AMD released (or at least announced) an update to the Radeon HD 7970 3GB card called the GHz Edition. Besides the higher clock speeds, the card was the first AMD offering to include PowerTune with Boost–a dynamic clock scaling capability that allowed the GPU to increase clock speeds when power and temperature allowed.
While similar in ideology to the GPU Boost that NVIDIA invented with the GTX 680 Kepler launch, AMD's Boost is completely predictable and repeatable. Everyone's HD 7970 GHz Edition performs exactly the same regardless of your system or environment.
Here is some commentary that I had on the technology back in June that remains unchanged:
AMD's PowerTune with Boost technology differs from NVIDIA's GPU Boost in a couple of important ways. First, much to its original premise, AMD can guarantee exactly how all Radeon HD 7970 3GB GHz Edition graphics cards will operate, and at what speeds in any given environment. There should be no variability between the card that I get and the card that you can buy online. Using digital temperature estimation in conjunction with voltage control, the PowerTune implementation of boost is completely deterministic.
As the above diagram illustrates, the "new" part of PowerTune with the GHz Edition is the ability to vary the voltage of the GPU in real-time to address a wider range of qualified clock speeds. On the previous HD 7970s the voltage was a locked static voltage in its performance mode, meaning that it would not increase or decrease during load operations. As AMD stated to us in a conversation just prior to launch, "by having multiple voltages that can be invoked, we can be at a more optimal clock/voltage combination more of the time, and deliver higher average performance."
The problem I have with AMD's boost technology is that they are obviously implementing this as a reaction to NVIDIA's technology. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the tech feels a little premature because of it. We were provided no tools prior to launch to actually monitor the exact clock speed of the GPU in real-time. The ability to monitor these very small changes in clock speed are paramount to our ability to verify the company's claims, and without it we will have questions about the validity of results. GPU-Z and other applications we usually use to monitor clock speeds (including AMD's driver) only report 1050 MHz as the clock speed–no real-time dynamic changes are being reported.
(As a side note, AMD has promised to showcase their internal tool to show real-time clock speed changes in our Live Review at http://pcper.com/live on Friday the 22nd, 11am PDT / 2pm EDT.) [It has since been archived for your viewing pleasure.]
A couple of points to make here: AMD still has not released that tool to show us internal steps of clock speeds, and instead told me today that they were waiting for an updated API to allow other software (including their own CCC) to be able to report the precise results.
Today AMD is letting us preview the new HD 7950 3GB card that will be shipping soon with updated clock speeds and Boost support. The new base clock speed of the HD 7950 will be 850 MHz, compared to the 800 MHz of the original reference HD 7950. The GPU will be able to boost as high as 925 MHz. That should give the new 7950s a solid performance gain over the original with a clock speed increase of as much as 15%.
Introduction, Features and Specifications
Thermaltake is a well known name among PC enthusiasts. They offer a full line of PC enclosures, power supplies, cooling equipment and accessories. Today we are taking a detailed look at Thermaltake's Dr. Power II Universal ATX Power Supply Tester. This is a second generation device that can come in very handy when you're trying to diagnose problems with your PC. A faulty or failing PSU can cause all kinds of problems (failure to startup, spontaneous re-boots, instability, etc.) and it can sometimes be difficult to know just what the source of the problem is. The Dr. Power II PSU Tester offers a quick and easy to use diagnostic tool to help confirm or rule out a bad power supply unit.
Thermaltake Dr. Power II Universal ATX PSU Tester Key Features:
• Designed from the ground up to support every ATX power supply available today, up to ATX12V v2.3
• Oversized LCD panel that accurately shows the value of each specific power rail, within one-tenth of a volt
• Accurate voltage indications for +12V, +5V, +3.3V, -12V, and +5VSB
• Built-in output connectors diagnostic system
• Low-voltage, high-voltage, no voltage, and PG alarm systems
• Easily troubleshoots system failure due to unstable power supply
• Built-in alarm system can notify user when the power supply demonstrates abnormal characteristics
Here is what Thermaltake has to say about their new Dr. Power II Universal ATX Power Supply Tester: "Dr. Power II is a fully automated power supply tester that enables users to easily and quickly determine if a power supply is defective or not; cutting overall troubleshooting time considerably. The oversized, easy-to-read LCD display and audible alarm helps users determine the exact cause of the failure, if there is one. An indispensible tool for any PC enthusiast or gamer!"
