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The Digital TV Transition

The switch to digital TV is complete — are you getting the picture?

America's switch from analog to digital TV broadcasting has been completed. Compared to analog, digital broadcasts provide a sharper picture and more programming options — but you need the right equipment to watch them. If you want to view over-the-air broadcasts from your local stations, any old-fashioned TV (one with an analog-only tuner) needs to be connected to a digital-to-analog converter box, or replaced by a new TV with a built-in digital tuner. The digital TV transition is not an issue for cable and satellite TV subscribers.

Converter box

Digital converter boxes

You need a converter box for each old (analog) TV that is connected to an antenna. Converter boxes typically sell for $40 - $80.

The converter box coupon program has ended

The government's DTV converter box coupon program expired on July 31, 2009. However, you can still visit this website to find a list of sources where you can purchase a converter box online or by phone.

What should I look for in a DTV converter?

Crutchfield doesn't sell DTV converters, but we've put together some tips to help you find the right converter box for your needs, plus some pointers and diagrams to help you hook it up.

Most stores offer only one or two models. But if you have a choice of boxes, here are some things you may want to look for:

Analog pass-through
To watch channels from both analog and digital TV stations, you'll need a converter box that will allow the analog signal to pass through to your TV set. This feature will come in handy for people who can receive smaller, local low-power stations that won't be changing to digital.

Other considerations

  • Does it have a signal strength indicator? This will help you aim your antenna to get the best possible signal from each station.
  • Does it have the video and audio outputs you need to connect it to your TV?
  • What cables are included?
  • Will it be easy to use? For example, elderly people will probably prefer a remote control that has large, well-spaced buttons.
  • Can it run on batteries? If you use a battery powered TV for information during emergencies, you'll need a DTV converter that can be powered by batteries or you'll have to buy a separate portable powerpack.

What to expect from a converter

Compared to analog, DTV broadcasts provide a sharper picture (and more program options). However, DTV tuners require a strong signal. You won't see a "snowy" but watchable picture from a weak signal. If you don't get a good picture, you'll get a badly distorted one or none at all.

You may need a new antenna
Because weak signals may not be picked at all up by the tuner in your DTV converter, you may need to aim your antenna toward the transmitter or get a better antenna.

For more information on how to select, install and aim a TV antenna, and to learn how to locate the transmitters in your area, see our article on HDTV antennas.

The DTV picture is a different shape
Many digital TV shows are broadcast in widescreen mode. To fit the wider image on your old TV, the converter box has to squash the picture and put black bars above and below it. People in the picture will appear smaller. If this bothers you, you can zoom in and fill your entire screen, but that chops off the sides of the picture. Or you can select a mode that squeezes the wider picture into the narrower screen, but this distorts the images.

You may lose some of the benefits of your VCR
Unless you have separate converter boxes for your TV and your VCR, you won't be able to watch one program while recording another. Unless your converter has an event timer built-in, and few do, you can only do timed recordings on one channel.

Converter box to TV's antenna input

300-to-75-ohm adapter
75-to-300-ohm adapter

What you'll need

  • Converter box
  • "RF" cable (usually comes with converter)
  • If antenna only has 300-ohm "twin lead" cable, you'll need a 300- to 75-ohm adapter.
  • If TV only has 300-ohm "twin lead" input, you'll need a 75- to 300-ohm adapter.

What to do

  • Connect antenna to antenna input on converter box.
  • Connect RF cable from antenna output on converter box to antenna input on TV.
  • Plug the converter box's AC power cord into an electrical outlet.
  • Turn on TV and tune to channel 3 or 4
  • Follow setup instructions in converter box owner's manual.

Connecting a digital converter box to a TV's antenna input

Converter box to TV's audio/video input

What you'll need

  • Converter box with audio/video output
  • Audio/video "RCA" cable (may not come with converter)
  • If antenna only 300-ohm "twin lead" cable, you'll need a 300- to 75-ohm adapter.

What to do

  • Connect antenna to antenna input on converter box.
  • Connect RCA audio/video cable from output on converter box to audio/video input on TV.
  • Plug the converter box's AC power cord into an electrical outlet.
  • Turn on TV and select "line" or "A/V" input.
  • Follow setup instructions in converter box owner's manual.

Connecting a digital converter box to a TV's audio/video input

Converter to VCR to TV's antenna input

What you'll need

  • Converter box
  • Two RF cables (one is usually included with converter)
  • If antenna only 300-ohm "twin lead" cable, you'll need a 300- to 75-ohm adapter.
  • If TV only has 300-ohm "twin lead" input, you'll need a 75- to 300-ohm adapter.

What to do

  • Connect antenna to antenna input on converter box.
  • Connect RF cable from antenna output on converter box to antenna input on VCR.
  • Connect RF cable from antenna output on VCR to antenna input on TV.
  • Plug the converter box's AC power cord into an electrical outlet.
  • If VCR is turned on, press TV/VCR button to select TV
  • Turn on TV and tune to channel 3 or 4
  • Follow setup instructions in converter box owner's manual.

Connecting a digital converter box to a TV's antenna input if you have a VCR

Converter box setup

If you connected your converter to your TV through the TV's antenna input, you will need to tune your TV to channel 3 or 4, depending on how the switch is set on the back of the converter. If you connected your converter to the TV's audio/video inputs, you will select your TV's A/V or Line input. Make sure you have plugged your converter into an AC power outlet and that you have turned the converter's power on.

The first time you turn on your converter, a "setup wizard" may appear. It will prompt you to do a channel scan, to see what digital channels it can receive. It will store the stations it finds as preset stations, so you can quickly select them with the remote control. This process may take a few minutes. If a setup wizard does not appear, press the menu button and select the channel scan function.

If you don't receive all the signals you think you should be getting, re-aim your antenna and try another channel scan. Or, manually select a channel you think you should be receiving, engage the signal strength meter, and try aiming your antenna for maximum signal strength.

For tips on installing and aiming an antenna, take a look at our HDTV antenna article.

Want to learn more?

Find out more about digital TV and HDTV:

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