Digital Television Boxes




With the transition to digital television broadcast slated for June 22, 2009, there is time to make an informed decision on which converter box and antenna will be best suited for you. Following is the research process we went through to decide which box to get.


What are the key issues to worry about?

Do you need to buy a converter box and antenna for the switchover?
What kind of television programming will you be able to receive with a digital converter box and antenna?

Our Comparison Matrix

We looked at the specifications for a number of leading DTV converter boxes to see what capabilities and features they had. We also read reader reviews and other commentary that was available publicly. Here is our list.


Other Useful Reviews

Useful DTV Links

Antenna Signal Strength Meter: most, if not all DTV converter boxes have this but they vary in how easy it is to get to.  When you are first setting the box up this will be critically important for assisting you with antenna alignment.  Also, if you are moving your antenna around on a regular basis to pick up distant stations you will want to be able to access the meter with as few clicks of the remote as possible.
Smart Antenna Input: we are going to evaluate smart antennas and will provide our results thereafter but our expectation is that the smart antenna will enable better reception of a number of distant channels without having to move the antenna around. A smart antenna may not be in the budget this year but having the option to add one next year seems like something many of us will want to do IF they work well.
Decent Picture Quality: most DTV boxes should provide a digital quality picture which will be a step up from what we are used to seeing in the old analog domain.  There are a few boxes that reportedly exhibit annoying artifacts such as jagged edges and such that you’ll want to steer clear of, but the picture quality of all will be pretty good.
Decent Sound Quality: user comments on some boxes report a buzz or audible hiss.  In some cases this is because the volume output by the box is low and so you have to turn your TV volume up high which ends up amplifying any noise (including hiss and buzz) that has coupled into the audio signal on its path between the inner workings of the DTV box and the TV’s amplfier.
Channel Add Capability: most boxes have an automatic scan for channels function that will find which channels have strong signals on them and compile a channel list for you.  After this is done, you will want to be able to manually add to that list in case you have to tweak the antenna between different positions or possibly for other reasons.  Doing an auto scan each time will take time and will take into account only one antenna position.  Therefore, you’ll want a box that allows you to edit the Channel line up and manually add to it.
No Important Flaws Consistently Listed in User Reviews:  Some units have a flaw or two mentioned by multiple reviewers.  We’ll assume this is a systematic issue and if it is in an area that is important to you look for another box.
These things seemed less important to us:

Closed Captioning: this would be important for the hearing impaired but for the greater population doesn’t matter too much.
Auto Aspect Ratio: this appears useful if you are moving your DTV converter box back and forth between a standard TV and a high definition TV. Doesn’t seem worth paying for or trading more useful features for.
Analog Pass Through: This is of questionable value because of the unlikelihood that there will be much content of interest available in analog form after the switch to digital. Maybe there will be some small-time broadcaster that will transmit obscure content that you’ll find yourself wanting to tune into, but for most of us anything worth watching is going to be in digital. If all things are the same and you get this without having to give up something else, it would be worth it, but don’t trade something you really want for this feature.
Extensive Electronic Programming Guide (EPG): most boxes will display the current show plus what is on next for a given station. Being able to see what is on tomorrow or next Tuesday is interesting if you’re programming a recording device such as a VCR or DVR, but if you are trying to record a variety of shows on different stations on a regular basis, you really need to spend a little more and get a box that has that capability combined with the DTV conversion capability. Or, you need to sign up for cable or satellite TV. For recording something that will be broadcast while you’re at work, just tune the box to the station you are interested in and program the VCR to record channel 3 (or 4), like you did when VCR’s first came out.
Universal Remote Control: A universal remote is nice if you don’t have to trade away a ‘must’ for it. Not very many of the boxes came with remotes so there is a high likelihood that you’re giving something up to have Universal remote capability. If ‘remote-clutter’ is a problem, it may be better to just buy and program.
External/Internal Power Supply: A box with an external power supply has a cord extending from the wall to a black box that contains the electronics to convert wall power (120 Vac) to converter power (12 Vdc or less). This becomes an issue if the power converter is built around the AC plugs in which case it will likely cover up another outlet or two in your power strip. If the power converter is a black box with a cord that plugs into the wall and another cord that plugs into the DTV converter box you will have the issue of where to place the black box so that it isn’t in the way. We feel these are issues but that they don’t rise to a level of importance to cause you to give up other important features.
Price: We only looked at ‘Coupon-Eligible’ boxes and most of these are priced at $60 or less for an after-coupon purchase cost of $20 or less. We don’t think it is worth a few dollars to give up an important feature so price, in most cases (and there are a few exceptions that will be noted in our matrix), won’t matter in the decision process.
And So…

