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A Digital Deadline Dawns

You wouldn't necessarily know this from the news or what you see in stores, but analog TV tuners have now earned the status of contraband goods.

Starting today, all television sets with screens bigger than 13 inches--plus anything else that can pull in a TV signal off the air, from VCRs to digital video recorders--must include a digital-TV tuner, not just analog equipment. The Federal Communications Commission set this requirement (PDF) in a November 2005 vote.

But that doesn't mean that you can walk into any store and grab a TV or DVD recorder with a digital tuner (sometimes called an "ATSC tuner," after the industry group that developed the DTV specification). You're more likely to have a hard time just finding the sets with digital tuners.

More on this mess after the jump...

For instance, the Crutchfield catalog's online store doesn't let you narrow your search of smaller LCD TVs and DVD recorders to include only those with digital tuners. Instead, you'll have to inspect the specifications for each model. (I'll save you the trouble: FCC mandate or not, none of the DVD recorders and under-25-inch LCDs on sale Thursday afternoon included digital tuners.)

And Crutchfield has traditionally been one of the best-organized Web stores for electronics shoppers. The situation is worse at mass-market retailers--Circuit City, Best Buy, Amazon--which often can't be bothered to use the same term to describe the same feature in different products.

Electronics manufacturers aren't offering much more help. Try to figure out, for example, if this Panasonic DVD recorder or this competing model from Samsung have digital tuners or not. It's not so easy when the word "tuner" doesn't appear on either page, is it?

At a press conference yesterday in Washington, a coalition of trade groups unveiled a new Web site that aims to explain this transition to consumers. (How it will do this better or worse than such existing, easier-to-remember sites as the FCC's is a bit unclear.) That's a positive step, but not nearly as helpful as simple labels in stores and identifying products online with a digital future.

Until that happens (there are proposals for warning labels on analog-only TVs), you'll have to shop carefully and slowly while the next crop of digital-TV hardware makes its way into stores.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 1, 2007; 4:40 PM ET
Categories:  Video  
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