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Originally published Wednesday, March 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Converting your TV from analog to digital

Nobody will cry when the static dies. "Analog" television — those grainy, sometimes static-filled broadcasts — will end on Feb. 17, 2009.

Special to The Seattle Times

Information

TV Converter Box Coupon Program: Get up to two $40 coupons for an analog-to-digital converter at www.dtv2009.gov.

Nobody will cry when the static dies. "Analog" television — those grainy, sometimes static-filled broadcasts — will end on Feb. 17, 2009.

That's the date that the Federal Communications Commission has set for the last mainstream commercial broadcast of analog television signals, a method of sending moving images that is largely unchanged since the switch to color TV in the early 1950s.

Its replacement? Digital TV, naturally.

Analog TV is inefficient, using large swaths of broadcast frequencies that also happen to be ideal for cellular telephone networks, especially those that handle broadband wireless data.

Digital TV delivers a crisper, more detailed picture with a greater range of vivid colors while resisting interference.

It also allows stations to "multicast" or push out multiple, separately tunable programs on the same channel — something you're already seeing if you have a digital TV receiving over-the-air signals. Broadcasters can choose the quality and detail of each of their multicast channels, and change the lineup throughout a day.

As part of a long transition, TV stations started broadcasting digital TV years ago, even when few people owned television sets capable of picking up these higher-quality transmissions. More recently, with more viewers, stations have stepped up their multicasts.

You may be watching digital TV already if you bought a TV set in the past few years that was designed to receive them.

But if you currently have an old analog TV and get your programming over the air, you'll have to go one of three routes by next Feb. 17: get a converter, buy a new TV, or switch to cable or satellite.

Converter box and antenna

The path of least resistance and lowest cost is to keep your current TV and add an analog-to-digital converter box. And the government will subsidize your purchase.

Converters just started to appear in electronics stores and via online retailers a few weeks ago, and typically cost $50 to $70. The frighteningly long-named National Telecommunications & Information Agency has a blissfully simple coupon program funded out of the FCC auction proceeds for the spectrum that TV stations are handing over.

Each household can apply for up to two $40 coupons, which participating retailers will accept. The coupons must be used within 90 days of being mailed. The "TV Converter Box Coupon Program" Web site (www.dtv2009.gov) has the details and an online application form.

A converter sits between an antenna and your TV set. If you don't have an antenna, you may need to buy one; indoor antennas start at $10. The broadcaster's party line is that you will likely receive the same channels digitally that you can get today with the same antenna. However, digital TV will largely use what were once called UHF channels, and thus you might need to replace an antenna for the best reception.

You can tell what kind of antenna you might need by consulting Antenna Web (www.antennaweb.org), a site run by broadcasters and the makers of consumer electronics. If you punch in your exact street address, the site tells you what television stations you should receive by factoring in the terrain, and which stations you might receive with a nonpowered indoor, amplified indoor, or roof-mounted antenna.

With digital TV, you either receive a signal that's usable, or no signal at all. I live in the shadow of Capitol Hill down in Montlake, and receive just four stations with an indoor antenna; I'm considering testing a more powerful one on the roof.

With the converter attached, you set up programming through an on-screen menu. All converters come with remote controls.

Some converters include options such as parental controls. All handle closed captioning.

While your old TV can get the new programming, anything designed for the 16:9 cinematic screen ratio will be squeezed to fit your current display in a letterbox format (black bars on top and bottom). You won't get the detail of DTV, but you will lose the static and get crispness that's equivalent to a DVD played on the same TV.

New TV

If you've avoided buying a television with a digital tuner until now due to cost, that bar has lowered considerably. A 13-inch TV with digital tuning costs under $100; much larger TVs, whether with a picture tube or LCD display, start at a few hundred dollars.

You may have seen ads for TVs costing several thousand dollars, but those are typically large, high-definition (HDTV) sets, which can display the full detail of the highest-quality DTV broadcasts.

You don't need an HDTV to watch DTV, though. Digital television comes in three quality modes: standard definition (SD), enhanced definition (ED) and high definition (HD). All three modes can be shrunk to fit on a regular TV — it just looks better on an HDTV.

Cable and satellite

If you're relying on broadcast television now, don't want to upgrade your TV just yet and don't want a converter box, subscribing to a cable or satellite service is another option. Their set-top boxes are already doing a digital-to-analog conversion.

Satellite and cable companies would be happy to sell you high-definition upgrade packages later, whenever you're ready to upgrade your set.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for The Seattle Times.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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