Sunday, May 31, 2009

The digital switch

The analog to digital conversion is scheduled to take place June 12th and that's led to a number of questions.

TV Converter Box

Jessie e-mailed, "Ava and C.I. raised the issue about plugging into a VCR awhile back. That's what I have done to get a better analog signal. Will I be able to do that with the converter box and will I get a better signal?" Jessie is one of many writing in with that question. First, yes, you can plug the converter box in through the VCR (or DVD player or VCR - DVD player). We'll give your our recommendation on which one to buy in a moment (and which not to) but there are models that allow you to easily connect the antenna to the converter box and then the converter box to the TV. As for a better signal? We can't say. None of us lives in a rural area. Ava and C.I. haven't been in a rural area on the road to ask around (nor do they pack a converter box with them when they hit the road).

Ava and C.I. raised that issue because they're up on things. It's not one most of us would think of. But it is a serious issue to those people who live in rural areas and the broadcast tower may be a one hour drive or more away from their home. With analog, plugging their antenna into the VCR and not the TV allowed them to receive a better signal than plugging their antenna into the TV. That may turn out to be the case with digital as well. We don't know. But we do know you can plug it into a VCR, a DVD player or a VCR and DVD combo.

Nino e-mails to ask if he can wait until the day of the switch? Yes. And you may want to. Some stations have not switched over yet. Some are having problems. For example the image sticks and then, thirty seconds later, it's triple-time as the feed catches up. You can wait until the last minute if you want to.

Carrie wants to know how -- "with all the supposed new channels I'm going to have" -- she's going to be able to track down the channels? We tried six converter boxes and all offered a scan option, where you hit that function and the box automatically scans through and notes every channel that you receive. After it does that, you can use up and down buttons and not punch in the number of a channel if you'd prefer. (The way you flip channels on your remote currently.)

Martin e-mails that he's looked at various boxes and sees that all the converter boxes come with a remote "but they don't tell me what size batteries I'll need." If you mean immediately, all five converter boxes that we purchased had the batteries inside the box. It comes with batteries. They are triple A batteries.

Salvador wanted to know about the coupons. Each household could receive two forty dollar coupons. It's too late to request them and get them by June 12th. It's been too late for weeks now. If you have the coupons, look at the bottom right hand corner for the expiration date. If they haven't expired, you can still use them. You go to the store and you purchase the converter box. You scan the coupon after the clerk rings up the purchase. If you're using two coupons, you scan them both. A reader wrote in asking if she could then pass them on to a friend? No. After you scan the coupon, you sign your name and the store then takes the coupons. You do not leave the store with the coupons. (Unless you don't use them.)

Terry has three TVs and only two coupons and wonders what to do? See if someone will give you a coupon, someone you know. Otherwise, prepare to pay full price for the third converter box. If that happen, don't rush to the check out counter with a cheap one that's less than $30. If you find one for $30 or less, chances are it is analog. Make sure before you purchase it that it's digital.

Asking around is actually a smart move for anyone without a coupon. People were sent two coupons. Some people don't need two. By asking around, you may find someone who has a coupon they're not using and is happy to pass it on over to you. We spoke to clerks at four different stores and they said that it shouldn't be a problem and you sign the name on the card but, if you are asked, tell the clerk that's your aunt or uncle who lives with you. Sign the name on the card when you're signing for the card. If you're putting the purchase on a credit card, you still sign your own name for that. But there is a step involved on the coupon where you swipe it and then have to sign a name. It does not have to match the name on your credit card if you're paying with that. Or on your checks if you're paying with a check.

Doug wants to know how sharp the picture is with just a converter box and no cable and no antenna? Doug, if you live in a big city, the picture should be fine. But, again, if you're in a rural area, we can't tell you what to expect because we honestly don't know.

We do know what you need to avoid. We looked at five boxes and stuck with the low end for this feature. We strongly urge you to avoid Apex Digital TV Converter Box. Jess, Jim and Ty bought an APEX DVD player in college and it went out quickly. We have no idea how quickly the box might go out but we know it's a pain in the butt, it most likely comes with the wrong cables (most people using the box will have older TVs and need the cables with the metal ends you screw on, not the plastic ends you plug in). It is less easy to hook up and the option menu is confusing. It's only plus is that it retails at $49 in many stores.

Digital converter box

We tested each converter box on Kat's two TVs (she's not made the digital transition) and the one that was the easiest to hook up, the easiest to use and provided the best picture is Venturer Digital Converter Box. We found it listed at $49.99 in multiple stores and, according to Target online, it can be purchased in Target stores for $40.00. That's a very low price and, if you have a coupon, that's one coupon with no extra. This is easy to use, with a instruction booklet (in English and Spanish) that you don't need to refer to once you've hooked it up. The remote control has the menu option and the menu is so easy that you should have no problems at all. We liked it so much that we went and bought another one for Kat so that she'd have it on both of her TVs.

The government is recommending that you "CALL AHEAD TO CONFIRM BOX AVAILABILITY ON THE DAY YOU PLAN TO SHOP." (From a governmental fact sheet on the conversion and the coupon program.) That's probably only more true as June 12th approaches. We didn't call ahead because we were attempting to get a feel of the experience and find out how difficult or easy it could be. We found the Venturer at all the stores and we found the Apex at all the stores. Other than that, the brands varied at each store.

Some stores that are carrying converter boxes include RadioShack, Target, Sears, Best Buy, Wal-Mart and K-Mart. And for the silly ninnies who want to e-mail ( to complain that "you pitched Wal-Mart!" -- grow up. In many rural areas, Wal-Mart is all they have. In part because it's a rural area and in part because when the Wal-Mart comes in, everything else shuts down. We don't shop at Wal-Mart ourselves but we don't condemn anyone who does. Those who do might need to travel the country and see what's actually out there.
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