Cut the coax, cable subscribers! For the millions of consumers who pay monthly fees just to get the good reception of cable TV, there is an alternative. New digital broadcasts juice your old TV with a DVD-quality picture. The government will even help buy the digital tuner needed to get those broadcasts. That leaves your one-time cost at $10 or $20 per TV, or about one month's charge for basic cable.
Millions of Americans across the country are cashing in $40 government coupons to score converter boxes. Most of the buyers already depend on broadcast, and they are usually pleased to find the shift to digital means a much better picture (although some need a new antenna).
But the benefits aren't limited to broadcast homes. Digital broadcast not only offers great reception but adds channels that are available free. It can also offer a cable-style guide to what's playing on different channels and scheduled to play later.
A variety of the digital tuners can now be bought with the coupons. We didn't see much difference in picture quality or reception on a 27-inch, analog set. The distinctions are primarily in the remote control or other features, such as the depth of the programming guide.
Retail stores typically stock only one model. So we've checked out five to save comparison shoppers from driving from store to store:
($60) Available next week from Dish Network, and later from retailers.
Pros: It has the most comprehensive electronic programming guide of the bunch, offering a cable-style grid of much of a week's schedule, depending on data transmitted by stations. The box can be programmed to switch the channel at the right hour to enable a VCR to record a specific program.
Cons: Somewhat cluttered, odd remote with no dedicated button for changing channels and a volume control that runs horizontal instead of the usual vertical. The remote cannot control a TV, leaving users to juggle clickers.
($50) Found at Wal-Mart
Pros: One of the cheaper boxes that still does a good job pulling in stations. One of the easiest remote controls to handle, with a simple, clear layout and large buttons. Remote will control volume and power on most TVs. Will work with "smart antennas" that can change their position when necessary for better reception.
Cons: No remote button for the programming guide, meaning it takes extra button pushes to check the schedule. Pulling up the programming schedule also blocks the show that's being watched. Does not pass through signals from stations that will continue broadcasting in analog, such as religious and shopping channels. Box occasionally locked up, requiring a reboot.
($60) Found at Best Buy (Almost identical to Zenith DTT900 at Circuit City)
Pros: Clean, simple set-up, including a remote control that's preprogrammed for most TVs. Metal body gives it a sturdier feel. A bit better picture than other boxes, but the difference is unlikely to be noticed except in head-to-head comparisons.
Cons: Stripped-down programming guide that shows only what's playing on the current channel and what's coming next. Small remote that's cluttered with unnecessary buttons such as "sleep" for presetting a turn-off time. One of the larger boxes, substantially wider and longer than most others.
($60) Found at Radio Shack
Pros: Compact, rounded design that's attractive. Remote control includes dedicated button for switching to analog reception. Remote also can control TV's power and volume. Stable operation with none of the lock-ups experienced with other boxes.
Cons: Extra buttons such as "audio" and "zoom" make the remote appear and feel cluttered. Simple programming guide shows only about a half-day's worth of upcoming shows on current channel, and no program information transmitted on switching to another station.