DIGITAL TV TRANSITION: Get ready for 2009

DTV Converter Box alternatives: You don’t have to wait.

DTV Coupons: How to get your $40-off government coupon.

Digital TV FAQ: Learn more about the change to digital TV.

THE SWITCH TO DIGITAL TELEVISION

Converter boxes

Should you get a digital TV adapter for your old TV? Our handy primer can help you decide.

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

What is a digital TV converter box?

RCA digital TV adapter. RCA/ThomsonA digital TV converter box hooks up to a conventional analog TV set, allowing it to receive digital broadcasts. This device, about the size of a cable box or smaller, is sometimes called a “digital-to-analog converter box,” “set-top converter box” or “digital TV adapter.”

Do I need a converter box?

If you watch TV over the air, using an antenna or “rabbit ears,” you will need to get either a converter box or a digital TV by February 17, 2009.

I have cable TV service.
I have satellite TV service.

How much do converter boxes cost?

The price is expected to be somewhere around $60. But because the federal government will provide coupons worth $40 off the cost of a converter box, the consumer’s share should come out to about $20.

• Read more: DTV converter box prices

How do I get a converter box coupon?

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will make coupons available to U.S. households that request them beginning January 1, 2008. Funding for the coupon program may not be sufficient to provide a rebate to every American who wants one, according to some analysts. So you might want to put in your request as soon as the program launches.

• Read more: DTV converter box coupons

Where can I buy a converter box?

Electronics stores and other retailers, including online outlets, will sell digital TV converter boxes. Inexpensive models eligible for the federal DTV coupon program should become widely available in 2008.

If you want a DTV converter now, one option is to purchase a set-top HD receiver, also known as an HD tuner. While intended for an “HD-ready” television, some models can also be used with an analog TV, functioning like a converter box. (Note that the set-top box will not give your analog TV high-definition capabilities; no device is capable of that.)

Another option is to buy a DVD recorder, VCR or digital video recorder (DVR) with a built-in ATSC digital tuner. These devices will also let you watch local digital channels on an analog TV.

• Read more: DTV Converter Box Alternatives

When should I buy my converter box?

To take advantage of the government rebate, you may want to purchase a converter box when the coupon program begins in 2008. Chances are, the longer you wait—as we’ve seen with HDTVs and most other consumer electronics—the lower the prices. Later models might also offer improved designs that deliver better performance. But remember, the coupons expire three months after they are issued.

If you don’t care about the rebate and simply can’t wait to watch digital TV, you can buy a converter box before the coupon program starts—if you can find one. Two major digital converter manufacturers are holding back the release of the basic boxes until early 2008.

Unless other companies step in with entry-level models before the DTV coupon program begins, the converter boxes typically available in 2007 are HD tuner/receivers intended for “HD-ready” televisions. If you go that route, you will probably pay a great deal more—and the high-definition capabilities will add nothing to your analog TV. A better value, perhaps, is a low-end digital TV or DVD recorder with a built-in digital tuner, which can cost less than a set-top HD receiver.

What features do converter boxes include?

The converter box includes features that allow a standard analog TV to continue in service. Expect to find a tuner for broadcast channels 2 through 69 (including the new subchannels known as multicasts); a remote control; a cable for connecting the converter box to an analog TV; inputs for a VHF/UHF antenna; outputs for video and audio; a built-in, onscreen electronic program guide (EPG); and support for closed captioning.

Those are the basic features. Your federal coupon can be used only for basic models that have been certified by the government program. Retailers who participate in the coupon program can tell you whether a particular model they stock is eligible for the federal subsidy .

What about the deluxe model?

Some upper-end DTV converter boxes include not only a digital tuner, but also video recording or playback capabilities (as found in a DVD player or DVR, for example).

For example, major retailers are beginning to stock a combination DVD recorder/VCR that includes an ATSC digital tuner. That model was found selling for about $190 in June 2007. The price range for other DVD-recorder/VCR/tuner combos can extend beyond $300. You could use one of these combined devices as a DTV converter box for your analog TV—although the store probably will not label it as such. (Note: Some models do not include an EPG.)

But remember: These more feature-laden devices are not eligible for the government’s converter box coupon subsidy.

While you can expect to pay more for one of the combined boxes, they may offer greater convenience while minimizing set-top clutter.

• Read more: DTV Converter Box Alternatives

Should I wait until the analog shutdown in 2009 to use my converter box?

Once you have your converter box, you may as well plug it in and use it. If you try out the box right away, you’ll be able to make sure it works. (And if it doesn’t, you’ll have time to exchange it.) Some viewers, perhaps a small percentage, will find that better antennas are required for digital reception…and you probably won’t want to be on your roof at midnight on February 18, 2009, installing it.

So if you have the box now, why not start enjoying what digital television has to offer? Digital broadcasts from familiar local stations are available today in communities throughout the U.S.—including, in many markets, additional channels called multicasts, which cannot be received with your old analog TV. With your digital-to-analog converter box, you may also notice some improvement in picture and sound quality (though you won’t get high-definition images or CD-quality sound without an HDTV). In addition, most converter boxes include an on-screen electronic program guide (EPG), giving over-the-air viewers a useful feature formerly available only to cable or satellite TV subscribers.

Why not just buy a new TV?

Plunging prices on big-screen, flat-panel LCD and plasma TVs, along with the growing availability of HD programs, have sent millions of Americans shopping for new televisions. The cost of tube TVs has also dropped—you might pay just $135 for a 20-inch, flat-CRT standard-definition (SDTV) model with a digital tuner.

Still, buying a new TV will probably hit your pocketbook harder than purchasing a DTV converter box, especially after the government voucher program takes effect in 2008. The downside of replacing your TV also includes the energy demands of large-screen models, along with the problem of disposing of your old set.

If you’re happy with your current TV, a converter box can extend its life. You will be able to enjoy several of the benefits of digital television, and the cost should be minimal.

Updated June 26, 2007, 3:39 a.m. ET

THE LATEST from Digital TV Facts