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Deciphering Digital TV

For as long as I've been covering digital TV--just over a decade, according to the Post's archives--the electronics industry has promised cheap digital converter boxes that would let people keep using their old analog sets even after analog broadcasts vanish from the airwaves.

Last week, one of these boxes showed up at my office. That, combined with the glut of reader questions I've been getting about the digital transition and the fact that the countdown to the analog-TV shutoff is nearing the one-year mark, made today a good day for a "what analog-TV owners need to know about the digital transition" column.

Here, I'd like to focus on that converter box, Philips' Magnavox TB100MW9. It's not the only one of its kind; I'd hoped to try out an LG converter box as well but couldn't get one in time, and dozens of similar models should be on sale soon. But from what I know about this commodity-priced market, the Philips box should fairly represent what you'll see in stores.

It lists for $69, but Wal-Mart sells it for $49.87 and I'd expect other stores to match that price soon--making it an under-$10 purchase with one of the $40 coupons the government is handing out to subsidize the purchase of these converters.

At about the size of a hardcover book, this device should easily fit on top of any old TV. There's not much setup work involved: Plug it into the wall, connect your existing antenna to the "ANT. IN" post on the back--there's no such thing as a "digital TV antenna," since both digital and analog broadcasts occupy the same chunk of the electromagnetic spectrum--and run a standard RCA patch cable from the audio and video outputs on the back of this box to their equivalent inputs on your TV. Turn the box on, switch your TV to that video input, tap the converter remote's Setup button and select the "Autoscan" option from the onscreen menu to find the available digital channels.

Compared to both analog reception, my first sustained test of over-the-air digital reception and even some tests of HDTVs from late 2006, this Magnavox unit did an oustanding job.

For example, when I plugged a cheap, 12-year-old antenna into the TV in the nearest conference room to my desk at work, I could only pick up four analog channels--WRC, WTTG, WJLA and WUSA, two of which suffered serious snow or ghosting effects. With the same antenna and in the same reception-hostile spot (almost in the middle of the block, surrounded by taller buildings), the converter box
pulled in six digital channels--those four network affiliates, plus WFDC and WDCA. WTTG and WUSA's digital signals did drop out at times, but adjusting the antenna's placement helped with that.

Unlike some much more expensive HDTVs, this converter displays the program-schedule data sent out by most digital stations. If only this device's designers had thought to label the remote for people who don't speak Techlish--this helpful feature hides behind an "EPG" button, short for "Electronic Program Guide."

This converter's default display setting can also lead to confusion. To avoid having a widescreen-formatted show get cut off, it letterboxes the picture on the top and bottom. But a great deal of digital programming still comes formatted for narrower screens--so with this setting, you'll see black bars on all four sides of the picture. To fix that, you need to tap the remote's "Setup" button, go to the Detail menu and select "Display Mode," where the "Zoom" option should work better.

The Magnavox tuner includes V-Chip capability and closed-captioning support, which by themselves can amount to a substantial upgrade over some older TVs. It should not make any difference in your electric bill, drawing 1 watt in its standby mode and 7 watts in use.

Anything else you'd like to know about this box? Curious about issues of the digital-TV transition that I didn't address in today's column? The comments are yours...

By Rob Pegoraro  |  February 14, 2008; 10:43 AM ET
Categories:  Video  
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Comments

So, Rob, will I still be able to pick up TV signals through my dental fillings after February '09? Or will I have to get one of these converter things? It's enough of a drag having to wear the aluminum foil hat when I want to tune in.

Thanks!

Posted by: Kimosabe | February 14, 2008 1:33 PM | Report abuse

What if someone has a TV set old enough to not have RCA inputs? Does the converter box have a coax output?

Posted by: Ghak | February 14, 2008 1:43 PM | Report abuse

So my TV, like many analog TVs, only has RF input. Now what, I have to buy an RF modulator as well?

Posted by: Steve | February 14, 2008 1:44 PM | Report abuse

It's nice that the government is subsidizing the cost of these boxes for the public, but I'm growing ever more concerned that there is no incentive (that I know of) for broadcast stations to actually provide digital television over the airwaves. Just having the antenna arrays on top of a mountain must cost them a small fortune, let alone have to upgrade them to distribute a digital signal vs. an analog one. It doesn't make economical sense to provide such a service at an obvious financial loss without some type of government mandate that requires them to either create new services or at the very least upgrade their existing service. Though some will certainly provide continuing service because of the potential tax write-offs (which I have no doubt they receive for this), I know in my heart that newer stations will never even consider it as their payrolls increase and their profit stipends to upper management forever continue. I certainly hope to hear a follow-up article on these topics if you can.

