November 20, 2008

How to Switch to DTV
without Buying a New TV

The purpose of this post is to help people in the United States who have an analog television and want to switch to broadcast, over-the-air, digital television without buying a new TV. This post applies equally to people who want to switch to DTV from cable, satellite, or broadcast analog TV.

I switched to DTV in September 2008 and I am very happy with the results. I live in Anderson, South Carolina. The nearest major network's transmission tower is 40 miles away and the farthest is 62 miles away. I use an indoor set-top antenna. I receive all the major networks – NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX – as well as CW, MNT, PBS, and ETV. I get 23 channels.

I decided to use the end of analog broadcast TV as an opportunity to switch to free broadcast digital TV. I was paying Charter $62 a month for analog TV and I didn't even subscribe to any premium channels. I knew I would have to spend some money to upgrade, but those costs would be recovered quickly since I would no longer be paying Charter every month.

I like to have a good understanding of a project before I begin. My Internet research was less than satisfying. I found lots of information, but it was spread across many sites and often did not answer my questions. Here are some of the questions for which I sought answers.

What DTV channels can I expect to receive?
What kind of antenna do I need?
How do I get a government coupon for the digital-to-analog converter?
What kind of digital-to-analog converter should I buy?
Will I still be able to tape movies using my VCR?
What kind of DVD player should I buy? (I would lose the cable channels from which I tape movies regularly, so I would need to buy a DVD player to watch rented movies.)
How can I wire everything to maximize my viewing capabilities?

In the rest of this post I will try to provide helpful information. I will also describe the specific actions I performed, which might help you determine your best course of action. I am not an expert. Most of what I know about digital television I have learned in the last three months by reading Internet sites. I will try to minimize the DTV complexities by offering just enough simplified information to assist you in making decisions. If I make errors, hopefully people will correct me in the comments and I will update this post accordingly.

Channels in Your Area

You can get a list of channels you might be able to receive by checking Click the button labeled, "Choose an antenna". Enter at least your street address and zip code on the next screen. Other fields are optional. (If you only enter your zip code your channel list will be less accurate than if you include your street address.) At the bottom of the screen answer the question about structures within four blocks of your home and select whether your home is single or multiple stories. Click "Submit". The resulting station list contains lots of good information. The antennaweb FAQ is quite informative too. The site focuses on outdoor antennas because too many variables interfere with indoor reception. So if you're using an indoor antenna, like I am, you will probably only receive some of the channels listed. Another good site to check is

Stations often transmit digital sub-channels (sometimes called "multicasting"). So you might have several digital channels coming from the same station. Channels are referred to by the main channel number followed by a dot or dash and then the sub-channel number. Here are some examples that I receive.

4.2 WYFF-WP (weather)

13.1 WLOS-DT (ABC high definition)
13.2 WMYA-DT (MyNetworkTV)
13.3 WLOS-SD (ABC standard definition)

33.1 UNC-TV (educational)
33.2 UNC-KD (educational for kids)
33.3 UNC-NC (educational)

Since stations transmit multiple digital channels, you will end up receiving more digital channels than the number of stations in your area. I receive 21 digital channels from 8 stations all the time, and two other digital channels intermittently.

Antenna (Philips MANT510)

I researched antennas for days before I chose one. My requirements were few. I wanted an indoor antenna that would receive the most channels and cost me the least amount of money. Your safest choice for an indoor antenna is an antenna that receives both VHF and UHF frequencies.

Many antennas are advertised as "HDTV" antennas. This is just a marketing ploy. An HD (high definition) signal will be in a VHF or UHF band and an appropriate VHF or UHF antenna will pick it up properly. There is no HD band.

The antenna I chose is the Philips MANT510. It amplifies the signals it receives, which I've found is essential to me. When I turn the antenna amplification off I lose most of my channels. I've been very happy with the antenna. I've only had two problems. The six-foot power cord is too short for my setup, so I had to use an extension cord. And sometimes after being turned on for a long time the antenna switches to minimum amplification. The shutoff might be a self-preservation feature to protect it from overheating. The last time the amplification automatically decreased I was gone for a week and had left the amplification on high so my VCR could record two shows while I was gone. Both shows were aired in the first three days of my trip, and both shows were recorded properly. However, when I got home the amplification was off, so I know it turned off sometime after the third day. I have the antenna plugged into an uninterrupted power supply so I know the amplification did not turn off because of a power outage.

If you want to buy a UHF-only antenna you should read the next few paragraphs.

VHF stands for "very high frequency". UHF stands for "ultra high frequency". An antenna can pick up VHF, UHF, or both VHF and UHF, depending on how the antenna is designed. Indoor VHF antennas often have two long rods (often called "rabbit ears"), whose lengths can be adjusted. UHF antennas can be small and often look like a ring, a box, a disk, or a bowtie.

