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More Digital-TV Answers

Last week's column and blog entry on the digital-TV transition were supposed to answer all the questions people might have about this switchover.

Not quite: My inbox, comments on this blog, an appearance on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi show Tuesday and yesterday's two-hour Web chat were filled with queries from readers about what they'd need to do. I'll try to answer the major ones here:

What about portable TVs?

Sorry, but they're going to be useless after Feb. 17, 2009. (You could still plug a digital converter box into them, but none of those add-ons run on batteries.) No portable digital receivers exist today, although some manufacturers are working to make that happen. Update: As "Michael" pointed out in the comments, Radio Shack sells one portable digital TV, a $199 Accurian model.

I have a radio that also picks up the audio of local TV broadcasts, and I see ones like it on sale in stores today. Will that feature still work a year from now?

Nope. These devices, by such vendors as Sony, Eton, GPX and many others aren't covered by the FCC's ban on analog-only tuners in TVs and video devices, but their analog TV-band tuners will still turn into pumpkins next February. Eton spokeswoman Julia Elkington said the company planned to remove analog TV tuners from its hardware "by the time the changeover takes place," but has no plans to replace those parts with digital tuners.

Are these converter boxes really on sale?

Yes. The Web sites of Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Circuit City and Radio Shack all report in-store availability of these devices; at the Best Buy in Tenleytown on Tuesday, I saw a stack of the store's house-brand Insignia DTV converters on display at the one end of the TV section, at $60 each. (I have to compliment the store for including notices about the DTV transition--in both English and Spanish--in the ad loop playing on all the TVs on display.)

Since writing last week's column, I've also had the chance to try out a second converter box, LG's $60 Zenith DTT900. It clearly picked up every channel the Magnavox converter tuned in, plus Howard University's WHUT. Its remote is smaller and simpler to use, the box itself is a little more compact and the input and outputs on the back are more clearly labeled.

Can I use my existing antenna?

Almost certainly--digital and analog channels both occupy the same chunk of the spectrum. I have done all of my own DTV-reception testing with a $20 tabletop analog antenna I bought 10 or 11 years ago. But if you live farther out from the TV transmitters, you might need to try out a larger antenna to ensure reliable reception. (You can get an estimate of your DTV reception at AntennaWeb, a site run by the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Association of Broadcasters, but I've found its predictions to be extremely conservative.)

Can I use one of these $50-ish converter boxes to receive digital cable on my "cable-ready" analog TV after the digital cutoff?

No. The digital converter box doesn't do anything for cable-TV reception--it doesn't have a digital cable tuner. To receive basic, unencrypted digital cable TV, you'd need a part called a QAM ("quadrature amplitude modulation") tuner, which many digital televisions and digital video and DVD recorders now include.

Remember, also, that if you've only been paying for cable because some of the networks look awful off the air, the superior picture quality of digital TV may allow you to dump cable entirely. I've already heard from quite a few readers who have done exactly that--for them and maybe for you, DTV is the new basic cable.

What about VCRs?

You can plug a DTV converter box into them, but that's going to be an awkward experience--the VCR will only record on whatever channel the box is already set to. You'd be better off saving up to get a cheap DVD recorder with its own digital tuner.

What's going to happen to all the old TVs when people replace them with digital sets?

Please don't throw them out--the tubes in old sets include an unhealthy amount of lead, along with all sorts of other toxic chemicals. For info on how to dispose of them safely, see this Help File column from the end of last year, along with CEA's myGreenElectronics site.

Further questions and comments about the DTV transition are, as ever, welcome here. The comments are yours...

By Rob Pegoraro  |  February 22, 2008; 10:43 AM ET
Categories:  Video  
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Comments

good point about DTV becoming the new basic cable. I think cable companies will see a measurable number of subscribers disconnect (if they get educated) because of DTV's superior reception.

Posted by: Gee man | February 22, 2008 12:34 PM | Report abuse

I hope you're right about the analog signal not going away in southern Utah next year. The stations in Salt Lake City will have to keep broadcasting in analog for the translator units to pick up the signals and retransmit them statewide. I guess there must be an exception for situations like that. Gonna suck for the people who are buying the rights to that spectrum (for Billions) when they find out it isn't available in a large part of the country.

Posted by: wiredog | February 22, 2008 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Rob-

Still wondering along with many other readers if you were able to find out whether Comcast is planning to completely abandon any analog transmission in February 2009. I'd like to not have to get any box for my one cable ready analog TV.