Introduction and Design
Introduction, expert discussion panels, hardware workshop
The final day of Quakecon 2012 featured more expert discussion panels from leaders in the gaming industry about the latest games people at Quakecon were excited about like Dishonored, Halo 4, and Borderlands 2 to name a few. We also hosted our annual hardware workshop and gave away more than $30,000 worth of hardware and prizes to over 2,000 workshop attendees!
The BYOC area and exhibit hall also reached capacity for Quakecon attendees to see the semi-finals for the annual Bawls chugging competition and play in Tribes: Ascend mini tournaments at the Alienware exhibit. We also got a demonstration of John Carmack's original prototype virtual reality headset that he initially debuted at E3 this year. Carmack is working with Oculus Rift to design VR headsets for gaming that include stereoscopic 3D and a wide 110-degree field of view. The day concluded with a huge party to watch the annual case mod contest finals, Bawls chugging finals, and Quake Live finals.
Introduction, Virtual Insanity and Game of Making Games panels
Our second day at Quakecon 2012 started bright and early with expert panel discussions led by some of the gaming industry's elite game designers and programmers from around the globe. These panel discussions focused primary around the process different game studios go through to produce triple AAA titles and current developments in virtual reality headset technology. There was also more discussions about creating mods for games like Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and utilizing modding communities as resources to produce higher quality games.
In between panel discussions, Quakecon hosted the first round of their annual Bawls chugging competition. BYOC gamers and event attendees were also able to try out a few game demos of Smite, Rise of the Triad, Dishonored, and Doom 3 BFG Edition. There were also several "quick draw" Quake Live matches to give out raffle tickets for a chance to win a new 2012 Ford Shelby GT500 Coupe.
3+ Hours of discussion later...
The beginning of QuakeCon is always started by several hours of John Carmack talking about very technical things. This two hour keynote typically runs into the three to four hour range, and it was no different this time. John certainly has the gift of gab when it comes to his projects, but unlike others his gab is chock full of useful information, often quite beyond the understanding of those in the audience.
The first topic of discussion was that of last year’s Rage launch. John was quite apologetic about how it went, especially in terms of PC support. For a good portion of users out there, it simply would not work due to driver issues on the AMD side. The amount of lessons they learned from Rage were tremendous. iD simply cannot afford to release two games in one decade. Rage took some six plus years of development. Consider that Doom 3 was released in 2004, and we did not see Rage until Fall 2011. The technology in Rage is a big step up due to the use of iD Tech 5, and the art assets of the title are very impressive.
iD also made some big mistakes in how they have marketed the title. Many people were assuming that it would be a title more in line with Bethesda’s Fallout 3 with a lot of RPG type missions and storyline. Instead of a 80 hour title that one would expect, it was a 10+ hour action title. So marketing needs to create a better representation of what the game entails. They also need to stay a bit more focused on what they will be delivering, and be able to do so in a timely manner.
Event kickoff, hardware workshop prizes, packed BYOC!
Yesterday marked the official start of Quakecon 2012 at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, Texas. This four-day event includes PC gaming awesomeness for more than 2,800 gamers in the Bring Your Own Computer LAN section as well as access to numerous gaming vendors and PC hardware exhibits. The event is sponsored by many big names in the gaming and PC hardware industry as well like Alienware, Intel, Ventrilo, Plantronics Gamecom, Cooler Master, Western Digital, and many others.
The day got off to a rocky start as id Software co-founder John Carmack's annual keynote address was delayed by more than two hours. Hundreds of gamers also lined the hallways waiting throughout the day for the opportunity to get into the already packed BYOC. But, unfortunately many were turned away from gaming at the event. This is one of the first times in almost a decade that the BYOC area was filled to capacity on the very first day of Quakecon!
Introduction and Design
An HTPC Perspective on home theater PC technology
We conducted a reader survey a few weeks ago, and one of the tech topics that received a surprising amount of interest in was HTPC coverage. You, our awesome readers, wanted to know more about the hardware and software behind them. I’ll admit that I was ardent about the prospects of talking HTPCs with you. As a relatively new entrant to that area of tech myself, I was excited to cover it, and give you more coverage on a topic you wanted to see more of!
