On June 12, 2009, the U.S. government will shut off all analog NTSC television signals, and if you have an old television, you'll need to buy a digital TV converter box (aka DTV tuner)or a new TV. Sticking with your old TV is certainly a less expensive proposition, and it's probably more environmentally friendly. What's more, Uncle Sam is offering you $40 for your troublesso a $60 DTV tuner purchase becomes a $20 deal. (Apply here: Sure, it's not HDbut even on a GoldStar set from 1982, a digital signal will look sharper than an analog one.
There are a number of things to consider when shopping for a digital TV tuner. Only kiddingluckily, there are very few. You just need to pick a box and buy an antennamore on that in a minute. And you'll have to consider what kind of video connection from the box to the TV you need to usedepending on the inputs on your set (S-Video versus composite or coaxial, for instance).
We took a look at a few of the many DTV converter boxes that are approved for the $40 rebate. (Here's a full list of eligible boxes.) The Zenith DTT900 and the Insignia NS-DXA1-APT are literally identicalthe only difference being the logo painted on each of these black contoured boxes. They are a bit limited in that they offer only coaxial and composite video outputs, while the Apex DT250 offers both connections, along with S-Video and a smart antenna connection. The RCA DTA800B1 offers the smart antenna input but lacks S-Video capabilitiesand the A/V cable for the stereo audio and composite video outputs that the other boxes supply.
I found that the remotes for all four devices work simply and intuitively, but the user interface on the Apex box is not as good-looking as the others. That said, the on-screen guide feature on the other three boxes is limited to showing only the current and next program for a given channel, while the Apex shows far more programs.
An indoor/outdoor antenna is an essential part of this puzzle, and you can get one for as little as $11 at RadioShack. There are no government rebates for these devices, however. They work a lot like old rabbit-ear antennas, but they pull in digital broadcasts instead. A smart antenna, which is an option only with the Apex and the RCA boxes, will automatically adjust for better reception as interference changes and can be useful if you're in a low-reception area.
Proper antenna placement is key. If you don't place your antenna optimally, prepare for drop-out. A poor digital signal takes the form of splotchy screens, frozen frames, and complete audio drop-out. There is no snow or static as there is with analog TV. If you're not using a smart antenna, it's a good idea to think about using a longer coaxial cable than the one supplied with the box, so you can move the antenna farther from the box if need be. If you live on the ground floor of a large apartment building, for instance, your best placement bet is probably by a window, but your TV might not be nearby. Knowing the location of the towers that are broadcasting DTV signals is also a plus.
Setting up a digital converter box is simple and inexpensive, and unless you want to watch snow, you only have until June 12, 2009, to get it done. Of course, there's always cable, or you could buy a new set, but if you're not up for the splurge, go get your box and antenna, apply for your rebate, and with a little patience, you'll be enjoying quality DTV on your trusty old television set in no time.
Here are some useful resources for learning more about the DTV transition:
- A great place to find out about what local DTV channels are available and how to receive them (including info about selecting an appropriate antenna)
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Apex DT250 Digital Converter Box
The Apex DT250 digital TV tuner offers more connectivity than its competitionincluding a smart antenna input to help with reception in spotty areas.
This box is identical in every way (except for its logo) to the Zenith DTT900.
The RCA DTA800B1 works well and has a smart antenna input, but the exclusion of analog cables seems stingy, especially considering that it costs more than some competitors' offerings.
Zenith DTT900 Digital TV Tuner
There's nothing fancy about the DTT900. It allows your old TV to receive digital broadcasts, provided you also buy an inexpensive antenna.
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