Hawes Mechanical Television Archive by James T. Hawes, AA9DT
DTV Changeover FAQ, Part 3

Questions About Coupons & Converters

QUESTION. Where can I get my converter box coupons?

ANSWER. Unfortunately, stores don't carry the coupons. To get your coupons, you must apply to the NTIA.

After a few weeks, depending on supply, the NTIA will mail you your coupons. The coupons are plastic cards that look like credit cards. These cards come from an office in Portland, Oregon. You must use your coupons within three months. Otherwise, they expire. You can't then apply for another set of coupons.

Caution: Procrastinators. If you want your coupons in time for the changeover, apply before August, 2009! The coupon program ends on July 31. (Despite this deadline, the coupon supply is limited. The supply might run out before the program closes.)

After March, the government will stop offering coupons. Converters will likely still be available for awhile, but you'll have to pay full price. We expect the price to drop, but can't predict with certainty. Due to government meddling, nobody knows the real market price of a converter box. Good news: The best deals might be just around the corner. Check eBay, resale shops and rummage sales. See if friends will trade you a coupon or converter box.

Photo of converter box coupon (plastic charge card)

Photo of real DTV Converter Box Coupon. A photo of a converter coupon appears above. We've removed the numbers and other identifying features. A hologram in the lower-right corner reduces the chance of counterfeiting, while authenticating the valid user. Unique ID numbers overprint this hologram.

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 button and read show details right off your screen.) On the other hand, unlike the Channel Master, the Digital Stream comes with a universal remote. (Some Zenith models have a remote that can operate basic TV features.) So far, I rank the Channel Master best, the Zenith next, and the Digital Stream last. Still, each converter offers advantages. All converters provide saturated, detailed, ghost-free viewing. The "best" converter for you is the one with features that you need.

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...

  • Always type in three digits for the channel. For example, "263" or "052." The converter adds the dash for you. If you accidentally enter "52" for channel 5-2, you'll instead get channel 52.

  • Suppose that you want Channel 26-3. Enter just the main channel, say "26." The converter will tune in Channel 26-1. Then click the plus ("+") button twice. The converter will tune in Channel 26-3.

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.

Converter Box Ratings (Best Picture)
Channel Master CM-7000 Rating:
Zenith DTT900 Rating:
Digital Stream DTX9900 Rating:
Channel Master has sharpest picture, fewest artifacts. Best online program guide. Remote has no "-" button. Setup is a little tricky. Metal case with internal power supply. Manual is hard to follow. Zenith has good picture. Tiny remote only needs 1 battery. Smooth setup. If you leave converter on for weeks, it crashes. Metal case with internal power supply. Middle-of-the-road manual. Some models have passthrough. Digital Stream's universal remote can control your TV. Easiest setup. Plastic case with internal power supply. Below-average picture is still ghost-free and saturated. Most readable manual, but offers little beyond setup.

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...

  • The federal government, because it sells the old TV frequencies. Your government stands to make $10 to $15 billion on the spectrum sales.

  • The merchants, because they get a crack at selling you a high-margin TV, VCR, DVD and TiVo.

  • The offshore manufacturers of converter boxes, TVs and other electronics: Electronics that you wouldn't otherwise need.

  • The federal government again. Now that it's dabbling in command economics, you can expect the bureaucracy to grow.

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. How do I get my converter working? Just the basics, please.

ANSWER. Insert your DTV converter box between your antenna and the TV's antenna terminals. You might have a set with an internal antenna. If so, then you might need to buy a new antenna. In urban areas, a set of rabbit ears will probably do the job.

Then, run through the software setup instructions. You'll find instructions in your converter's manual. If you've connected everything right, software setup takes about five minutes more.

See the assembly process for a Digital Stream® converter. We photographed all the steps.

Connection diagram for DTV box

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...

Tribune DTV Converter Co-op

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)...

Converter sale statistics

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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