|Hawes Mechanical Television Archive||
DTV Changeover FAQ, Part 3
Questions About Coupons & Converters
QUESTION. Where can I get my converter?
ANSWER. When you receive your coupons, the NTIA sends an up-to-date list of stores in your area that carry converter boxes. The NTIA Web site also includes a list of retailers that sell the boxes. Stores like Radio Shack, Circuit City and Wal-Mart all sell boxes. Note that different stores sell different brands.
You can also buy the converter boxes online, for example at Amazon. One great advantage of Amazon is that you can read customer reviews before you buy. The disadvantage of buying online is you might have to pay full price. Some online vendors accept NTIA coupons. Others don't. You can find online retailers that accept coupons at... NTIA retailer list.
The converter boxes are fairly scarce. You should call the store before you visit. Not all branches of a store have converters. For example, we checked several Radio Shacks in our area before we found a store with just one box. Also, the store that we found only had one brand, Zenith. Fortunately, the Zenith box receives very good reviews. After installation, it performs satisfactorily. Of course, we would rather not have gone to all the trouble. Our two-year-old TV works fine.
QUESTION. What if I'm not satisfied with my converter? Can I return it?
ANSWER. Stores with a return policy will take back your unwanted converter. You'll receive a refund for your out-of-pocket expense. On the other hand, you'll lose the value of the coupon. The coupons aren't returnable, either.
We're not sure why you'd return a converter box. Some converter boxes have more features than others. Yet from one box to the next, the TV decoding technology is about the same. This technology will improve over time. For now, different generations of hardware and software make only slight differences in performance. If your box is a complete lemon, sure, return it. Otherwise, you're not likely to find much of a peformance improvement.
Features. True, newer boxes have more features than older boxes. For example, we tested a Zenith DTT900 box from LG Electronics. The Zenith box has a "Zoom" button, and we find this very useful. The Magnavox DTA800 box at Wal-Mart has no such feature. Yet the Magnavox has a "passthrough" button. This button allows decoder users to view old analog shows. Passthrough seems very useful, but the Zenith doesn't include it. (Note: Newer Zenith models have passthrough.) High-end boxes add Y/C outputs, and Zenith doesn't include that feature, either. I also note that I can't use the Zenith with a video switchbox. For example, a user might want to switch between off-air and VCR video. Nope. Can't do that. The Zenith doesn't offer enough fanout to drive a passive switcher. Balancing that flaw is one very nice feature: The Zenith remote can turn on both the TV and the converter. Few converter remotes include this feature.
Channel Master. Recently, we installed a Channel Master CM-7000 converter. The Channel Master is one of the few converters with S-video. Yet this excellent converter still qualifies for the coupon program. (Note: No converters with HDMI or component video qualify.) This unit is a bit more difficult to install than Zenith or Digital Stream, but not much. Most of the confusion results from the very poor instruction manual.
Even using A/V connections, the Channel Master has the best picture that we've seen. I note that the picture doesn't quite fill the screen. I see about an eighth inch of black around the picture. Yet this minor defect is far better than the overscan of the Digital Stream DTX9900 unit. The Channel Master's tuner brings in 31 stations, vs. 30 for Zenith and 29 for Digital Stream.
Of the three converters, Channel Master produces the fewest digital artifacts. The Channel
Master also has the most detailed electronic program guide (EPG). (Click
The Channel Master remote has nice, solid buttons. You never wonder if you've really pressed a button. Channel Master buttons just aren't mushy, as are Zenith buttons. I don't care about this difference, but to some people, tactile feedback is very important. Case in point: I installed the new Zenith DTT 901 box at a senior citizen's home. While learning to operate the mushy buttons, the user became confused and frustrated.
Dash button. The Channel Master remote is easy to learn and use. Of course, it has its own quirk: The Channel Master remote has no dash ("-") button. On some converters, this dash button allows you to punch in subchannels. For example, 26-3. (Some converters use a dot button instead. Same idea.) With Channel Master, when you punch in a channel, you can bring in subchannels by two methods...
By the way, Zenith converters have the dash button, but also add dashes automatically. And unlike Channel Master's remote, the Zenith can switch on your TV. The TV feature is programmable. You can program the Zenith to work with many different TV brands. The Channel Master and the Digital Stream remotes each require two batteries. Somehow, the Zenith gets by with only one battery.