Posted by: Dave | February 14, 2008 1:44 PM | Report abuse

If I have cable, does the same box work, or is a different model required? Or will I have to rent another box from Comcast?
Thanks!

Posted by: Barry | February 14, 2008 1:49 PM | Report abuse

Rob,
One thing that isn't being covered by anybody is the issue, out west, with translators. Basically, if you live in Utah outside of Salt Lake, TV goes dark on February 17, 2009. All TV. Because, you see, none of the stations in Utah plan to transmit digital signals outside of Salt Lake. The rural parts of Colorado, Nevada, and other western states served by TV translators will have the same problem.

Posted by: wiredog | February 14, 2008 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Is it me or is the $40 coupon just a way to ensure that the devices will sell for over $40? These things can't be that hard to manufacture if they're just becoming available now and you can already get one for under $50. I'm glad that our tax dollars are going almost directly to electronics manufacturers and retailers.

Posted by: slar | February 14, 2008 2:31 PM | Report abuse

I'm wondering about the portable TV market. I currently have a Casio 3" portable TV that will cease to function after next February because of the digital switchover. Obviously, I cannot just hook up one of these converter boxes up when I'm at a football game because I don't have access to AC power. Will manufacturers start making portable converters or integrate converters into portable TVs, or is the portable TV market essentially killed by the transition?

Posted by: Thomas | February 14, 2008 3:01 PM | Report abuse

It is important to remember that you only need one of these boxes if you have an analog TV relying on rabbit ears (over-the-air antennas.) If you get your TV from cable or satellite they will take care of the conversion for you and you don't need another box.

All these converter boxes that are certified by the government as eligible for the $40 coupon will have an RF output so you can hook it by coax directly to an older TV.

As for translators, the government is not requiring that they go digital on February 17, 2009. More like 2012 according to the FCC Chairman. Translators will, for the most part, remain analog for some time.

Posted by: Ann | February 14, 2008 3:18 PM | Report abuse

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has organized a Digital Television (DTV) Speakers Bureau to edcuate viewers across the country about the digital television transition. The Speakers Bureau consists of representatives from the respective stations volunteering their time to educate viewers in the community. They are speaking to civic clubs, senior centers, business organizations, libraries, schools, and other interested groups. There are several stations in D.C. participating in this initiative. I found out information at www.dtvanswers.com

Posted by: Michael | February 14, 2008 3:22 PM | Report abuse

The NTIA requires all coupon eligible converter boxes to have a RF cable output just like a VCR. They are also required to have all of the following, remote control, audio/video outputs closed captioning, RF cable, signal strength meter and of course a Power indicator. Some even have s-video, smart antenna and analog TV pass-through! http://www.ezdigitaltv.com/index.html

Posted by: Evan | February 14, 2008 4:28 PM | Report abuse

Another tip: if you are curious about what you might be able to receive over the air, head to www.tvfool.com. The site will provide reception predictions for current analog and digital plus post-transition digital signals to your location. Figuring out what type of antenna you need (and where it should point) is easy based on the data it provides.

Posted by: KGDave | February 14, 2008 4:33 PM | Report abuse

To the other Dave,
All full-power TV stations in the US are REQUIRED to broadcast digitally by February 2009. Most stations have already incurred the expense of installing new transmitters and antennas to make this happen, including all the full-power stations in the DC market.

Posted by: KGDave | February 14, 2008 4:40 PM | Report abuse

How will this effect my analog VCR. Will I hook it up to the converter box instead of the TV? Will I be able to tape one channel and watch another? Will the VCR (or the converter box?) automatically change channels when in timer mode?

Posted by: Rosie | February 14, 2008 4:59 PM | Report abuse

Seems to me this is Congress saying that by law I have to pay more for cable. The less expensive analog option will be gone, so I will have to pay them more for digital, and I will have to pay them for a converter box, which is currently not a charge I have to pay.

