Digital converter quality uneven

PLUGGED IN

Many factors will affect reception for antenna users

Plugged In

May 08, 2008|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

For months I've been urging readers who get their TV service the old fashioned way - over the air, with an antenna - to apply for a pair of government coupons. Each provides $40 toward a converter that will keep an analog TV working when the nation's broadcasters switch to digital transmissions on Feb. 17, 2009.

My coupons arrived over the weekend, so in the interest of science, I bought Best Buy's Insignia converter box and hooked it to a couple of TV sets to see what would happen. What I learned surprised me, and may surprise you.

When it comes to old-fashioned analog TV reception, all sets are not equal. Some are much better at finding distant channels than others. Reception depends on many factors, including the converter you have, the quality of your set, your antenna and - as Realtors love to say - location, location, location!

But the more channels you receive today by antenna, the more likely you are to be disappointed - or hopping mad - when the broadcasters turn off those analog transmitters. This is particularly true if you watch sports or news on Washington stations or other distant channels.

For the $60 price tag -_$20 after the coupons - the Best Buy converter should have had a channel display on the front, as some competitors do, instead of relying on the TV display. But that was my main complaint about an otherwise workmanlike package. It included a remote control for the tuner, a standard coaxial cable for your TV set's RF antenna port, and separate audio and video (A/V) cables with RCA jacks for sets that have AV ports. Use these if you can: they provide a slightly better picture and much better sound on TVs with stereo capability.

Although I was hardly in a laboratory environment, I wanted to level the playing field, so I bought a $19 RCA antenna with rabbit ears for VHF stations and a UHF loop. The antenna was "certified" for Digital TV, but that's a marketing gimmick. Digital broadcasts use the same set of frequencies as analog broadcasts, so an antenna that works today should be at home with a digital converter box.

Our home presented no particular geographical problems. It's just outside the Baltimore Beltway in Pikesville, on the northwest side of the city, at an elevation of 500 feet. It's about 7 miles, as the signal flies, from Television Hill in Baltimore and 5 1/2 miles from the Maryland Public Television towers in Owings Mills.

For my test, I hooked each antenna to each TV twice - once using the set's traditional analog tuner and once using the converter's digital tuner. In each case I recorded the stations I could receive and the quality of each (with the best possible antenna adjustment).

One immediate issue: With an analog tuner, it's possible to get a snowy but perfectly viewable picture. In the world of digital broadcasting, there are two kinds of signals - excellent and none at all. So like most changes, this one has mixed consequences.

My "better" TV, a 24-inch Sanyo model that we bought three years ago, received 11 analog stations, which seemed reasonable: channels, 2, 11, 13, 22, 24, 45, 54 and 67 in Baltimore, and channels 7, 20 and 26 from Washington. The Washington stations were a bit snowy, but watchable, as was MPT's Channel 67.

My second TV, a 13-inch model with a Fisher label, was the cheapest model I could find eight years ago when I went shopping for a little office set. Surprise - with the same antenna, it pulled in 20 stations, including some that I couldn't remember seeing before. In addition to the same channels as its big brother, the Fisher displayed channels 4, 5, 9, 32 and 56 from Washington, along with a couple of Pennsylvania outlets and an MPT repeater broadcast. Once again, the out-of-town stations weren't perfect, but definitely intelligible.

With the digital converter doing the tuning, there was little difference between the two sets. Using the big TV as my standard of comparison, the digital box score was mixed. I lost channel 20 in Washington and channel 22 (MPT's Crownsville transmitter). But I picked up Washington channels 4 and 9. Using my little office set for the competition, the digital transition would be a disaster if I was into watching fringe stations.

The most disturbing news: If other viewers lose channel 22 altogether, and channel 67 breaks up or disappears as often as it did on my sets, Maryland Public Television may be in for hard times unless viewers are willing to buy a better antenna or switch to cable.

From a quality standpoint, in almost every instance, the converter produced a sharper picture than the set's analog tuner - an advantage of digital technology. Whether this compensates for losing some stations depends on your viewing habits.

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