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Digital TV: Rough on Rabbit Ears


What to expect when the analog signal goes dead on Feb. 17—and how to get ready

You've probably heard that over-the-air television as the U.S. has known it for the last 60 years is going to die next Feb. 17. The industry has been running portentous ads to let everyone know that the complete transition to digital is at hand. But it still hasn't informed people of just what it means and what they must do to prepare.

The great majority of American households get their signals via cable or satellite. New or old, their televisions will work fine after Feb. 17. I suspect, however, that many houses are like mine. Though cable is my primary source of TV service, I have a couple of old sets—one to fend off boredom while using an elliptical training machine, the other a tiny black-and-white set in the kitchen—that depend on over-the-air service. I recently used one of these old TVs as a guinea pig to see how hard it is to upgrade from analog to digital while continuing to use an antenna—and to find out what you get for the effort.

Congress in its wisdom decided that every American family needs a subsidy for this transition. You fill out the form at dtv2009.gov, and in three weeks or so you will get a couple of coupons that look like gift cards, each worth $40 towards the purchase of a converter box. (The coupons are only good for 90 days, so don't order them until you are ready to use them.) I took mine to the local Circuit City (CC), which had only one model, made by Zenith, available. It cost $60, so I paid $20 out of pocket.

Setting it up was simple. I disconnected the TV antenna and plugged it into the converter, then ran standard video coaxial cable from the converter back to the TV. (You can also use a yellow-red-white audio-video cable of the sort used to connect a VCR.) I tuned the set to channel 3, popped the batteries into the remote, and within five minutes of opening the box I had a digital TV.

This is enough to let you go on watching broadcast programming after the analog cutoff, but it isn't necessarily a great experience. First, there's the question of how good your TV signal is. If the signal you're getting isn't very strong, you may never have noticed—for the simple reason that analog service degrades gracefully. A weak signal may result in ghosts and snow, but you can go on watching it for as long as you can take it. And the audio generally holds up better than the picture.

Digital TV is more of a go, no-go proposition. As the signal weakens, the picture freezes or breaks up into blocks of pixels. And the sound may break up along with the picture, resulting in kind of stuttering noise that most people find very hard to take. A bit more signal weakening and both picture and sound disappear. In short, analog stations you regarded as watchable might not come through at all.

Then there's the question of formats. Broadcast stations are now offering most of their programming, including nearly all network shows, in high definition. But converter boxes downgrade the image to standard definition, which is the best that most analog-only TVs can show. Also, most of the new digital programming is designed for wide-screen displays, while nearly all analog sets have squarish 4:3 screens. This may be handled in different ways depending on your set's capabilities, but you can expect to see a lot of letterboxing—the black bands at the top and bottom of the picture.

For each analog channel there will be up to three digital ones, which is nice. And you may catch some interesting programming, including a couple of children's channels. But on public broadcasting stations you'll mostly see things like 24-hour weather radar.

On the whole, the converter is acceptable for analog TV sets you rarely use. But if you want the best from over-the-air TV after the analog cutoff, give yourself a treat. With high-def, 26-inch LCDs available for $400 to $600, the price of updating is not too dear.

Wildstrom is Technology You columnist for BusinessWeek. You can contact him at techandyou@businessweek.com .

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