Thanks for any help.

Posted by: Comcast User | February 22, 2008 12:53 PM | Report abuse

How is DirecTV service affected? I have one of the old DirecTV/Tivo boxes. Will that continue to work? Will a new receiver need to be mounted on my house?

Posted by: chico | February 22, 2008 1:28 PM | Report abuse

On a loosely related note, if you have a closed captioned analog video source (VHS, DVD, Cable, whatever) and use an external upconverter to HDMI, to hook to your HDTV, the closed captions won't appear, because the HDMI standard doesn't support any form of closed captions. You'll only see captions if your upconverter supports converting the closed caption data to bitmap captions and overlaying them on the video datastream before converting to HDMI.

If you're picking a Blu-Ray player and you care about closed captions AND HDTV, you'll want to make sure that your player handles closed captions correctly.

While this is generally not an issue for movies, which usually get multiple audio and subtitle selections, some TV series that were originally closed-captioned will be packaged on DVD with the closed-captioning data instead of subtitles. (As an example, see the Season 1 box set for Dexter.)

Posted by: W. Craig Trader | February 22, 2008 2:07 PM | Report abuse

Chico,

DirecTV and DishNetwork are already receiving all of their data digitally, using MPEG2. Your existing receiver translates the MPEG2 data into either composite, component, or digital signals for your TV, VCR, DVD recorder, etc. You shouldn't need to do anything ... unless you want to upgrade your receiver to receive HD channels.

Posted by: W. Craig Trader | February 22, 2008 2:11 PM | Report abuse

More Sophisticated Antennas Required
For Digital Off-Air Signal Reception


As spending tightens in these uncertain economic times, discretionary purchasing has shifted away from other key market categories, to consumer electronics and particularly to digital TV and HD. High Definition Televisions bumped digital cameras out of the top spot for the most desired CE product for 2007. Several dynamics effecting millions of households now relying on analog signals for reception of their broadcast TV signals, with antennas older than 2 years, who need to upgrade to the new antenna technology, along with cable and satellite customers looking for alternatives, have resulted in tremendous sales increases of OTA antennas for Antennas Direct.

The simple fact is that not all antennas are equal, some are better and some are the best for particular reception situations. Tremendous improvements in Off-Air antenna technology and design have taken place in the last few years, making them smaller than ever thought possible, with ultra efficient design and directionality and good looking as well.

According to an article in Ad Age "As Giant Retailers Reel, Marketers Gird for Worst", as to one key marketing category, Consumer Electronics, the news appears very positive. "Consumers seem to have designated technology as a new necessity, along with food, gasoline and home-heating oil" said the Consumer Electronics Association's group economist, Shawn DuBravac. Ad Age continued "Forecasts for 2008 from the CEA and other CE researchers such as iSuppli bear that out, with predictions of overall electronics growth." "Last year, when oil prices were going through the roof, we saw that people said, 'Since we're not traveling, let's spend some of that money on buying a flat-panel TV,'" said iSuppli analyst Riddih Patel.

As for cable and satellite subscribers, an Off-Air Antenna provides many benefits as an additional signal resource. On November 29, 2007, The Bridge Data Group reported overall "customer satisfaction" with DBS at 72% and cable at only 58% and the "likelihood to switch" for both at 10%. These numbers might have accounted recently for the "attack" on a Comcast payment center in Virginia by a 75 year-old hammer wielding grandmother, as reported by CE Pro Magazine. There is only so much room on cable or satellite bandwidth in which to squeeze signal, so data is compressed to fit, resulting in a somewhat "soft" picture. An OTA signal is the gold standard in digital reception because it's almost completely uncompressed and also FREE. But what about those cable or satellite subscribers that want access to all their local broadcasts or all available HD local broadcasts, but can't get them from their present provider.

Local digital TV broadcasts are everywhere. But bandwidth limitations mean that cable and satellite providers may not carry all local channels in many areas, or may not offer all of them in high definition. Contract disagreements between local operators and local broadcasters can mean that major networks may not be available in several areas. DISH Network® offers local HD coverage to about 47 percent of U.S. markets, while DIRECTV® reaches 76 percent and for an additional monthly fee.

