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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

January 26, 2009 at 2:50 PM

Hooking up a digital TV converter box, with photos

Here are a few photos from my adventures with a $49 digital TV converter box, which I wrote about in today’s column on the Feb. 17 switch to digital broadcast TV.

The photos show the different antennas, some of the screens displays and the free channel guide that comes with digital over-the-air tv.

It wasn’t a very technical test. I basically hooked the box up to an analog TV in the basement of my house, which is on a hill blocking the broadcast towers, in a low spot with terrible over-the-air reception.

Then I tried the setup on a newer digital TV on the main floor of my house, and again on an analog TV here at the newspaper office — midway between the towers on Queen Anne and Capitol Hill.

Here’s the back of the box, an Apex DT502. The white cable leads out to an antenna, the black cable connects to the coax jack on the TV. (One minor gripe with the Apex box is that the supplied cables are chintzy and hard to unscrew because the fittings don’t rotate very well, but most people won’t connect and disconnect them repeatedly.)

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The converter box automatically scans for available channels and displays the quality of reception:

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Of the various configurations, the best was using a multidirectional antenna elevated above the TV at work. That received all the local channels without requiring adjustments, once I found the right spot:

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With the antenna lower, it found nearly all the channels except KSTW, and KCTS was fritzy. Here’s the multidirectional antenna sitting on the box, with KCTS breaking up:

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It’s funny, the rabbit ears did well with KCTS here, but maybe I had happened on just the right direction:

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In the basement, I could pick up about half the channels and it didn’t make much difference whether I used the $9 antenna or the $30 multidirectional model. In the living room, the $30 multidirectional model was slightly better. I could get most of the channels, but I had to adjust the antenna to get different sets of channels.

Here’s a sample of the on-screen display that you’ll get with over-the-air digital:

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In the sort of worst-case reception area where I live, the best cheapskate TV option would probably be a mix of Comcast’s $15 a month basic service plus as many digital over-the-air channels as possible.

I haven’t tried putting a digital antenna on the roof or using one of the more expensive amplified interior antennas, but that may be next.

A store clerk who sells a lot of digital boxes and antennas told me the amplified models are particularly good on the Eastside, because they amplify signals reflecting off hills. The amplified model on the shelf was $50 vs. the $30 model I tried. My thinking at the time was that if you start spending more than $100 for a digital converter box and antenna, you might start thinking about getting a new digital TV instead, although it may still need an additional antenna.

The bottom line is that there are lots of variables in whether you’ll get all the free digital channels. In particular, your location and the type of antenna will affect the quality of the broadcasts.

You’ll have to decide how much you want to spend on an antenna and converter box. Make sure that you can return the antenna or digital box in case you need to try a different model or it ends up not working.

There is some upfront cost and hassle here — more than the $40 government coupon offsets, if you can still get one.

But if you only want the basic channels and you can make your TV work with over-the-air digital broadcasts, it’s still going to be far less expensive than the monthly fees for cable or satellite service.

Comments | More in | Topics: Digital TV, Gadgets & products, Public policy

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