Testing a Digital Converter and Antenna

Setup is simple and, presto, you've got 15 channels—except when there's no signal at all.

Television, uncropped

Television may not be my technological forte. Since I'm able to find almost all of my favorite shows online, I haven't bothered to upgrade from my old 13-inch analog Toshiba TV/DVD set, which remains untethered to cable. For major television events like the Super Bowl or the finale of Project Runway, I show up on the doorstep of friends who own flat-screen TVs. I'm the one bearing chips and dip and an apologetic smile for my own TV's ability to produce more snow than I've seen all winter in Washington.

This puts me squarely among the estimated 20 million to 40 million U.S. homes that rely at least partly on antennas and analog signals to get their television. Without the aid of a digital converter, we will see nothing but a blank screen on Feb. 18, 2009.

Converters have already begun to fill the shelves of electronics stores in anticipation of next year's full switch to digital broadcasting, so I tried one out. I was able to install RCA's paperback-size device ($50) along with Philips's slightly larger, spaceship-shaped antenna ($50) in minutes.

Setup instructions are clear. Even the least tech-savvy among us would have no problem installing the box. Both the antenna and converter plug into the wall and into each other, and a third cord runs from the converter to the television. Once everything was connected, I used the converter's remote to run a channel scan, where the tuner retrieved all the channels available from local broadcasters. Within minutes, I was receiving digital broadcasts.

With just an antenna and the TV's built-in analog tuner, I get four channels, with varying degrees of success. Some were snowy; others were best viewed like a Monet painting—blurry up close, but a discernible image from the other side of my apartment.

Plugging in the converter box was like putting in contact lenses. The crystal-clear image of Patrick "McDreamy" Dempsey's face filled my screen at once, and the rerun of an episode of Grey's Anatomy immediately reminded me how little I missed television during the writers' strike. My TV's capability expanded from four channels to 15, each with a consistently clear picture and sound.

Another upgrade that comes with the digital converter is the channel index and program listings that appear at the top of the screen with each channel change. The digital converter tells you the current and upcoming program, so I knew that the CW's rerun of Will & Grace would be followed by...another Will & Grace episode. Pressing the "menu" button on the remote takes you to a full listing of all channels' offerings, while "info" gives you details about your current program.

The only downside to my newly digital TV was, occasionally, reception. On an analog TV, a weak signal means a fuzzy picture that can sometimes be adjusted with a few antenna tweaks. With the digital converter, when a channel had no signal, the image became an unwatchable, pixilated blur, and the audio sounded like a CD skipping.

Playing with the antenna didn't much improve the situation, though changing channels for a minute sometimes did. There was no telling which channels wouldn't work—sometimes I had trouble getting CBS, and on another day, there were momentary interruptions in my NBC.

For those who aren't bothered by sporadic glitches, the $40 coupon makes a digital converter a good deal. Most converters can be bought for less than $70, and a number are listed for as little as $50 online. At a $10 difference for significantly better TV, infrequent viewers like me would find the converter well worth the price.

For others, the coming switch provides the perfect excuse for an upgrade to a new digital set, or to cable—which may be my next step.