And when I make the appointment for them to come out and install it, first they will not bother to show up (waste of my time #1), so I will have to make a second appointment, but for that one the guy won't have the right converter box in his truck, so he won't be able to hook things up (waste of my time #2), so I'll have to make a third appointment before I get a technician who actually has the right equipment with him. I know this will be the case because every other time I have made an appointment with Comcast, it has taken three appointments to get the freakin' work done.

Posted by: arlington | February 14, 2008 6:22 PM | Report abuse

My VCR and TV are from 1999 and 1994, respectively. I'm sure others who will be using the boxes have much older machines. My remote has no zoom feature. Will I be stuck watching a screen with black bars on all sides?

Posted by: A | February 14, 2008 7:16 PM | Report abuse

Most articles fail to mention that the current broadcasts are VHF while the digital broadcasts are UHF. I get 4/5/7/9 just fine but 26 is iffy depending on time of day, weather and leaves on the trees. Iffy in the digital world means not just snowy picture but no picture. This is 48 miles from DC with a 100 mile VHF/UHF rooftop antenna with amp and rotator. I've experimented on current digital signals from 4/7/9/26 and they are unreliable. Only digital 30 in Goldvein comes in reliably. I'll continue to watch DVDs and get news/etc from internet. Over the air broadcast TV is so over.

Posted by: Gary | February 14, 2008 8:22 PM | Report abuse

A: The remote that Rob mentioned comes with the converter box he tested. That's where you'll find the zoom button.


Rob: Based on this comment thread, I think you've got a lot more 'splainin' to do ;-)

Posted by: 23060 | February 15, 2008 9:24 AM | Report abuse

Rob,

Can you run a live test from a typical "suburban" area? Curious to know if you pull in Baltimore/Phiily/Richmond stations when you're not surrounded by tall buildings.

Posted by: Matt | February 15, 2008 9:41 AM | Report abuse

You did not say whether it receives the SAP channel for DVS for the blind...

Thanks,

Posted by: Tim | February 15, 2008 10:58 AM | Report abuse

First Dave, the stations in the D.C. and Baltimore areas already have digital broadcasts as well as analog. Some of them have more than one digital channel, with the extra channels devoted to weather. Nice to have that over the air for those of us who don't have cable and the Weather Channel.

Posted by: BW | February 15, 2008 11:17 AM | Report abuse

"If I have cable, does the same box work, or is a different model required? Or will I have to rent another box from Comcast?
Thanks!

Posted by: Barry | February 14, 2008 01:49 PM "

Barry - If you have cable, you don't need a box at all. Your cable already delivers a digital signal.

Posted by: Donna | February 15, 2008 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Hi Rob,
i found this in a competing newspaper. this looks great. has anyone tried this?
tricia444@verizon.net

Philco TB150HH9 DTV Digital-to-Analog Converter, adds digital audio output via coaxial audio and what Philips describes as smart antennae control to optimize reception.

retailers to help educate consumers, and is stepping up consumer education   through televised advertisements that point to the DTVtransition.org Web site.

buy the converter box.
For a $20 co-payment, the converter box is like breathing new life into these old TV tuners."

Posted by: Anonymous | February 15, 2008 2:15 PM | Report abuse

Keep the questions coming--I'll have a follow-up blog post with answers for them on Tuesday or Wednesday next week.

(In the meantime: Thanks to all the folks chiming in with their own responses!)

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | February 15, 2008 5:12 PM | Report abuse

In areas where digital can be received, there are very few problems here (Nuremberg, Germany).

Okay, if you live in an area that is 'outside' the basic one (+/- 30-50 miles), a good house antenna might be necessary. (If you're too far away, nothing helps!)

Within the basic area, a small room antenna will be quite effective. In some cases, you might need a 'stronger' one. (If you already have a house antenna, that will do. But it might have to be adjusted.)

The converter automatically records all stations it can receive.

You can set up a list of those you'd like to watch. (It doesn't mean you can't watch the others.)

The converter also picks up each day (at a time you want) all the programs that will be shown the next day ... up to a week. (The converter can also receive software to update itself.)

Your 'menu' indicates the programs running at the current time. You can then 'advance' the time to see what will be on.

You also have a short program description.

Recording a program, either via a DVD or hard disk, would involve selecting the program you want, including start/stop times (which you can adjust if you wish) and then programming your hard disk to do the same.

It may sound complicated, but it really doesn't take too long to understand what's necessary.

