It’s Not the Top

When technology changes, language doesn’t always keep up. I’ve written in this regard about “tape” and “film.”

A similar term losing its original definition is “set-top box,” referring to a video tuner. Originally TV sets consisted of a number of components in a single cabinet: screen, tuner, speaker, etc. Commonly sold consumer television sets usually still incorporate (bad) speakers and tuners, but most of the time the tuner actually feeding the set the signal from a satellite cable or Internet service provider is housed in a separate unit. In typical home-theater setups, the speakers being used are also separate from the screen, or monitor.

“Set-top boxes” now enclose all manner of audio/video technology. One article on on Lifehacker titled “How to Find the Best TV Set Top Box and Ditch Cable Once and For All” includes the following devices: Apple TV, Google TV, Roku, Boxee Box, and WD TV Live. There are many others. Such boxes now often accommodate a digital video recorder (DVR), and DVRs like TIVOs are often referred to as “set-top boxes” as well.

When TVs were still big and bulky such a box sat on top of the set; but now that screens are much thinner, they won’t accommodate a box balanced on top of them. Most people place the “set-top box” somewhere beneath the screen. Mine is in a rack several yards from the screen.

But the term “set-top box” (often unhyphenated) is still used more or less universally no matter where the device sits.

Some have promoted the alternative term “digibox”; but although it’s been used here and there as a branded name for a particular device, it hasn’t caught on generically and is not likely to. It doesn’t immediately suggest video, and all kinds of non-TV computer devices could justifiably be called “digiboxes.”

For the time being we’re stuck with “set-top box,” so I won’t be writing it up as an error.

The title of this post is a loose allusion to the Cole Porter classic “You’re the Top.” Check out my cool illustrated version of the song on YouTube.

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