Price drop. To become more competitive, Channel Master recently reduced its price. What was one of the most expensive boxes is now one of the most economical. Channel Master is a little hard to find. No problem! You can order online. The site below allows coupon orders, and also details more Channel Master features. To order, have your coupon ready. Click... Solid Signal.
QUESTION. How much does a converter cost?
ANSWER. From about $40 and up. Your government coupon will pay for the first $40 of the price. You can't use both coupons to pay for just one converter box. That is, you can only apply one $40 coupon to the cost of the converter.
There's also a secret cost of converters: They obsolete every appliance that has an analog tuner. To see more about the impact on these other devices, click VCR, DVD recorder & TiVo.
At the January, 2008 Consumer Electronics Show, the company EchoStar announced the first $40 converter. This converter is also one of the few with a passthrough switch. The switch allows you to switch out the dtv tuner and watch an analog station. Contrary to what people might think, after February 17, 2009, some analog stations will persist. The passthrough switch will allow viewers to enjoy these stations. The EchoStar converter is a cooperative venture with Sling Media.
The government allows low-power broadcasters to continue offering analog signals. Also, towns that border Mexico or Canada can continue to receive analog broadcasts from those countries. Some low-power analog pirate stations might also come on the air. See more about watching international TV at... International TV.
QUESTION. Why don't all converter boxes cost $40?
ANSWER. We don't know for sure. (Uncle Sam isn't saying. Neither is the CEA, Consumer Electronics Association.) Yet some people have speculated about the answer: The real cost of a converter may be what you pay out of pocket. Say, $20 to $30. Then the $40 coupon is a sop for the manufacturer.
QUESTION. Will the converter box upgrade my TV to an HDTV set?
ANSWER. No. DTV (digital television) isn't the same thing as HDTV (high-definition television). The confusing part is that HDTV is one type of digital television. Still, the converter box can't change the definition of your TV. Such a change would require new scanning circuits, a new display, etc.
The converter will allow you to view HDTV pictures, but only in standard definition.
QUESTION. What are the benefits of a converter box?
ANSWER. It allows your TV set to continue working about the same as always.
QUESTION. That doesn't seem like much of a benefit to me. Isn't there an advantage here for someone?
ANSWER. Yes. Follow the money. The big beneficiaries are...
Something to think about: The government is telling you what to watch. And what to buy. Next year, this same government might tell you what car to drive. Or what type of health insurance to buy.
QUESTION. Help! I lost my coupons! (Or: My coupons expired! Or: I don't qualify for coupons, but I need one. Or: Someone stole my coupons.)
ANSWER. Your friend Uncle Sam doesn't replace lost, stolen, or expired coupons. If you return your converter box to the store, you don't get a replacement coupon. What to do? Contact a coupon co-op.
For example: The Chicago Tribune runs a DTV converter co-op. Through this program, readers of "Problem Solver" contribute excess coupons to those who need them. You can get details by phone, mail, or online. See this page...
If you can't get coupons through a co-op, try a friend with cable TV. If your friend doesn't need a converter box, apply for coupons in his name. When the coupons come, redeem them as usual.
New information for June, 2009. As you might know, President Obama extended the DTV conversion date. The extension brought a few more changes. (Your taxes at work again.) Now at last, people with lapsed coupons can apply for new coupons! Hurry. The coupon ordering deadline is July 31, 2009. After that, the federal rationing program closes. See... Coupon Troubleshooting.
Your taxes paid for these coupons! Get what you worked, earned and paid for.
QUESTION. How many converters has the government sold so far?
ANSWER. See this page from the NTIA (Department of Commerce)...
The total number of possible coupons is 33.5 million. Apparently the NTIA hasn't ordered this many yet. Although this seems like a huge number of coupons, consider that 13 to 21 million households receive analog TV over the air. Each of these homes may have two to four TVs. (The households figure comes from Nielsen.)
The government might well order too few converters. Or next year, we could soon be swimming in them. Besides, we'll be up to our necks in junked TVs, VCRs, games, TiVos and DVD recorders. That's what happens when a country abandons capitalism and adopts socialism.
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Copyright © 2008 by James T. Hawes. All rights reserved.