TV stations can transmit in VHF or UHF. Most digital television (DTV) is transmitted in UHF. The VHF frequency ranges that TV stations can use include: 55 to 72 MHz, 77 to 88 MHz, and 175 to 216 MHz. If any station you want to receive, transmits in one of those three frequency ranges then you should have an antenna that picks up both VHF and UHF signals. You cannot go by channel number to know a station's frequency anymore, because some stations keep their low channel numbers (i.e. 2-13) even if they transmit on UHF frequencies not originally assigned to those channels.

Before February 17, 2009, stations are transmitting two signals – an analog signal and a digital signal – to accommodate both the viewers who have already switched to DTV and the viewers who have not yet switched. On February 17 the analog signals will stop being transmitted. Some stations will then switch their digital transmission from their UHF frequency to their VHF frequency. What that means is that just because all the digital channels you want to receive might be on UHF before February 17, after that date some channels may be on VHF. An example is my nearest CBS affiliate, WSPA in Spartanburg. Until February 17 it is transmitting its DTV on UHF but will switch to VHF on February 17.

A friend of mine has a Philips MANT940 UHF-only antenna that he likes very much. He uses it indoors and he receives as many stations as I receive. After February 17 he may stop receiving stations that switch from UHF to VHF.

Digital Converter Box (Zenith DTT901)

I found it very easy to obtain a government coupon for buying a digital-to-analog converter box. Just go to TV Converter Box Coupon Program and follow the instructions. I received my coupon one week before the scheduled mailing date I had been given. The coupon is in the form of a plastic card, like a credit card. It's good for $40 toward the purchase of an approved converter box.

The converter I chose is the Zenith DTT901. The price was $60. I used the coupon card and, counting tax, had to pay around $24. The converter works great. The remote has a TV power button, mute, previous channel recall, volume, and channel buttons which means I can use it instead of my TV's remote. Here's a complete list of the buttons on the remote: TV power, power (converter), sleep, signal, SAP, zoom, display, menu, guide, left, up, right, down, select, exit, CCD, volume, channel, favorites, mute, 1 through 0, "-", and recall (channel). The signal button is very helpful. It displays the signal strength so you can turn your antenna if necessary until you get the strongest signal for a channel.

There are several menu options for setting up and fine tuning channels. Initially, you should let the converter scan for channels. It will remember every digital channel it finds. Then you can change the antenna orientation and use the EZ Add feature which scans again and adds any new channels discovered. Another feature I should mention is the ability to set the channel for the converter's analog output, to channel 3 or 4. This channel should match the video input channel for your television and for your VCR. The converter box's remote measures about 6.5 x 1.6 x 0.8 inches. It only uses one AAA battery. Here's a picture of the remote.

There are a couple of things I don't like about the converter. The volume control is so fine that you have to move the indicator a long way before hearing a significant change in the sound level. The control goes from 0 to 100. More control is usually great, but in this case it's a minor irritant. The other thing is that setting up and editing the channels is confusing. The menu items you must select and the sequence of buttons you have to push are not very intuitive. However, the converter has lots of options, so with a little exploring (or reading the manual), you can figure out how to do what you need to do.

One reason I chose the Zenith DTT901 is because when it is turned off it passes analog signals from the antenna to the TV. I use the analog pass-through feature frequently to watch the nearest CBS affiliate, WSPA. Before February 17 WSPA is transmitting it's DTV in the UHF band. After February 17 their DTV will be in the VHF band. I cannot receive their UHF signal, but I can receive their VHF signal. (VHF covers a larger viewing area than UHF at the same amount of power.) After February 17 I should be able to receive WSPA's DTV signal.

The analog pass-through feature is also useful for low-power local stations that will not be switching to digital transmissions. If you have such stations near you, you can turn off the converter box and watch local programming, like local government meetings or town events, for example. Currently, with the converter turned off I receive nine analog VHF channels. Only five of the channels have pictures that are good enough to enjoy watching. I'll have to wait and see if I still get any analog channels after February 17, 2009.

DVD Player (Philips DVP3140)

I had never owned or wanted a DVD player because I have two working VCRs and over a hundred tapes. However, when I cancelled my cable TV I lost most of the channels off which I tape movies. I wanted to keep watching movies so it was time to buy a DVD player.

Since I had never used a DVD player and could only imagine how one would work, I had several concerns. When I stop a movie and want to continue it later, how would I find my place? When I'm watching a movie with quick subtitles and need to back up to read missed dialogue, how would I do it? Would I be able to stop on a frame? Most DVD players I read about said they used Progressive Scan, yet my TV's manual specifically says my TV cannot process Progressive Scan input. Would I have to select a DVD player that doesn't have Progressive Scan?

Like with my antenna requirements, I wanted a DVD player that would meet my needs for the least amount of money. I researched many cheap DVD players and chose the Philips DVP3140. I am very pleased with it. It does everything I need and has many features I'll never use. It can reverse at multiple speeds, fast forward at multiple speeds, pause, zoom, and it remembers where the last five disks stopped. When one of the last five disks is inserted, the player automatically begins playing the disk at the place where it was stopped. It also has a search feature that I've never used, that goes to an inputted time on the disk, like 1 hour, 3 minutes, and 10 seconds, for example. The progressive scan feature is turned off by default, so that feature was not a problem for me. When I read reviews of this DVD player some people complained that there's no eject button on the remote to open the tray. If you hold the stop button down for a few seconds the tray opens.