Today we won't be talking about home theater PCs in the sense of a computer in the living room AV rack (Ryan covered that earlier this week), but rather a related technology that makes the HTPC possible: the CableCARD-equipped TV tuner.
I will forewarn you that this article is quite a bit more informal than my usual writings, especially if you only follow my PC Perspective postings. In the future, it may not be that way, but I wanted to give some backstory and some personal thoughts on the matter to illustrate how I got into rolling my own DVR and why I’m excited about it (mainly: it saves money and is very flexible).
Despite my previous attempts to “cut the cord” and use only Internet-based services for television, me and my girlfriend slowly but surely made our way back to cable TV. For about a year we survived on Netflix, Hulu, and the various networks’ streaming videos on their respective websites but as the delays between a shows airing and web streaming availability increased and Netflix instant Streaming started losing content the price of cable started to look increasingly acceptable.
She was probably the first one to feel the effects of a lack of new content – especially with a newfound love for a rather odd show called True Blood. It was at some point thereafter, once she had caught up with as many seasons offered on Netflix of various shows as possible that she broke down and ordered U-Verse. U-Verse is an interesting setup of television delivery using internet protocol (IPTV). While we did have some issues at first with the Residential Gateway and signal levels, it was eventually sorted out and it was an okay setup. It offered a lot of channels – with many in HD. In the end though, after the promotional period was up, it got very expensive to stay subscribed to. Also, because it was IPTV, it was not as flexible as traditional cable as far as adding extra televisions and the DVR functionality. Further, the image quality for the HD streams, while much better than SD, was not up to par with the cable and satellite feeds I’ve seen.
Being with Comcast for Internet for about three years now, I’ve been fairly happy with it. One day I saw a promotion for currently subscribed customers for TV + Blast internet for $80, which was only about $20 more than I was paying each month for its Performance tier.
After a week of hell Therefore, I decided to sign up for it. Only, I did not want to rent a Comcast box, so I went searching for alternatives.
Enter the elusive and never advertised CableCARD
It was during this search that I learned a great deal about CableCARDs and the really cool things that they enabled. Thanks to the FCC, cable television providers in the United States have to give their customers an option other than renting a cable box for a monthly fee – customers have to be able to bring their own equipment if they wish (they can still charge you for the CableCARD but at a reduced rate, and not all cable companies charge a fee for them). But what is a CableCARD? In short, it is a small card that resembles a PCMIA expansion card – a connector that can commonly be found in older laptops (think Windows XP-era). It is to be paired with a CableCARD tuner and acts as the key to decrypt the encrypted television stations in your particular subscriber package. They are added much like a customer-owned modem is, by giving the cable company some numbers on the bottom of the card that act as a unique identifier. The cable company then connects that particular card to your account and sends it a profile of what channels you are allowed to tune into.
There are some drawbacks, however. Mainly that On Demand does not work with most CableCARDS. Do note that this is actually not a CableCARD hardware issue, but a support issue on the cable company side. You could, at least in theory, get a CableCARD and tuner that could tune in On Demand content, but right now that functionality seems to be limited to some Tivos and the rental cable boxes (paradoxically some of those are actually CableCARD-equipped). It’s an unfortunate situation, but here’s hoping that it is supported in the future. Also, if you do jump into the world of CableCARDs, it is likely that you will find yourself in a situation where you know more about them than the cable installer as cable companies do not advertise them, and only a small number of employees are trained on them. Don’t be too hard on the cable tech though, it's primarily because cable companies would rather rent you a (expensive) box, and a very small number of people actually know about and need a tech to support the technology. I was lucky enough to get one of the “CableCARD guys,” on my first install, but I’ve also gotten techs that have never seen one before and it made for an interesting conversation piece as they diagnosed signal levels for the cable modem (heh). Basically, patience is key when activating your CableCARD, and I highly recommend asking around forums like DSLReports for the specific number(s) to call to get to the tier 2 techs that are familiar with CableCARDs for your specific provider when calling to activate it if you opt to do a self-install. Even then, you may run into issues. For example, something went wrong with activation on the server side at Comcast so it took a couple of hours for them to essentially unlock all of my HD channels during my install.
Introduction, Design and Connectivity