What Types of DTV Converter Boxes Are There?
There are coupon-eligible DTV converter boxes and those that aren't eligible for the $40 coupon. Go to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's (NTIA's) DTV converter box website to get a list of eligible converter boxes.
I recommend using the NTIA's list of eligible converter boxes even if you don't have a coupon because the boxes on that list all meet the minimum requirements needed to receive digital programming on an analog television.
There are converter boxes that have advanced features, like DISH Network's DTVPal with HD compatibility, built-in DVR, or enhanced tuner, but these advanced features are beyond the scope or purpose of a converter box so this article will focus on requirements mandated by the NTIA.
Features of DTV Converter Boxes and Buying Advice
Tuners: Converter boxes must be able to convert an ATSC signal to NTSC (digital to analog). Analog-pass through is optional. Additionally, all converter boxes must be able to tune to channels 2-69 and receive multi-casting, which means tune to digital sub-channels.
Buying Advice: The ATSC to NTSC feature is the sole purpose of the converter box so don't worry about that, but do worry about the analog pass-through option. If you live in an area that has a low power, Class A, or translator station in addition to digital channels then you will want analog pass-through. If you don't buy a converter box on the NTIA list then be sure to confirm specifications that the box tunes to channels 2-69 and sub-channels.
ENERGY STAR Rating: Converter boxes don't need to be Energy Star certified but the NTIA does recommend that manufacturers adopt ENERGY STAR specifications. The NTIA doesn't have a rating limit for power consumption when powered "on" but it does stipulate that boxes "include two watt power consumption during the "sleep" mode."
Buying Advice: I recommend buying ENERGY STAR certified converter boxes but if you can't find one then compare the power consumption for the "on" mode to ENERGY STAR's requirements if energy consumption is important to you. Voluntary ENERGY STAR specifications include "one watt power consumption during the "sleep" mode and also include eight watt power consumption during the "on" mode," according to the NTIA. All converter boxes must include a light on the front panel to indicate when the box is powered on.
Inputs and Outputs: Converter boxes must have a minimum of one RF input but can have two if built with optional smart antenna technology. Boxes won't have any other type of input.
As far as outputs, converter boxes must have at least one RF output but they can have an optional composite and S-video output. RCA stereo (left/right) audio outputs are also optional.
Buying Advice: If you live in an area where your broadcast towers are located in different directions from where you live, like ABC is east of you and NBC is west of you then you might want to find a box with the smart antenna technology. Broadcast Engineering has a very informative article on their website about smart antenna technology and how it works.
I don't think it matters if a converter box has composite or S-video outputs. The RF/coaxial input is sufficient to see a quality image. The RCA stereo audio outputs are more critical if you want to run the audio through an external speaker should a TV output not be available.
Closed Captioning, Emergency Alert System (EAS), and Parental Controls (V-Chip): Converter boxes must include technology that meets minimum standards for closed captioning, emergency alert system, and parental controls.
Buying Advice: There really isn't much to this one. I recommend buying a converter box with this technology included.
Programmable Remote Control: Converter boxes can optionally include remote controls that can be programmed to control the TV connected to the converter box.
Buying Advice: The remote control included with the converter box will be able to control the converter box. That is a no-brainer but if you also want to control your TV's power and audio with the converter box remote then this is a feature you want.
Software Upgrades: Converter boxes can have an optional feature allowing you to upgrade the software within the converter box.
Buying Advice: This is actually important. I recommend buying a converter box that allows you the option to upgrade the software because you never know if the software will have an issue. This is, of course, contingent on the manufacturer creating an update to begin with.
Signal Meter: Converter boxes can have an optional signal meter.
Buying Advice: A signal meter is important if you anticipate trouble receiving channels. Signal meters tell you how strong the signal is and help you align your antenna.
Cables : AC/DC power cables will be supplied with the box as will a RF cable. RCA cables are optional as is battery power.
Buying Advice: The RF cable coming with the converter box is actually a great convenience for the consumer since an additional coaxial cable will be needed to connect the converter box. If you plan on connecting the converter box to your TV or VCR with a composite cable then it would be nice if the box came with one. Read the package contents on the outside of the packaging containing the converter box.
Don't forget, when in doubt of any specifications look at the NTIA's list of eligible converter boxes to get a list of the converter boxes that meet the coupon program's minimum requirements.