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What is a Set-Top Box?

John Lister
John Lister

A set-top box is a device which plugs into a television and provides content. Generally speaking, it refers to devices for broadcast content rather than recordable media such as DVDs and videotapes. The name set-top box is somewhat outdated, thanks to the change in the size and shape of televisions in widespread use today.

Historically, the most common set-top boxes were those provided by cable and satellite companies. The main job of these boxes was to deal with the fact that these systems carry more channels than a television can assign to its own channel numbering system. The box therefore takes a signal carrying the data for multiple channels and filters out the particular channel the viewer wants to watch, usually sending the signal to an auxiliary channel on the television. The box can also decode scrambled content, either for a premium channel or for events on a pay-per-view basis.

Woman posing
Woman posing

Modern set-top cable boxes take advantage of the two-way communications available with cable to provide interactive services. At its simplest, this can allow users to order a pay-per-view event without needing to telephone the cable company. At its most complex, this can allow almost complete access to the Internet.

Set-top boxes are now used in many companies even for terrestrial or "over-the-air" broadcasts received through a TV aerial. This is because these broadcasts are available in digital format. As with cable and satellite television, the digital terrestrial system carries multiple channels in the "space" previously assigned to a single channel.

A number of set-top boxes now include some form of digital recording system, which records broadcasts on a hard drive, thus removing the need for recordable media. Such systems are available both as standalone boxes and built-in to a cable, satellite or digital terrestrial receiver. Models vary from those which simply record programs selected from an electronic program guide to those which can automatically record an entire series or even suggest programs the viewer may enjoy.

Modern game consoles can be seen as a form of set-top box. As well as playing games, the consoles offer services such as an Internet connection or playing video content from a linked computer. In some countries, consoles can even carrying live television services via the Internet.

Movie rentals are becoming increasingly common through a set-top box. This offers convenience to the viewer and allows rental firms the ability to cut the costs of producing and distributing discs. Devices including cable boxes, games consoles and standalone rental boxes are all used for this purpose.

Discussion Comments


I use my set-top digital box to order pay-per-view movies often. I generally order at least one a weekend.

It does cost more than renting one from a rental machine, but I live way out in the country, and the gas I save by staying home and renting a movie makes up for it. Also, I just don't want to leave the house.

On weekends, all I want to do is settle down on the couch with my popcorn, chocolate, and soda and enjoy a movie in the comfort of my home. I love the rental feature of my set-top box, and I think that the experience is worth a few extra dollars.


@lighth0se33 – I love my DVR! It is the best of all the set-top recorders, in my opinion.

It is really easy to use. Just refer to the manual that comes with it, or ask the installation guy for help. Once you get the hang of it, you will use it all the time.

I can set mine to record every single episode of a show, old and new, without having to flip through the guide to see when they come on. The DVR just knows when they are on.

I can also set it to record only new episodes if I have seen all the old ones. My favorite part is being able to fast-forward through the commercials. I can watch an hour-long show in about thirty-five minutes this way.


I am afraid that I have sat still and let technology pass me by. The extent of my experience with set top boxes is just using one for my satellite TV.

I understand that digital TV has opened up a whole new world of options when it comes to using set top boxes. However, I just don't fully understand how they work. So, I stick to using my satellite receiver remote to change the channels only.

One day, I am determined to get DVR added to my set top box and to learn how to use it. I would love to be able to record my favorite shows without having to go through my DVD recorder. Surely it must be simple enough for even someone like me to learn how to use.

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