Preparing for the Digital TV Transition

February 11, 2009

digital_worldI get most of my news and entertainment online instead of through the television. But, we still turn on the weather or PBS cartoons in the morning, so we needed to prepare for the upcoming “digital transition”. Here’s a summary of how I chose a converter box and built an antenna. Did I miss anything? What did you do?

As you’ve probably heard, Congress and the FCC are requiring full-power television broadcasters to drop their analog signal and go completely digital. The date for this transition was originally scheduled to be February 17, 2009, but it was postponed recently to June 12, 2009. According to the FCC, they plan to use the “discarded” analog spectrum for public safety communications (fire, police, rescue squads, etc.) as well as auction off portions to private companies for the expansion of more advanced wireless programs such as wireless broadband. Regardless of why Congress has federally mandated a technological shift for television broadcasting, it appears to be happening. Even with the postponement, there is no reason for you to wait.

Note: If you’re a cable/FIOS/Satellite subscriber, you don’t need to worry. The digital transition is only for over-the-air (OTA), broadcast television that you’d pick up with an antenna. 

Choose A Converter Box

I have a home theater with 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound and a 1080i HDTV, so at first, I was looking for a high-definition converter box with component video and digital audio output. I quickly found that boxes with these features are excluded from the governmental $40 Coupon program, but they are available. If you’re into home theater, the AVS Forum is a great resource. There, I came across the Centronics ZAT502HD ($89 and backordered), the Samsung DTB-H260F ($160+), and a fairly comprehensive list of others. However, looking at the prices of these boxes, reading some of the reviews, and weighing their value against the Coupon Eligible Converter Boxes (CECB), I also quickly realized that I wouldn’t be watching enough Network television to justify such an expense. 

After reading some reviews of CECB’s (here, here, here, here, and here), I concluded that the Zenith DTT901 and Insignia NXS-DXA1-APT probably have the best picture of the CECB’s. Apparently, they share internal components but are branded separately. Insignia is Best Buy’s house brand. I picked up an Insignia for $60, less the $40 coupon. 

Make An Antenna

Find out what channels are available in your area and their relative location at antennaweb.org. I found some easy instructions to build my own antenna. It was very easy, and the results are pretty good. I pick up 5 analog channels and 16 digital channels with the antenna properly oriented in my attic, including some channels that are over 25 miles away. Fabricating the antenna took about an hour of my time, $5 at Radio Shack, and a few parts from around the house, so it was a pretty inexpensive experiment. As a side-benefit, I split the signal to my stereo for improved FM reception. 

My new antenna can pick up analog, digital, and high-definition broadcasts.  Unfortunately, while I have a 1080i HDTV, and the converter box can show me the HD signal, it appears to reach my TV only in standard definition (480i). Again, not a big deal for the amount of TV I’m watching. I can always upgrade down the road, as I’m sure the prices for these boxes will drop eventually.

To build my antenna, I followed the instructions in the video below from Babblin5. Of course, your results may vary. 

More Resources

There are plenty of websites that go into specific details about the transition, the hardware, and they might have more information for your particular needs.  Here are a few links to help you get started. 

Photo credit: Ilker


One comment

  1. Thanks for the links! For someone like me who has basic cable, I know I’ll be fine right after the June 12th, 2009 analog cutoff date… I’m not quite sure what my cable company is going to do a year or two after the digital transition…I just don’t like the lax rules that the cable companies have for their own digital transition.

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