Clearing things up

Do you think the Analog Shut-off is anything like when the colonies shifted from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar?

If you believe the internet this digital transition thing is going smoothly. Thank goodness. It would be terrible to bungle what is so near and dear to a majority of America. So for those that are unaware, or up until now, simply didn’t care, let’s review Digital Television (DTV). Actually, let’s try to establish what DTV does not mean:

  • Everything you watch in Digital is in HD
  • No one is broadcasting in analog
  • Your Analog TV is useless

The most common misconception is that all over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts are High Definition quality. This could not be further from the truth. First off, the mandate from Congress was for all broadcasts to use digital technology, as opposed to analog. This meant moving from the existing National Television System Committee (NTSC) standard to the new Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) standard for digital terrestrial television broadcasting. Secondly, not all digital TV’s are HD capable.

An ATSC Tuner is essential for reception of OTA DTV, HD or otherwise. The tuner is the part of the TV that converts the invisible airwaves into pretty pictures and nice sound. Every TV you own, the one in your living room, bathroom, the portable one you bring to the park, has an NTSC tuner. Your VCR probably has one. TiVo has one. Anything that you can plug an antenna into and allowed you to watch TV, up until last week, has one. Believe it or not, there are some devices out there (EDTV and monitors beng the most offending culprits) that may not necessarily have a fancy, new ATSC tuner. This where the converter boxes enter the picture, literally. They translate ATSC, coming in OTA, into NTSC, the language of these soon to be legacy devices. You can use them to tune in the HD version of your favorite channels and you’ll see them wide screen with bars on top and bottom of the screen. To watch images that fill the full screen, you’ll need tune the Standard Definition version.

In what surely was an effort towards the appearance of backwards compatibility, Part 4 of the standard includes 480 x 640 video, progressive and interlaced, as supported compression format constraints. HD begins (and ends, depending on who you ask) at 720 progressive (720 x 1280) and is also broadcast in 1080 interlaced (1080 x 1920). 1080 progressive is not currently available OTA. While no one in the know will ever confuse it for HD, digital 480 interlaced is perfectly acceptable for OTA broadcasting. And you know what else is…

The fine print on the analog shut-off is that it applies only to full power stations. While not everyone, nor all regions, are affected there may be small tracks of land that are serviced by low power stations. Maybe some PBS affiliates, very likely terrain challenged stations, and perhaps even pirate TV do not rely on high powered antennas to reach their audience and continue to operate business as usual. So analog is only mostly shut-off. This is just one of the many reasons that…

Analog TV are not all useless if you did not obtain a converter box. If you were late to the party, the $40 government subsidy may still be out there, apply and find out for sure. That aside, there are plenty of sources to drive your old set. The usual suspects are game console, VCR, and subscription TV appliance (set top box, digital video recorder, etc.).

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If you have children, there may be a whole host of fun diversions that walk and talk like a gaming console masquerading as learning systems somewhere in your home. You may want to dedicate your old digital camera, put it in slideshow mode, and make a poor man’s “digital” picture frame. So you don’t have to throw it out. However, if you are determined to get rid of one, please look at this list provided by the EPA to properly recyle or dispose of it.

Now that you have some idea of what DTV is not, let’s explore what it does offer. Why was this forced upon millions of still unsuspecting viewers? The party line is digital is more efficient and the freed bandwidth may now be re-purposed for better use (emergency transmissions, new technological applications, etc.) Who are we to stand in the way of progress? Isn’t a converter box, or several million, a small price to pay?

The truth is quite simple. The picture is clearer. The sound is richer. There is no snow when the signal is weak. If there is any problem with the signal, there is no pitcture or sound either! Keep fiddling with the rabbit ears until you get that pristine digital image and audio back.

But please, do not be discouraged. The technology is wonderful and by all accounts, when it works, OTA HD is unlike any broadcast picture you’ve seen before. Throw in the Dolby Digital surround and you have a one-two punch that is unrivaled, expecially when factoring in the recurring cost: $0. If you haven’t already and have access to disposable income get a nice, new HDTV, some quality speakers, and a receiver. If you are in a clear area with not too many trees or tall buildings between you and the transmitters, pick up a powered, omni directional antenna or build your own like Carl did, depicted below.

DTV antenna attic

Then sit back, and enjoy the show. To see what options you have available to you in terms of an antenna visit this website. You can also get an idea of what channels and signal strength you can expect in your zip code.

No snow at all. You think Steely Dan will update FM?

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