Editor’s Note: On Feb. 17, 2009, TV stations across the United States will turn off their analog signals as the final step in the conversion to digital TV. If you still have an analog TV set hooked up to an antenna to get a TV signal, then this three-part series is for you. It lays out 10 steps you need to take to figure out the conversion to digital and gives you key information on what the local TV stations are planning to do over the next few months. Today’s Part 2 covers the last five steps.
The first five steps are the hardest ones in the conversion to digital TV. Do the time-consuming work on the first five steps featured in the first part of the series published Monday and it makes these next five seem like a piece of cake.
Actually, if you make it through the first five steps unscathed, you deserve a piece of cake.
Step 6: Buying the converter box
Your coupons have arrived and you are ready to purchase a converter box.
The government Web site www.dtv2009.gov contains a list of approved converter boxes that you can research before you head to the store.
My experience and comments from a number of people lead me to recommend that you purchase a more expensive digital-to-analog converter with pass-through.
I have not heard a single good comment about the less expensive boxes; mostly I heard that models retailing for less than $20 either wouldn’t pick up any signal or only one signal.
The boxes I purchased were through Radio Shack from Digital Stream. They retailed in July at $59.99, although I got $40 off each with the coupon. I chose them because of a story in the Bangor Daily News earlier this year that recommended them as a better choice because they were “smarter,” with settings for different picture formats, among other things.
At the time I bought them, however, I couldn’t find the ones with analog pass-through. That means when the digital converter box is on, I can only get digital signals. If I turn the box off, then I can pick up only analog signals.
With pass-through technology, the box allows any analog signals to “pass through” to the TV. In other words, analog signals weren’t blocked because they weren’t digital signals.
This feature is important because any low-power stations, such as Fox 22 in the Bangor area, are not required to convert to digital in 2009.
When in doubt about a converter box’s features, ask questions from the store clerks and keep asking until you are satisfied with the answers. Or you can note a model you think would be good and then research it online, looking for customer comments, which often can be most telling.
Step 7: Recording devices
My nastiest surprise was when the antenna installer arrived and we discovered that my two recording devices — a 5-year-old DVD-VCR combo and a 2-year-old VCR — had analog tuners.
Here’s where the trouble lies: The digital converter box can be set to one station only and doesn’t have a program telling it to change channels. If I want to record something from Channel 2 at 8 p.m. and then Channel 7 at 9 p.m., I would have to be there to change the box’s signal myself.
Also, if I had an analog TV that needed to use the converter box, then I couldn’t switch channels while the VCR was recording to watch something else because the converter box isn’t built to send two different signals to two devices.
That meant I could purchase a converter box for each recording device at almost $60 each, or I could buy new recording devices.
I opted for the latter, which caused my equipment bill to jump considerably. But I reasoned that I could use two machines with digital tuners that could record either DVDs or VHS tapes. I could have purchased a DVR, a device that records programs onto a hard drive for watching later, but I didn’t feel ready for that leap.
Because both recorders are attached to one TV (a problem most of you won’t have), it meant I needed a switch to go between the two machines to eliminate any signal interference, yet another cost.
Step 8: Testing the converter box
Hooking up the converter box is straightforward.
Run your antenna cable into the labeled input on the box and then connect the out signal to the antenna input on the back of your TV.
You may need to scan the available digital signals several times before you find them all. And it may be that you won’t find all of them.
If that is the case, then try at a different time of day or on a different day. Remember that weather can affect the signal strength.
It also may mean you need to adjust your antenna direction according to your research at antennaweb.org or www.tvfool.com. Every time you adjust the direction, rescan the channels.
A good digital converter box will allow you to check the signal strength of each digital channel you find.
If you need to hook up a recording device, the setup will depend on what you have for equipment and its configuration.
Step 9: Hiring someone
The truth is that you can do all of Steps 1 through 8 for yourself or you can hire someone to do the work for you.
I knew I wasn’t about to go buy an antenna and climb up on the roof to install it, so I looked up who did this kind of work in the Bangor area.
According to the Yellow Pages, there is only one company that installs aerial antennas: Patriot Satellite of Holden.
I stopped in one day in early September and talked with Anthony Delfin, who made sure I understood there was no guarantee I would be able to get all of the digital channels. We discussed other options his business has available, such as DirecTV or DISH Network, because in Hudson where I live, there is no cable service.
But I remained adamant that I didn’t want a monthly bill if I could avoid it, and Delfin quoted me a price for a new VHF-UHF antenna, a new tripod rooftop mount, cabling and labor to hook up two TV sets to the new antenna. It was about $400.
Unfortunately, I didn’t know about the VCR analog tuner problem, so I had to have Delfin back after I bought the new equipment, mostly because he was better at this than I was and I was relieved not to have to struggle figuring out all the hookups and necessary wiring.
Ultimately, I am able to get all of the same channels I get as analog signals, although the weakest channel is public television, Channel 12.
I asked more than once about getting a booster or amplifier to bump up the signal and learned from Delfin’s son Joseph that it might not help.
If you are getting a half-decent signal, he said, it “probably will help.” But if you are getting nothing at all, there is nothing to boost.
Step 10: Other options
You may be thinking that you don’t want to deal with all of what you just read to avoid a monthly bill. Or you would rather know for sure that you can get your TV stations when you want and not invest a large sum to upgrade only to find you can’t get a signal.
Your choices are cable or satellite.
If your town is wired for cable, then check with the cable provider in your area to see what your options are.
According to Joseph Delfin of Patriot Satellite, the basic plans for satellite TV are DirecTV at $29.99 a month, for about 40-50 family-friendly channels, including the local stations. The other is DISH Network, with a similar number of channels and a monthly fee of $19.99, plus an additional $5 for the local channels. Both require installation of a satellite dish.
Tomorrow: People keep asking whether the Bangor stations are broadcasting their digital channels at their full range. This important information will help determine if you can get the signals now or if there isn’t much hope.