So Many Converter Boxes...

One of the fun things about running an HDTV focused Web site is that you get to review some really interesting products from time to time. But there are only so many hours in the day, which is
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One of the fun things about running an HDTV-focused Web site is that you get to review some really interesting products from time to time. But there are only so many hours in the day, which is why I have to be pretty picky about which products I choose for in-depth testing. When it comes to the new NTIA DTV converter boxes, however, I’m about ready to cry “uncle!”

As of early summer, there were more than 80 converter boxes certified by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 21 of them identified as providing NTSC pass-through capability. Some of the brands are old friends from the TV business--RCA, GE, Winegard, Magnavox, Channel Master, and Zenith. Others fall into the category of “who’s that?”--Digital Stream, Sansonic, Daytek, Apex, Zimwell, and Tivax. (Actually, there’s one moniker most of them share in common, and that’s the “Made In China” label.)


VARIATIONS ON AN INTERFACE


So far, I’ve been able to put a grand total of six of these boxes through a good workout, checking out receiver performance and general operability against standalone ATSC receivers and HDTV sets with integrated tuners. While the variations in receiver performance I experienced were to be expected, I was quite surprised at the differences in user interfaces--specifically, channel scanning and table functions and the display of program guide and PSIP information.

How would you feel if you brought one of these converters home, hooked it up, turned it on, and was promptly greeted with a menu selection labeled “APPS?” What are “apps,” anyway? (Turns out, that part of the menu was where you chose to display a condensed or full electronic program guide.)

How about finding an RF signal type selection menu--antenna, or cable? Would the average consumer know that ATSC digital TV reception isn’t possible over cable? In another converter box menu, the channel scan shows the frequency of the channels, but not the actual channel numbers--and after scanning, you won’t see a channel map of your results.

Several of the remote controls require a viewer to push a button marked “Subtitle” to access closed captions. Why not just label it “Captions,” or “CC?” On one remote, the menu button is used to enter and exit menus, but the “Exit” button just backs up through the menus. Confusing?


BITTY BUTTONS


To make matters worse, some of the remotes have buttons so tiny even Thumbelina would have trouble using them. Only one converter I tested, an RCA, had large buttons and rocker switches and kept the number of buttons to a minimum—a very userfriendly approach.

The NTIA converter specifications are pretty succinct, but manufacturers are free to add features as they see fit. That worked in favor of improved picture quality with Channel Master’s

converter, which offered not only the required composite (RCA) video output, but also an S-video jack--and there was a noticeable improvement in video quality as a result. Channel mapping speeds also varied considerably from box to box.

Some plodded along like tortoises, reading all of the details in each station’s PSIP and stuffing them into memory before advancing to the next channel. Others skimmed quickly, grabbing enough basic PSIP info to build a channel-map table.

At least one box I tried, a Magnavox model, had trouble reading one station’s PSIP correctly and skipped right by it--a problem recounted at a SMPTE meeting held in March of this year at New Jersey Public Television, where we lined up four of the converters for a side-by-side shoot-out. Each converter got its RF feed from one tap of a four-way splitter, connected to a high-gain UHF corner Yagi.


YOUR COUPON HAS EXPIRED

All these early teething problems were compounded by (a) the relatively short window in which NTIA $40 coupons can be used—90 days from date of issue--and (b) the fact that, if a converter was returned to a retailer for whatever reason, only the amount paid over the value of the coupon could be refunded. (NTIA coupons become worthless the moment they are redeemed.)

That means any early buyers who became disenchanted with their purchase got about $20 back for their troubles, and nothing more. To make matters worse, some chains like Wal-Mart stocked only one model of NTIA converter, so if it had known issues (like the Magnavox receiver), there was no way to exchange it for a different model.

My advice to consumers? Sit on the sidelines as long as possible, before those $40 chits expire. There are still a few bugs in the system and only now are there enough DTV converters available on store shelves to provide any real choice. I’d also suggest going with a box that supports analog pass-through for continued reception of low-power and translator stations. Are we having fun yet?

Peter Putman, KT2B, is president of ROAM Consulting in Doylestown, Pa., and maintains www.HDTVexpert.com. He also recently won InfoCOMM’s Educator of the Year Award.