THE SWITCH TO DIGITAL TELEVISION

Can I buy a DTV converter box today?

Digital TV adapters aren’t in stores yet. But new DVD recorders offer a converter-box alternative.

This is archived content from Digital TV Facts. For up-to-date information on the digital TV transition, see the federal government’s site, www.DTV2009.gov.

By Steven Sande, Digital TV Facts

DTV converter boxes, designed to help analog TV owners survive the switch to digital TV, should arrive in stores by early 2008. But some consumers with older, antenna-equipped TVs don’t want to wait that long. A new converter-box alternative will allow you to watch digital broadcasts on your analog TV today—using a DVD recorder with a built-in digital tuner.

DVD recorders with DTV tuners are beginning to reach stores, selling for as little as $145. You might think of such a device as a “DTV converter box plus.”

DTV converters are on the way, but you don’t have to wait

When we talk about digital TV converters, we usually mean a basic device that attaches to your analog TV set, allowing it to receive digital over-the-air programs. These are the digital-to-analog converter boxes (or “digital TV adapters”) scheduled to reach market by next year, just in time for the federal DTV coupon program. The expected price: about $50 to $70.

You don’t actually have to wait for the analog TV shutoff on February 17, 2009, to bring your old TV into the digital age. Some Americans have been watching local digital TV channels on analog sets for several years using an external set-top box containing an HD tuner. One example is the Samsung HDTV Terrestrial Tuner, model DTBH260F, selling for $166 and up. This Samsung receiver is really intended for an “HD-ready” TV (sometimes called an HD monitor), but it will also allow you to view digital TV in standard-definition (SDTV) on an analog TV. (Your analog set can never give you high-definition TV, alas.)

By moving to digital, most viewers will experience notable improvements in picture and sound. Also, in most decent-sized television markets, digital TV gives you a few extra broadcast channels, thanks to multicasting. One of the drawbacks, of course, has been the cost. You can find 20-inch digital SDTVs today selling for $30 less than Samsung’s set-top tuner.

New DVD recorders can tune in digital TV broadcasts

But now, for $21 less than the Samsung, Magnavox offers a DVD recorder with built-in ATSC digital tuner, model ZC352MW8. (ATSC refers to the Advanced Television Systems Committee, the standards body for the digital broadcast technology used in the U.S.)

Reader Z. purchased the Magnavox recorder/tuner and was able to receive every digital channel in his area (less than 2.5 miles from the broadcast towers) using an omnidirectional outdoor antenna. The picture quality when viewing local digital stations on his analog TV made the tuner well worth its cost, according to Z. DVD-quality sound was a bonus, and initially the DVD player and recorder worked great, too.

A significant drawback of the Magnavox, however, is achingly slow channel changes. When it takes between four and 15 seconds to change the channel, surfing becomes all but impossible. Digital TV tuners are known for slower channel changes than analog, but this kind of box-full-of-molasses performance (also attributed, in online forums, to a related Magnavox DVD recorder/VCR/digital tuner combo, model ZV450MW8) may be a deal-breaker for people who mainly want a converter box. One forum commenter, however, found the ZV450MW8’s poky DTV broadcast channel changes only a bit slower than on a Sony HD DVR.

Other complaints: The remote control has a poor layout, with buttons that are too small and no last-channel feature. Also, no on-screen electronic programming guide (EPG) is included. Z. ultimately returned his base-model Magnavox when the digital sound output for DVD playback stopped functioning.

Consumers who do not want to wait for the government-subsidized DTV converter boxes will soon have an increasing array of DVD recorders to choose from as stand-ins. Under an FCC mandate that took effect March 1, 2007, they must include digital tuners. Five ATSC-tuner-equipped DVD recorder models were spotted at Wal-Mart by an AVS Forum member in April, including models from Philips (which owns Magnavox, its value-priced brand).

How many boxes, and how much energy?

Combining DTV converter and DVD player/recorder functions into one package offers a check against set-top-box proliferation. Energy usage is another consideration, though the calculation can be tricky. On the surface, the electrical draw of a DVD recorder with built-in digital tuner is probably less than the combined demand from a DVD player plus a DTV converter. Yet consider that the combined box must be left on whenever you watch TV, and is likely to be more energy-thirsty than a simple DTV converter. (In each case, the device uses some power even while turned off, in “standby” mode.)

If you want the benefits of digital TV today, and you don’t want to purchase a new TV with a built-in digital tuner, a new DVD recorder is an option worth considering. Uncle Sam will not help you pay for it, however. Your $40 DTV coupon from the federal government, available upon request at the beginning of 2008, can be used only to purchase a stripped-down DTV converter box.

Read more:
DTV Converter Boxes
DTV Converter Box Coupons

Published June 16, 2007, 10:55 a.m. ET

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