Of course every device has some things I don't like. Here's what I don't like about the Philips DVP3140. The tray seems fragile. The open-close button for the tray doesn't work when I press it gently. I have to press it hard. And I dislike the remote's design. It's uncomfortable in my hand, the buttons are small, and some of the buttons must be pressed fairly hard before they function. However, for the price I paid ($40) and the features I got, I'm very happy with the purchase. Here's a list of the buttons on the Philips DVP3140's remote: power, disc menu, display, left, up, right, down, OK, return/title, setup, previous, next, stop, mute, play/pause, 1-0, subtitle, audio, zoom, repeat, repeat A-B. The player's remote measures about 5.5 x 2 x 0.8 inches. Here's a picture of it.

I did have one problem with the Philips DVP3140. When I tried to play my first disk the picture was in black and white, although the disk was in color. I finally found the problem's solution in my television's manual. One of the TV's setup screens had a place where I had to turn on component video to make the component video work. I made the change and it fixed the problem.


Here's a picture of my equipment setup.

There are many ways to wire your equipment. Each method offers different capabilities and different drawbacks. I can't explain multiple wiring configurations, but I can share my setup and explain how it works. I wanted to wire my antenna, TV, digital converter, DVD player, and two VCRs to maximize my capabilities without too much complexity or expense. I wanted to be able to tape shows off the air, and I wanted to be able to watch a taped movie or a DVD movie while I was taping something else. Here's a diagram showing how I wired my equipment.

(Here's a printable copy of the diagram resized to print on 8.5 x 11-inch paper, with the colors reversed to use less ink. Right click the link and save or print the target file from the pop-up menu. Your options depend on which browser you are using.)

Except for the wires between the DVD player and the TV, all the connections on the diagram are made using standard coaxial TV cables with needle-type RF connectors. The DVD player is connected to the TV using five cables with RCA plugs at both ends. The three video cables are connected to the "component video" ports on both the TV and DVD player. Component video ports are often labeled "Y", "Pb", and "Pr". The two audio cables also have RCA plugs on each end.

The A/B switch lets me choose which input source should go to channel 3 (or 4) on the TV. When the switch is set to "A" the TV receives input from VCR 1. The signal can be from a tape being played or it can be passed through VCR 1 from the converter box. When the switch is set to "B" the TV receives input from a tape being played on VCR 2.

Input from the DVD player does not come into the TV on a numbered channel, but on Video-1, which is what my TV calls the component video input. My TV's remote has a button labeled "Input" that lets me select Video-1 or Video-2. (Video-2 designates the composite input ports.)

In case any of you want to use my wiring setup, I'll list how I set each device in my setup to accomplish each of my viewing options.

Watch a DTV Channel

Antenna on
Antenna positioned for channel to be watched
Tune converter to desired channel
VCR 1 off
A/B switch on A
TV on channel 3

Tape a DTV Channel

Antenna on
Antenna positioned for channel to be recorded
Tune converter to channel to be recorded
VCR 1 on channel 3

Turning the TV on channel 3 helps me while setting up the antenna, converter, and VCR, but the TV can be turned off after the other equipment has been set. The settings for the TV, VCR 2, the A/B switch, and the DVD player have no effect on taping a show using VCR 1.

I cannot watch a DTV channel while I'm taping a different DTV channel. The digital converter only converts one channel at a time. There's no way to process two different DTV channels at the same time. After I've set up the equipment to record something, I leave the converter's remote on the TV stand for safety. If the remote is where I keep it for watching TV, I'm likely to forget I'm taping something and change the channel, which would ruin the recording.

There's also no way to watch an analog channel while taping a digital channel, because the converter only passes through the analog signal from the antenna when the converter is turned off. I considered a wiring configuration that would let me watch analog TV while taping something digital, but since most analog signals will stop on February 17, 2009 I decided setting it up that way wasn't worth the trouble.

Watch an Analog Channel

Antenna on
Antenna positioned for channel to be watched
Converter off
VCR 1 off
A/B switch on A
TV on channel to be watched

Tape an Analog Channel

Antenna on
Antenna positioned for channel to be recorded
Converter off
VCR 1 on channel to be recorded

While taping an analog channel, a different analog channel can be watched if it is receivable without moving the antenna. Just set the A/B switch to A and set the TV to the channel to be watched.

Watch a VCR Tape

VCR 2 on
Load tape to be watched into VCR 2
A/B switch on B
TV on channel 3

Watching a tape using VCR 2 has no effect on the antenna, converter, or VCR 1. VCR 1 can be recording a show while a movie is being watched using VCR 2.

Watch a DVD

DVD player on
TV on video-1

Watching a DVD has no effect on the antenna, converter, VCR 1, or VCR 2. VCR 1 can be recording a show while a DVD is being watched.

Copyright © 2008 by Jon Maloney

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