But the results are worth it: the quality runs rings around analog tv!

Posted by: Norman | February 16, 2008 7:28 AM | Report abuse

If you have cable and use a box to decipher the cable signals you should have no problem. If you have cable and your TV is "cable ready" and deciphers the analog signal frequency on its own, I think you will have problems once the cable company goes all digital. Supposedly, while the cable company provides any analog signals, it should provide the network stations in analog without you needing a box. If you have cable and no digital tuner, one way or another eventually the cable company is going to make you pay.

Neil

Posted by: Neil Ottenstein | February 16, 2008 7:38 AM | Report abuse

Same question as Barry.
I have Comcast and two analog sets that plug straight into the cable. I know that I will receive a digital signal, but will I need something for the analog sets to read this signal?

Posted by: Larry | February 16, 2008 6:50 PM | Report abuse

Larry
You do not need anything for your analog sets. The idea is that this conversion will only affect people who receive their tv signal using antenna and analog set at the same time.
Regular cable is analog. This won't change. It work fine with your analog set's cable tuner (your tvs don't have mechanical dials do they?). You need set top box for Comcast's digital service. Same idea, you need the converter for over the air digital signal.

Posted by: al | February 16, 2008 9:34 PM | Report abuse

"Regular cable is analog. This won't change." Unless the cable company gets rid of its analog service and goes all digital. Some cable companies are at least implying that they will be doing this (or they are not giving their customer service representatives all the right information). I think this is where the largest uncertainty in the transition lies. Transitioning to all digital for a cable company is a business decision that they are probably keeping close to their vest for competitive reasons.

Neil

Posted by: Neil Ottenstein | February 17, 2008 7:27 AM | Report abuse

Good article, Rob, but as you can see there are plenty of topics needing discussion. One topic which is seldom mentioned: deep fringe reception of DTV. Key specification relating to this: noise figure of converter. Seems to be deep dark secret. My experience: medium-sized antenna on roof with LNA, 80 miles from Wash DC, solid reception on 4,5,7,9,20,26,30 except in summer when leaves in signal path produce occasional dropouts. 26 is currently broadcasting a fair amount of 1080i material.

Posted by: Robert Griswold | February 17, 2008 3:17 PM | Report abuse

As I understand things: The converter boxes will output on Channels 3 or 4, or the composite video jacks, just like a VCR. If you want to program your VCR to automatically record programs in the future, you would have to set it to record on Channel 3 or 4, or the video jacks, and the converter box would have to be manually preset to the channel (only one) that you wish recorded. Most VCRs can programmed to record up to eight different programs on different channels. We will lose that functionality.

Posted by: JJ Johnson | February 17, 2008 4:30 PM | Report abuse

Rob, since so many of your readers use Comcast, perhaps you could clarify their plans for February 2009, since it is hard to get a straight, consistent answer from them for us individual consumers. The best I have been able to glean from Comcast is that other than the local broadcast stations (which the FCC requires them to continue sending in analog until 2012), in February 2009 Comcast will cease sending anything in analog. Thus, to get anything other than those local broadcast stations, I will need a Comcast box for my analog tv that is currently hooked directly to the cable without any box in between. If true, this means that the common statement that those receiving their tv from a cable company rather than over the air are unaffected by the new FCC rules is misleading. Am I correct?

Posted by: Chevy Chase | February 17, 2008 9:57 PM | Report abuse

Actually, the FCC rules only require a cable company to carry the local broadcast stations in analog until February 2012 IF the cable is offering any analog transmission. So, if Comcast decides not to offer any analog transmissions at all, they can even discontinue the local broadcast stations. In that case a digital box would definitely be needed.

Posted by: Clarification-Chevy Chase | February 17, 2008 10:14 PM | Report abuse

Replying back to Al's answer and posting the same questions as Chevy Chase.
I use Comcast without any converter box straight into two analog TVs.
What will I be able to view after the conversion and will I need a box for these two TVs to receive all channels

Posted by: Larry | February 18, 2008 9:10 AM | Report abuse

My mom wants to know how long she has to request the digital converter coupons from the FCC ... thanks for your help, Rob!

Posted by: Moms girl | February 18, 2008 9:29 AM | Report abuse

How about a converter box with a UHF remote so you can use one converter with several tv,s. Dish has it with their 4000 model for over ten years

Also, why can't we continue with simalcasting as we are currently doing. Why shut down the analog progamming?????

