Sunday, May 25, 2008

Experience with DTV Converter Boxes

As you may know, on February 17, 2009, analogy TV broadcast signals will be turned off by the TV stations, and all TV broadcasts will go digital. This effects the 56 of us who still get TV reception over the air with our rabbit ears. Our TVs can still work as long as we get a converter box to convert the signals from digital to analog. The government has program to facilitate the migration. We can request two $40 coupons (they look just like gift cards) to purchase two converter boxes (you can of course buy as many as you want with your own money). You can get more information about the program here.

I decided to be one of the first guinea pigs to get my DTV converter boxes. As soon as they were released, I signed up to get my two free DTV gift cards from NTIA - a $40 value each. When they arrived, I promptly put them in the drawer and forgot about them.

And then I was at some conference where a very kind lady from NTIA pointed out that the cards expire in 90 days. Oops. Gotta use those cards.

Being an educated consumer, I first searched for reviews of the different converter boxes. Bupcus. Nada. No Reviews. I guess I was in front of the buying-wave and there weren't reviews yet. So I decided to buy a brand name I liked.

I checked my favorite ecommerce sites. Some had boxes, but they were built by companies I had never heard of before. Others listed boxes, but you could not use your DTV gift card online. So I had to rediscover where the local electronics box store was - boy it had been a long time since I had been there.

I went into the box store - I am the type of person who doesn't like the store salesman-buy-the-extended-warranty help - so I tried to find the DTV converter myself. No dice. Not to be found.

So I conceded and asked a salesman. He had no idea what I was talking about, and tried to sell me a DTV tuner. Finally he resorted to ask a fellow salesperson -- sales guy #2 knew where the boxes were, and showed me where they were, when he was done with his first customer. And then he walked away. I am guessing there is no commission on DTV converter boxes.

Having accomplished my quest, I marched to the checkout line and presented my coupons. The checkout guy was not too sure, but the cards authorized, so he asked that I sign for the charge. I thought this was odd because the cards did not have my name on them, and I was paying for the excess price over the $40 card in cash. Whatever.

The DTV box was extremely complicated and involved an extensive installation. There is an in-jack from the rabbit ears and an out-jack to the tv. Very complicated.

The box installed great. It took a few minutes, turned the tv to channel 3, and boom, the converter box detected all of the digital channels. The picture was crisp. The remote had a nice zoom button that toggled through framed, cropped, squeezes, and “set by program” choices.

Now the bottom line - reception. This chart compares the channels I could receive before the digital box, and the channels I can receive after the box. With digital, if you can get signal, you get a great picture. But if you can't get enough signal, instead of getting your program with some static or snow, you get nothing. This means channels you use to receive sort of okay before, you may not receive at all with digital.

Channel Analog Digital
4 NBC Good
4-1 Good
4-2 Good
5 Fox Good Good
7 ABC Good
7-1 Good
7-2 Good
7-3 Good
9 CBS Good
9-1 Good
9-2 Good
14 Uni Good Good
20 My20 Good Good
22 MPT Fair None
26 WETA Good
26-1 Fair
26-2 Fair
26-3 Fair
26-4 Fair
32 WHUT Good None
45 Fox Poor None
50 CW Good Good
54 CW Poor None

I can receive MPT 22 with a little bit of snow over analog; I do not receive it with digital. I receive a hand full of Baltimore stations poorly; on my upstairs TV the reception can actually be quite fair. But when I switch to digital none of these stations are received.

The big surprise is WETA 26. The station is not far from me and the digital tower shows up through Wikipedia/Google as quite near also. The picture, however, pixelates and regularly freezes. On occasion, I get a “no signal” screen. I could not get a confirmation of the problem from other online forums. Not sure what the deal is.

Bottom line: Even on an analog TV, when I get the picture, it is a much better picture; but I receive fewer stations and am having trouble with a station I should be getting.

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