What about those other millions of viewers who want to see their favorite local shows and in HD. The answer is to add an OTA antenna to other signal reception sources. This not only gives a viewer the ability to receive all their local stations, but, with the right Digital antenna from AntennasDirect.com, some viewers may even be able to receive out-of-town channels, which may carry blacked out sports programs or network broadcasts not available in their home town. As an added benefit, an OTA antenna provides back-up reception options for local cable or satellite signal loss due to equipment failure or rain, snow and ice fade and to smaller TVs and second sets in homes not wired for whole-house signal distribution.

Posted by: Michael Sherman | February 22, 2008 2:45 PM | Report abuse

The post by Michael Sherman reads like a long commercial for AntennasDirect.com.

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

There are several portable digital TVs available on-line. If you want to know where to buy a portable digital TV or how to connect your existing analog portable TV to a converter box, this website has some information: http://www.ezdigitaltv.com/Portable_Digital_TVs.html

Posted by: Michael | February 22, 2008 6:51 PM | Report abuse

Another way to find out what HD broadcasts are in your area is tvguide.com, and it also has informative notes on the schedule in your area.
A USB-powered HD "stick," such as the Hauppage PVR 950 I have, turns any recent PC or laptop into an HD tv with rudimentary DVR capabilities. Excellent picture & sound, useful if you travel with a laptop, requires reasonably fast CPU, Windows only.
A DVR with ATSC tuner will give you HD reception on an analog tv. I got a Polaroid DRA 01601A remaindered on WOOT for $100, and it renders HD signals surprisingly well on my 27-in Trinitron.
I use existing rabbit-ears antennas on all of these but would get a rooftop antenna if I didn't live in a city apartment.

Posted by: Norman | February 22, 2008 7:02 PM | Report abuse

Michael: Thanks for the tip! Just ran into the nearest Radio Shack, where they had the Accurian portable TV--the last one in store, according to the clerk--in the display case by the counter. I've updated my post accordingly.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | February 22, 2008 7:48 PM | Report abuse

I understand that if you get your TV over the air from a "repeater" broadcast system that the federally required change does not apply and those customers will be unaffected by the change. If true, it seems counter productive!

Posted by: regross | February 22, 2008 9:48 PM | Report abuse

Instead of recommending antennaweb for antenna recommendations, I suggest you try tvfool.com. There is no more accurate prediction of television reception on the web.

Posted by: KGDave | February 22, 2008 11:49 PM | Report abuse

I just can't let the comments about DTV in Utah pass by...

I just did a query on the FCC's database of broadcast station for digital TV repeaters in Utah and got 135 LICENSED low-power facilities. That's 135 that should be on the air NOW. There are many more permits to construct more. wiredog need not worry, DTV will happen in the Salt Lake City area. In fact, there are six DTVs on the air NOW.

Posted by: KGDave | February 23, 2008 12:55 AM | Report abuse

We have been watching digital TV for over a year. It's great for us and we see some good re-runs like Bonanza. Gunsmoke, Seinfeld and others. Picture is fantastic but we only have one TV with digital tuning. Also, of course, we have no recorder. Can't wait to get our cupon so we can get tuners for our other two TVs. Our antenna is a rotating one on a 40 foot tower so it works great in any direction up to 80 miles. We have about 14 stations transmitting in both analog and digital.

Posted by: jjop | February 24, 2008 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Regarding Comcast or your other local cable providers, it might be beneficial for you to contact your local franchise authority. I just thought to write to the person in our city to find out the information. If I find anything out I'll post something here or send it to Rob. I doubt that any of us could get a real answer out of a cable company, but your city's franchise authority point of contact might actually be able to get the story.

Posted by: Neil Ottenstein | February 24, 2008 5:46 PM | Report abuse

I called Comcast about the changeover, asking what I would need to use my analog TV for plain old analog enhanced basic cable after the changeover. The Comcast rep clearly had no idea what I was talking about. So in the case of Comcast, contacting your local cable provider provides NO useful information.

Posted by: Alan Rolfe | February 24, 2008 7:34 PM | Report abuse

There are actually TEN Digital TV "stations" on the air in Salt Lake City (as well as a couple of full-power DTV stations in outlying areas). These "stations" broadcast 22 channels of DTV programming, seven (soon to be eight!)of them in HDTV!

No deadline exists, yet, for low-power and translator stations...the FCC is hinting at another three years (2012). But, all have to vacate the channels 52-69 by 2009.

There are several hundred DTV translators on the air in Utah right now, carrying most of the ten SLC-area stations.