Posted by: George | February 18, 2008 10:23 AM | Report abuse

I hope you eventually get your hands on a Zenith-LG box, for comparison.

http://www.zenith.com/dtv/dtt900.html

Ghak, according to the Zenith Quick Setup guide, that box includes TV-RF Cable Output for older sets.

(It also includes TV Audio/Video Cable Output for newer sets.)

Posted by: TomT | February 18, 2008 11:02 AM | Report abuse

I live in western Montana and, like Utah, almost all the small towns get TV reception through translators. I have not read a thing about what will happen to the signals in my town when the switch takes over. Can you do some digging for us Rob?

Posted by: Anonymous | February 18, 2008 11:28 AM | Report abuse

We currently use Comcast cable television *without* a cable box. When the DTV change comes, will we have to get a cable box for each TV?

One of our cable TVs has a SDTV port, and the other is Analog Only. Will those two TVs be hooked up differently? (The former TV is currently hooked up to the Analog port. It would seem a shame to waste it's built in SDTV tuner.)

Posted by: Questions | February 18, 2008 12:41 PM | Report abuse

All my TV's have either a VCR, DVD player or a combo that does

both. Will these players work as usual or am I out of luck hooking

up my older TV's with this box. Also, I do have cable but have

never gotten an answer as to how all these additions will work, if

at all, with the cable. What can I expect them to do? The same as

before? Quickly going broke buying new stuff and running out of

space to pile it. No Blu Ray yet, no space and no cash.

Posted by: Edna | February 18, 2008 8:42 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the great posts and info.

Posted by: lyons68 | February 19, 2008 9:37 AM | Report abuse

Just listened to the discussion on WAMU and wanted to pick up on the question relating to central antennas in apartment complexes.

As always the answer about analog to digital transition for these facilities is "it depends". I live on Connecticut Ave DC and we have had a house committee looking into this for almost two years. Way ahead of its time! It's only in the last three months that we have begun to get any answers that made any sense.

A building wide survey of resident found that approximately 50% either use the central antenna subsystem and/or rabbit ears some or all of the time for TV reception and that it made sense to look at post Feb 2009 service continuation. An RFP solicited responses from antenna maintenance and cable companies. Surprisingly the cable companies wanted to only supply their services as a direct replacement.

Briefly the actual physical antennas themselves work for both digital and analog signals but the associated electronics, amplifiers, band pass filters, notch filters, couplers, etc, etc etc. would need to be upgraded to feed the almost 500 apartments. Another "depends" is that we are so close to some of the major TV transmitters that the system has to have channel offsets so as not to get interference from direct transmission ghosting and other analog problems.

The electronics are needed to drive a satisfactory signal through coax 16 floors with multiple splits and drops. Significantly digital signals should perform better than analog through the system as the losses are reduced.

We also want to add digital radio to the system as there seems to be a significant demand from residents.

Posted by: Woz | February 19, 2008 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Rob - In your follow up article please discuss the issue of watching analog cable on an analog TV without a cable box. Based on the preceeding posts, it appears that there is much confusion about whether Comcast will continue to only broadcast ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox in analog or possibly eliminate analog all together.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 19, 2008 4:13 PM | Report abuse

For assessing your potential of receiving digital TV now and next year, head to tvfool.com. The site will calculate the expected signal level for all TV stations within range to a given location using high-fidelity terrain data and accurate characterizations of the various tranmitting sites. The presentation will tell you everything you need to know about what type of antenna is needed and what direction(s) it should be pointed to. All other sites, like antennaweb, do not model the effects of local terrain on reception.

Posted by: KGDave | February 22, 2008 10:39 AM | Report abuse

Rob,

I noticed someone referenced our website. Many of the questions asked in the comment section are the same ones we are receiving, all good questions in need of answers.

We have attempted to answer questions like these on our site. We are trying to make this transition easy to understand by explaining things in EZ terms.

You may like to check us out at http://www.ezdigitaltv.com/index.html

Posted by: Ken from EZ Digital TV | February 24, 2008 7:37 PM | Report abuse

For the goverment wanting to be environmentally concious alot of VCRS (and TVs) are going in the trash in Feb 09 by the sounds of the "vcr questions". What a complete waste.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 25, 2008 2:17 PM | Report abuse

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