Bill Hayes has been Iowa Public Television's Engineering Director since 1999, and is responsible for Iowa Public Television's transition to digital television. In a little more than a year, analog television will be shut off, and we’ll all be watching television a little differently. Visit this page frequently to get answers to your digital television questions and to read about the industry and IPTV’s transition.
Friday, June 6, 2008
What Digital Television Converter Box is Right for Me?
So if they all work and there are 90 or so different models out there, how do you pick one? Well, there are a few “features” that I do recommend that you look for but keep in mind these “features” were not required to be included in the CECB but as I have gained more experience with various models I have dealt with a few issues. One of the first features I would suggest looking for on the box is a power switch. I realize that most of us wouldn’t consider the power switch to be a feature but it was not required and I have one box from Digital Stream that works very well but doesn’t have any control switches so everything must be done using the remote control. If you’re like me and you occasionally misplace the TV remote, at least you can get up and walk to the set and turn it on but with this particular unit, without the remote you cannot even turn it on. I’d also suggest that you look for channel up/down controls on the box for pretty much the same reason, if you’ve misplaced the remote you will probably want to be able to change channels as well as turn the box on.
Another feature to look for is called “antenna pass through” or “antenna bypass.” You probably already know about this but haven’t really known what it was. If you have a VCR hooked up so that you’re antenna is feeding into the VCR’s antenna input and then another piece of antenna line goes from the VCR to the antenna input of the television you have used this feature. This is what allows the signals coming in from the antenna to continue on to the television even when the VCR is turned off. Very few of the CECB’s (22 out of the current 90) have this feature so when the converter box is turned off, the antenna signals no longer continue to the television. What makes this feature important is that right now, full powered television stations are broadcasting both analog and digital signals and if you want to watch an analog service after installing a converter box, unless it has this pass through capability you must physically disconnect the converter box from the antenna and reconnect the antenna to the television. So is this a big deal after the analog shutoff? It may be, depending on where you live and what stations you watch. Although in February of 2009, all full powered television stations will stop broadcasting analog signals and only broadcast digital signal, there is whole group of television stations call low powered television or translators that may (and many probably will) continue to broadcast analog television services because the federal mandate for digital conversion is only for full powered stations. If you happen to live in an area where there is a mix of full powered and low powered stations, you may want to be able to receive both. The rules for the converter boxes required that they could only receive digital television so the boxes cannot receive and analog signal, including low power so the only way to watch them is to use the analog tuner in the television. Now at some point in the future, these low powered stations and translators will convert to digital operation but until that happens there will probably be a mix of services in many areas. In Iowa, IPTV uses 8 translators to service viewers in the northwest corner, the northeast corner and southeast corner of the state. Even though there is no requirement to convert our translators to digital, we will begin that conversion after the analog shutoff and should be 100% digital before spring. It is our belief that trying to maintain an analog and digital service will be very confusing for the audience and will prevent people receiving the analog service from getting all the additional programming that will be part of our digital multicast services.
I think there is some fallout from this feature missing since I have had a number of people tell me that they have visited stores that are now out of converter boxes. What I believe is happening is that a number of manufacturer that are planning on adding this feature have suspended production of their CECB’s that don’t do antenna pass through and are gearing up to begin production and delivery of converters that do have this feature. I have spoken to one manufacturer that has confirmed this and knows that a number of others are doing the same thing. However, there are a number of boxes out there that already have this feature and are available and more will be showing up pretty quick since.
Beyond what I have mentioned, I like to tell people that prior to going out and buying the converter, spend some time looking at your current television remote control. This is the user interface that you use the most to watch television. Look at what features your current remote control has that you use. If you ping pong back and forth between two channels like I do when watching football, the control that allows you to flip flop between channels may be important to you. If you’re using an indoor antenna, having the signal strength display as button on the remote control rather than buried in menus may be important. Being able to turn on and off closed captioning without going to a menu may be important to you. What I am getting at is that you should figure out how you watch television and then when shopping for converters, ask to see the remote control and make sure that the features that you want to have quick access to are on the remote. If they aren’t, that doesn’t make the converter box a bad unit but it may not be what you want so pick another one. The whole idea here is for you to be able to continue to watch television the way you currently do so minimize the amount of change you have to make.
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