Using the above and applying it to the matrix of features and capabilities that we compiled, we narrowed down our choices to a couple of converter boxes. In some cases we were unable to find enough information about a box to completely fill out the matrix, which leads us to believe that the unit either has not been on the market very long or that sales are not very brisk. In either case, there isn’t enough evidence available to make a strong recommendation so these tend to get de-selected. Of those that remain, the Tivax STB-T8 comes in as our first choice for having Smart Antenna support, great picture and sound, channel add, and no identifiable systematic flaws. Our second choice would be the RCA DTA800B1 which has similar features but perhaps slightly less picture quality but a better (universal) remote. If you have no plans to buy a Smart Antenna, the Channel Master CM-7000 appears to be a good choice.

Do you need to buy a converter box and antenna for the switchover?

The changeover from analog to digital broadcast television is about the signal that is transmitted from a city near you through the air and picked up by your antenna. Broadcast television has been available for reception by antenna pretty much since the beginning of television (back in the 1940’s or so) and is available in its same ‘analog’ format still today – until June 22nd 2009, when the format of the signal that is broadcast is changed to digital. If you pay a monthly bill for cable or satellite television, you likely have not bothered with picking up broadcast signals with an antenna. You can receive ‘local programming’ – which is the news, weather and sports and sometimes other local events like athletic contests or civic performances – through your cable and to a lesser extent through your satellite connection. You haven’t missed to much by not tuning into that fuzzy television station that you can pick up from a far away city. You have been fine without an antenna up until now and so you will be fine without an antenna after the signal switches from analog to digital.

If, however, you don’t have cable or satellite TV and have been relying on your antenna reception to pick up your favorite TV shows, or if you have cable/satellite TV and still like to see what obscure programs and local events come across the antenna, then you should get an antenna and digital converter box. If you are due to buy a new TV, buy an antenna and a digital-ready TV.
If you currently are paying a monthly bill for cable television or satellite TV, you are likely receiving most of the channels that you would otherwise pick up with an antenna, and therefore you don’t really need to buy a converter box and antenna. If, however, you don’t pay for cable or satellite TV, your TV is connected to an antenna and you rely on a small number of
Broadcast television is something that has been around in its current form since the early days of television broadcasting in the 1940’s. Broadcast TV is a combination of national ‘network’ content such as your favorite soap operas and national news programs combined with local content such as the local news. In the early days of television a TV ‘station’ in a city near you would pull together a daily serving of television programs and transmit, or ‘broadcast’ these from an antenna to local communities near the transmitting antenna. Households would receive these transmitted signals through an antenna mounted on their roof or in the form of ‘rabbit ears’ sitting on their television and feed the antenna signal into their television to pick up the few channels that were being transmitted near enough to produce a quality picture on their TV set.
As time has gone on, more and more households replaced their roof top or rabbit ears antenna with a cable connection or more recently, a satellite and box either of which would provide more channels to a wider range of locations with a higher degree of picture quality.
The analog to digital switchover that is coming in June of 2009, is is all about the television content that is being transmitted by antenna from some city near you. Broadcast television, which is a name for the local and national television programming that is pulled together and transmitted on antennas from some city near you,
For many of us, receiving television programs with an antenna connected to the antenna terminals of the TV is something that we haven’t done for a long time. Many pay to have television programming brought in by cable. Others prefer to receive with a satellite dish. Still others have found that television content is being offered through high speed data lines associated with their phone. In each of these cases, broadcastin metropolitan areas aStill others are finding they can view some of the TV programs they are interested in by finding the right web pages and streaming the content through their high speed internet link. Not everyone needs to go out and buy a DTV converter box and DTV antenna.
What kind of television programming will you be able to receive with a digital converter box and antenna?

Because broadcast stations are able to transmit more content in the same frequency band that they were alloted for their analog broadcast, more content will (theoretically) be available. Likely we’ll see a station put out their ‘flagship’ channel along with a few auxiliary channels with weather updates, news updates or other low production investment content.

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