With Cable TV, you won't get the sub-channels (meaning, you won't get all 22 channels), and with satellite, you will get almost none of them. So, you're limited to the ten main channels...and, if you don't upgrade your service/payments, you won't even get THEM in HDTV.

So much for the line, "If you have cable or satellite, it won't affect you!"

Posted by: kenglish | February 25, 2008 9:06 AM | Report abuse

Our local franchise authority is contacting Comcast to find out what the story is. They forwarded the note I sent them yesterday. They are planning to have a town workshop in a few months with a Comcast representative and a Verizon representative who will be there to address all questions. As demonstrated by Alan's note - the nominal customer service reps you can reach over the phone don't have the information.

Here's most of my note in case anyone want to use something like it for their own note:

According to
http://www.dtv.gov/consumercorner.html#faq3

"Cable companies are actually required by FCC rules to
continue offering local broadcast stations to their
customers in analog as long as they offer any analog
service. This requirement will continue for at least
three years after February 17, 2009. The Commission
will decide in 2011 whether the requirement should be
continued beyond February 17, 2012. This means that
customers who receive analog cable service (without a
cable set-top box) will be able to continue to do so."

Unfortunately, "If a cable company makes the business
decision to go all-digital (meaning it will stop
offering any channels to its customers in analog), it
must ensure that its analog customers can continue to
watch their local broadcast stations. This may require
customers with analog televisions to get a set-top
box."

So, the question is whether Comcast will continue to
provide analog service through 2012 or if they are
going all digital in February 2009 or at some other
date. I think their customer service representatives
are as much in the dark as to Comcast's real plans as
the customers are. So, it would probably only be the
franchise authority that could actually get some real
information out of them.

Posted by: Neil Ottenstein | February 25, 2008 9:14 AM | Report abuse

I bought a new digital TV in December after my old TV died. I hooked it up to my 30+ year old antennae in my attic. I was suprised at how incredible the picture was. I didn't relize that all the local stations were already brodcasting in digital. We are now receiving about 5 additional stations that weren't available in analog. I am waiting for my coupon so I can get a converter for my other 2 year old analog TV. I am in the Boise, ID area.

Posted by: E | February 25, 2008 2:40 PM | Report abuse

"Can I use my existing antenna?" While it may work for some, often the case is NO. There is a difference in antennas, many rabbit ear type antennas and cheap amplified antennas function poorly for ATSC reception. I had to try 4 models before finding one that worked with any degree of reliability. (Antennas Direct DB4)

Start with a non amplified UHF only design.

Also many of the novelty type of antennas sold in most electronics chains can distort waveforms and cause the pulses to "smear out" DTV signals are pulsed riding on a vestigial side band, the waveform distortion inherent in many cheap antennas can cause the pulses to "slide into" one another so the receiver has to work hard to unravel the data. The results can be frequent drop outs or pixalization of the DTV image. Its not quite as critical in analog reception

Posted by: rich644 | February 25, 2008 6:42 PM | Report abuse

I live outside of the Washington DC (about 22 miles SW of DC)area and have had a digital TV with OTA tuner for a couple of years now. I have great difficulty receiving all of the DC DTV stations at all times of the year. My analog reception has been great with a metro area rooftop antenna. I use a deep fringe UHF antenna and rotor, and even with that my reception is spotty. It varies with the amount of leaves on the trees. In summer, reception is best...so I must be getting a reflection. The "sweetspot" where I set my antenna angle is almost like a "knife edge", a slight movement either way and I lose signals (in the winter). Biggest problem is with WRC-DT, the NBC O&O station. By the way, the AntennaWeb site says that I shouldn't be receiving some of the stations that I am receiving. So, I wonder how many other people like me are out there and may not know that they have a problem yet. It may be interesting come February of next year.

Posted by: DV | February 25, 2008 6:51 PM | Report abuse

When I bought into fios the DVR was not included. Because the boxes are rented I decided to try the DVR and pay the extra cost. Same again return the box it will replace.
What do you think about this plan? Is the DVR a good thing? I have missed some good flicks that came on too late or too early.
Wm.

Posted by: theador@verizon.net | February 27, 2008 4:35 PM | Report abuse

I think NAB should make a interactive map with all the broadcasters, included with the low powered TV stations that wont be affected by the transition. This way people and journalists should be able to better understand when and if stations they view will do the shift or not..

more about this on: www.dtvbrief.wordpress.com

Posted by: Anders Bjers | March 3, 2008 9:02 AM | Report abuse

"To receive basic, unencrypted digital cable TV, you'd need a part called a QAM ("quadrature amplitude modulation") tuner, which many digital televisions and digital video and DVD recorders now include."

Correct and accurate. Some may find it helpful to know that there are two flavors of QAM: encrypted and unencrypted. As he states, Rob is talking about unencrypted QAM. The Cable Company sends some channels (usually the local channels you can pick up using an antenna) in unencrypted QAM and you can view these using the QAM tuner built into many digital TVs w/o a set top box issued by the Cable Co. Encrypted QAM (the stuff for which the cable company charges the highest price) can only be viewed using the Cable Co.'s set top box (that's one of its key functions).

Posted by: e_identity | March 3, 2008 5:09 PM | Report abuse

Yes, digital TV converter boxes are showing up now but I have yet to find a store that can demonstrate one in action using an over the air signal. They cannot do it for their HDTVs with ATSC tuners either. They only have cable and satellite hookups. Someone should do the consumers a favor and run some field test of the converters with various antenna hook ups in both urban and rural settings. I think many will find their current antennas inadequate for digital. Have you discussed the "Smart Antenna?" Some converters are designed to work with it. For example the RCA DTA800B does but the DTA800A does not. Some converter have minimal signal outputs such as just an RF comnnection to work through a set's antenna connector using channels 3 or 4 and composite video and mono audio outputs as well. Some models have more but if manufacturers add on too many bells and whistles that may disqualify the converter for purchase with a coupon. Analog pass through is an issue where LPTV signals will remain on analog after Feb 2009.

Posted by: Bob Hart | March 3, 2008 5:09 PM | Report abuse

Bought a Magnavox converter box today, only after connecting to my tv did I realize that it only will pass through digital signals. Will have to add a splitter and a a-b switch to watch analog stations till 2009.

Posted by: w. stanley | March 5, 2008 1:42 PM | Report abuse

I hope there will be some CHEAP portable TVs with small screens (ones that can receive the digital ATSC signal) by the time Feb. 09 arrives. I will not pay $200 for a portable.

Posted by: Dave | March 8, 2008 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Is there a Whole House Converter available?
I have a matv system. Most apartment buildings and office building that have antennas also have matv systems. I have one amplifier for the whole house. Will it continue to work for a digital signal? Is there an economic reason why they wouldn't make a converter for the whole house? They want you to buy many.

Posted by: Lonny | March 23, 2008 11:38 PM | Report abuse

THIS SCAM IS TERRIBLE...FOR MY NON-CABLE TV THE CONVERTER FADES IN AND OUT AND DOESN'T ALLOW A VCR TO WORK PROPERLY,WHILE I PUT IN A SPLITTER SO EVERY DEVICE WOULD GO THROUGH THE CONVERTER...THIS SOLVED NOTHING...SHORT OF GIVING EVERY HOUSEHOLD THE DIGITAL EQUIVILENT OF EVERY NON DIGITAL DEVICE THEY HAVE THE GOVERNMENT HAS SCREWED US ALL

Posted by: WHOLETRUTHY | April 9, 2008 4:12 PM | Report abuse

From every thing I read, is it true that the converter must be used to change chanels, and I can no longer use my tv remote to change chanels, when the converted gets connected?

Posted by: Ralph | April 9, 2008 6:37 PM | Report abuse

I have an in-dash automobile media system that includes radio, mp3,CD,DVD and T.V. I realize my T.V. tuner incorporated in this unit will soon be obsolete. Is anyone making a converter that I can incorporate in my car to keep this feature functioning or am I going to lose my T.V. function?

Posted by: L.W. Wickham | April 17, 2008 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Q? i have a digital cable box "motorola" will this work as a digital reciver for free tv after feb 2009 in place of the one they say ill need after feb 2009

Posted by: bill | April 21, 2008 8:15 PM | Report abuse

My need is simple. What converter box should I purchase in order to receive a viewable TV picture through my antenna (in my attic) in the event of a hurricane and loss of Comcast cable after Feb 2009? I have a generator to power the TV and antenna signal booster.

Posted by: Bob in South Fla. | April 30, 2008 4:24 PM | Report abuse

what will happen if i were to plug in my converter box today

Posted by: charles | May 4, 2008 8:05 PM | Report abuse

will i be able to play my x-box360 on my tv without the converter box in 2009

Posted by: charles | May 4, 2008 8:07 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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