The Digital TV Crapshoot

The chip inside your tuner is a key to good reception. But you may have to guess which chip you have.

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Going digital in television, like seemingly everything involving computers, makes for a better product--but one that's more complicated, mysterious, and irritating. The reception we get through new, digital TV broadcasts is clear and sharp, even on a 20-year-old set. When we get reception, that is.

I've discovered that one secret to consistently good reception lies buried in a little device that sits by the TV. It's the digital tuner, which looks like a cable box. The tuner, like a cable box, enables us to watch modern TV, in this case the new digital broadcasts that arrive over the air, with no cable or satellite fees.

The tuner is essentially a little computer that unscrambles the stream of digital code arriving over the air. Much like PCs, whose performance depends on the chips inside, tuners vary widely in quality, also depending on the chips inside. A Korean electronics maker, LG, made a huge leap a couple of years ago with a new set of chips for tuners—they simply do a better job of grabbing a faint signal and, through some indecipherable magic, turning it into solid TV reception.

Not all products use the LG "fifth generation" chips (much less a sixth that is hitting the market this year). So we should simply buy tuners—or TVs with built-in tuners—that only have only the new LG chips. Ha. Gotcha.

It's usually a guessing game. Sometimes manufacturers include the chips in their tech specs, but not usually. Even worse, any salesperson or tech supportrep you ask is unlikely to know. Once again, consumers are left with a--complicated, mysterious, and irritating--digital crapshoot.


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