Have I Answered All Your DTV Questions?
I hope today's column answers every possible question and concern you've had about the upcoming switch to digital television broadcasts -- but I've written too many of these "what to do about DTV" columns to have too much confidence in that.
Instead, I'll be happy if today's piece covers most of the points that have kept coming up in your e-mails, Web-chat questions, calls and letters -- some banged out on manual typewriters.
For your further reference, here's a quick recap of some of my earlier DTV coverage:
* My 2008-vintage guidance about the digital transition didn't go into as many specifics as today's but provides a little more context about the history of DTV.
* Here's more detail on why I think a DVD burner with a digital tuner is a far better option for recording over-the-air broadcasts than a VCR hooked into a DTV converter box.
* DVD recorders, however, aren't your best option to add DTV reception to an "HD-ready" set; instead, see the alternatives I suggested in this recent Help File item.
* Last fall, I devoted a different Help File piece to describing a few ways in which digital broadcasts might improve in quality after the shutoff of analog broadcasts next month.
* Digital converter boxes can seem simple, but it's quite possible to hook them up to your existing hardware incorrectly. Here's the story of how one reader went astray.
* What can you do with an old analog set that you can't sell or give away? Read this Help File for a summary of environmentally-sound disposal options.
* What about antennas? Read after the jump for my report on a new indoor model that, under some circumstances, delivered significantly better performance than an older antenna.
Updated: Readers have suggested two other options you might find useful.
* If you'd like to use a converter box with a battery-powered TV, Winegard sells a $14.99 battery pack for its converter, which it says is good for up to 18 hours of viewing on a charge.
* You may find that a signal booster--a powered amplifier to plug in between a TV or converter box and an antenna--helps long-distance DTV reception. As one reader wrote:
My 80+ year old parents live on Cape Cod. The stations they receive are located in Boston MA and Providence RI - distances they were told would result in them getting little or no digital signals.... When we installed the digital converter without the booster, the TV picked up very few of the analog stations it had previously and none of the digital signals. With the booster installed, it received more analog stations than it had before and a wide range of digital signals. The booster is a standard Radio Shack purchase.
Another reader made the same point and suggested another source to buy one:
The cheapest place to get it is in eBay. I got several 25 db (signal amplification: 200 times) at $6.95 each, even including shipping (8.95, less if you buy more), it is a lot cheaper and a lot less hassle than getting a new antenna.
All that reporting and research, as well as today's column -- only the latest in a series of digital-TV stories by me that stretches back to 1998 -- cannot, however, answer one question: What sort of digital reception will you see in your own home?
As my colleague Kim Hart wrote in yesterday's paper, some viewers are discovering that their existing antennas don't work, or don't work without adjustments that weren't necessary with analog. But at the same time, the reports I've received from numerous readers suggest that DTV can deliver in most places -- say, the guy living 14 miles outside of Richmond who wrote in to say he only needed a $6.95 rabbit-ears antenna to get all the major networks, or the Alexandria resident who uses an antenna fastened to his chimney to tune in both Washington and Baltimore's network affiliates.
Then there's me: I've had nearly complete success tuning into local digital broadcasts at home in Arlington on a variety of TVs, DVD recorders and converter boxes, all with a cheap tabletop antenna I bought a dozen years ago.
I know digital TV is for real, and I think I know how to make it work if it doesn't perform the first time... but I can't do that for each of you. All I can do is keep rewriting these how-to pieces and hope that one of them serves to steer you right.
You can keep helping me out: In the comments, let me know what sort of hardware, techniques and tricks have improved your own digital-TV reception. Please include where you're tuning in from, so other readers can see which suggestions might work best for their own locations.
I haven't tested too many TV antennas, but I can share the results I've had with one new-design model, RCA's ANT1500. This $60 plastic slab, roughly 10 by 11 inches long, can be easily tucked away behind a flat-panel TV or on top of other stereo or video components, like a DVD player or audio/video receiver.
(For a much more detailed look at TV antennas, see this lengthy thread on the popular AVS Forum site.)
My first test of this antenna took place in my mom's house in a New Jersey town almost 20 miles northwest of the major network affiliates' transmitters in New York City. Many of her neighbors have rooftop TV antennas, and when I plugged in the Terk tabletop antenna I bought a dozen years ago to a Zenith converter box, I was not surprised to see only three channels, all from smaller stations closer to her home, come in clearly out of the 7 identified by the Zenith tuner. With the RCA antenna plugged in, however, the converter box detected anywhere from 6 to 21 channels depending on its orientation--laying it flat gave the best results, with three of the four big NYC networks usually viewable and nine local channels (six from a single station) looking just about perfect.
I repeated this test in Arlington. With the old Terk antenna, the Zenith box mapped out 22 channels, including every major commercial and public station in D.C.; only two of those 22 channels, both from Baltimore stations, were unviewable. Then I tried the RCA antenna in the horizontal orientation that had worked so well in New Jersey; the Zenith box could only find 15 channels this time and missed Washington's PBS affiliate WETA entirely. But with the RCA antenna resting vertically (it comes with a small metal stand to prop it up), the Zenith box identified 34 channels. Most of these added signals came from Baltimore stations and were, at best, on the borderline of viewability, but I was also able to view MHz Networks' five digital channels for the first time ever.
The moral of the story: Don't take no for an answer from your antenna, and if your antenna persists in telling you no, try a different model. You may need to spend some time positioning the antenna this way and that way before it can find all your usual stations, but with that effort you should have a good chance at locking in all the networks you watched in analog--and maybe some you didn't even know existed.
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