Friday, May 23, 2008

Digital TV and Converter Review

As many of you know, and soon all of you will know, is that by February of next year old analog television (NTSC) will begin disappearing from the US airwaves to be replaced by digital television (ATSC).

The US Department of Commerce has a program where you can sign-up and receive a coupon for $40 off the purchase of a converter box that will allow you to use your old analog television set to view the new digital programming. In most larger cities, these new digital channels are being simulcast with the old analog channels so you can begin viewing the new signals immediately. The converter box works similarly to a cable TV converter in how it connects to your TV and functions.

I purchased the Zenith DTT900 converter from Circuit City today. I highly recommend this unit to those who need the converter box. The converter is amazingly small (the picture makes it look big) and will fit nicely into just about any location where one would have a TV. It connects to the TV via RF using coaxial cable (modulated onto channel 3 or 4) or using RCA-style composite video cable and left/right audio. The antenna input is a standard F-style coaxial connector similar to what you see for cable TV. If you're using a "rabbit ears" style antenna right now, it is likely that it will continue to work for digital TV (doesn't hurt to try it). I was able to receive all the digital channels in my area with a simple "whip" antenna, although the PBS affiliate tended to drift in and out (that appears digitally as blockiness in the picture and the sound cutting in and out).

There are a few nice features about the Zenith DTT900 converter to note:
  1. The initial set-up on power-on is as simple as you can get for a consumer appliance
  2. If your TV is a wide-screen TV, or has an enhanced 16:9 mode, the converter can be made aware of this and will adjust the picture accordingly
  3. If your TV is NOT a wide-screen TV, there are the myriad picture "stretch" options on the remote control that will let you view old-school (normal, 4:3) properly without everything looking letterboxed with black bars on the left and right side of the screen.
  4. The remote control, while a bit small and cheapish, actually has buttons for all the common functions like turning captioning on/off, displaying status, and bringing-up the built-in guide, in addition to just changing channels and the like.
  5. There is a program guide built-in that, provided the TV station transmits the information, gives you the name/description of the current program and the one coming-up next.
  6. The on-screen displays are easy to read and understand
Some information about digital TV that is worth noting: If you subscribe to cable or satellite TV where they provide a converter box, you do not need this converter (in fact, it won't really do anything on a cable TV system). However, it may be a good idea to get a coupon and purchase a converter box anyway, since you never know when the cable or satellite system will fail, and the converter will allow you to use your TV for over-the-air broadcasts yet. Since the government coupon program is limited and won't last for much longer, this is the one time you have to purchase a converter for $20 rather than $60 (although they will likely drop in price at one point...).

Another point about digital TV that is worth noting is that while the converter won't give you high definition on your low-definition TV set, it will generally look substantially better than the equivalent analog TV signal would look on your TV.

There is another option for those who watch very little TV and have an old clunker hanging around that isn't worth hooking to a converter box: If you have a relatively modern computer (desktop or laptop) there are USB adapters that allow you to watch TV on your computer. Be sure to purchase one that supports the ATSC digital TV standard (some older ones only support analog TV). This option will cost more than the converter box (and can't be purchased with the government coupon) but will take up less space and will even allow you to receive TV on-the-go if you use it with a laptop. There are also software packages that will allow you to use your computer as a video recorder (like TiVo or a VCR), but keep in mind that this will require you to keep your computer running all the time if you want to use the timer features. I've gotten one of these USB adapters to work under Linux with slightly mixed results (my computers are a little too slow to handle the decoding of the digital video, particularly high-definition video).

I'm sure that for some people, the idea of going to digital TV is a little overwhelming, and even a little annoying to people who purchased a TV within the last few years with only an analog tuner. However, digital TV is truly an improvement - it's really worth the annoyances, and needs to happen sometime.

No comments: