DTV Converter Box Plans

Posted in Media at 12 pm

My Digital Television Converter Box coupons are about to expire. I went ahead and bought the Insignia from Best Buy a couple weeks ago, and I’m reasonably happy with it. I wish I had done a bit more research to see what options are available and thought about what our needs are and will be.

1) Cleaner OTA DTV Signal / Analog Pass-thru— For our set up at home, we have analog cable from Comcast, feeding directly (via coax) into our Tivo DVRs (one in the living room and one in the bedroom). The coax cable I ran from the living room to the bedroom causes amazingly strong ghosting on the local “Over The Air” channels (KATU 2, KOIN 6, KGW 8, OPB 10, etc.) so I’d like to be able to get those with a Digital TV signal. At the same time I’d like the device to be able to handle our analog cable connection. I’m not sure if I’d truly be able to integrate the analog cable with the digital OTA signals, but this would give me a fighting chance or at least make it easier to switch manually.

2) Best quality connection— I’d also like to get the highest quality signal out of the box. 95% of the Coupon-Eligible Converter Boxes or “CECBs” have only a Composite Video output (the standard yellow RCA connector). Exactly three of the boxes have the higher quality S-Video output (the black, 4-pin ‘hooded’ connector, see the Wikipedia entry on S-Video) which would marginally increase the quality of the picture: The Channel Master CM7000 and two Apex models.

Digression: The CECB program specifically limits the types of connections that are possible for these devices. There are higher quality DTV converters that provide Component, DVI or even HDMI connections but these devices are not eligible for this program as they are trying to help the people who are going to be more impacted by the DTV conversion. I’ve had my eye on a Samsung model at Circuit City, but I’m not willing to lay down $200 for a device that I’m not sure I’ll keep around and is only useful for 4 or 5 channels.

3) Tivo in Control— The only way I can integrate these channels with the Tivo’s scheduled recording is to find a model that uses the IR remote codes that Tivo is aware of. At this time, our Tivo Series 2 boxes do NOT have the ability to tune anything other than the original ‘integer’ channels that we’re used to. However there have been mentions of an update this summer that Tivo will support some of these converter boxes, and there is this official announcement of planned support, but there hasn’t been a list of which boxes will be supported. I’m guessing the decision to support any particular model will partly depend on total sales of that unit. I’m hoping that the Insignia box will be a safe bet for support.

There’s a future consideration here too: Comcast will probably shut off the analog signal service at some point. It may not be for years, but when that happens, these or similar converter boxes will basically be mandatory for using the two Tivos we’ve got. (I wonder if I’ll need Clear QAM support…)

So with the list of issues above, I’ve boiled this down to three attributes that I want:

  1. Tivo (Series 2) compatibility (50 points)
  2. S-Video connection (20 points)
  3. Analog Pass-thru (20 points)

The Insignia (a basically a re-badged Zenith, aka LG) had good marks from ConsumerReports, so the quality of the device is there, but it doesn’t support two of the attributes (S-Video or Analog Pass-thru) and all I can do is hope that the Insignia will be supported later on. (There is some hope.)

Note: I got the NS-DXA1, not the newer NS-DXA1-APT which does support Analog Pass-thru. Grrrr…

If the Insignia has us covered for the Tivo, then the next option I’d like to look for is the S-Video connection. I have been leaning towards the Channel Master CM7000, which has the S-Video connection and I can probably pick up at Fry’s or at Wegner A/V. But there have been a couple of poor reviews that have me hesitating. However, I haven’t found any local retailer with the Apex DT1001 or the DT250, so I may be out of luck on the S-Video front. Add to this the lesser possibility of support from Tivo and I think I’ll skip this.

If S-Video is out of the picture then Analog Pass-thru is the last remaining issue. The Digital Stream boxes (available from RadioShack) have it, as do the Philco boxes. One of the Philco models also support a Smart Antenna which I’m unfamiliar with, but sounds intriguing. The Philco boxes are available in the Portland area at Standard TV and Appliance and at George Smith Warehouse Sales.

Other considerations in no particular order (2 points each):

  • Off-state power consumption (Thinking green)
  • Auto-shut off (More green thinking)
  • Shape of the remote (UX issues, pet peeves)
  • Quality of menus/setup (I’m a UI/UX snob when I can afford to be)
  • Aesthetics of the form factor (Prefer black to match other components)

Of all my review points, the Insignia box rates… (1-100)

  • Tivo (Series 2) compatibility: Unknown, but possible. (25 of 50 points)
  • S-Video connection: No (0 of 20)
  • Analog Pass-thru: No, older model (0 of 20)
  • Off-state power consumption: 0.01 amps; 0.06 amps while on. (2 of 2)
  • Auto-shut off: 1, 2, 3, 4 hours (2 of 2)
  • Shape of the remote: Number pad at bottom (yay!) Decent variety of button shapes (1 of 2)
  • Quality of menus/setup: Nice graphics, wrap-around menus, nice arrow movement (2 of 2)
  • Aesthetics of the form factor: Black. Logo can be covered, LED is a bit big. (1 of 2)

Total for the Insignia NS-DXA1: 33 of a possible 100 points. (The NS-DXA1-APT would score a 53.)

I’m going to check out a couple more stores: a Rite-aid downtown and Fry’s. At this point I’m leaning towards the Philco box, but I’m not 100% sold on it. 1) Hopefully it will get Tivo support; 2) no S-video; 3) will have analog pass-thru. That rates a 55 to the Insignia’s 25 on my 3 primary attributes, but the Insignia kicks some strong butt in the bonus round (8 of 10 points). The Channel Master would also start off on that 55 point mark, giving them both a real head start over the Insignia.

[EDIT: November 2009: As we’ve gotten full support of the Comcast DTA for basic digital cable and a bigger Motorola set-top box for extended channels, we haven’t actually needed to use an Over-The-Air converter box. However, TiVo does support some, including the two that we got: http://support.tivo.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/310, the Insignia and the Channel Master.]

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