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Second-best set-top box ever

This post is meant for readers in the, oh, 17 million or so households that rely on over-the-air signals for their television programming pleasure. As you should know by now, analog TV signals from full-power stations are shutting off next February, when those stations go exclusively with digital TV transmissions. If you're wedded to your analog TV, you'll need a converter box that will cost about $50. The federal government, fearful of couch-potato riots, is offering one to two $40 coupons per household to subsidize those boxes. So far, more than 6 million coupons have been mailed out by the feds, but only about 10% of them have been redeemed. With the analog cut-off not due until February, you might think there's no reason to rush out and get a converter. Well, here's a reason: I got my box a couple of weeks ago, and I've never seen broadcast TV look so good.

I have a cheap indoor antenna, which was enough to yield a passable-to-good picture on the six-jillion broadcast channels serving the LA market. (OK, the number might be closer to 44. But still.) Now, they all come in gloriously, with only an occasional tweak required to the rabbit ears. There's also the benefit of the extra PBS channels that digital multicasting enables -- a life-saver when you absolutely, positively have to plant the kids in front of the TV.

Yes, there are some aspect-ratio oddities, as the SF Chronicle pointed out. You might have to mash a button or two on the remote as you flip through the channels. Is that a big deal? Not to anyone who's accustomed to adjusting the volume at the beginning and end of every single commercial break. Another potential headache is that most of the converter boxes don't accommodate low-power TV stations, which will continue to broadcast in analog for the foreseeable future. If you're a fan of LPTV stations, you'll have to find a converter box with analog pass-through capability (or attach a second antenna directly to your TV set just to tune in those channels). More seriously, there's some speculation that digital signals won't travel as well as analog ones, meaning that some people who can tune in a passable analog signal will get stuttering pictures or a blank screen in digital. One research firm estimated that more than half of the over-the-air-dependent homes could run into this problem. That number's probably overstated, but even digital TV advocates concede that some folks will need to upgrade to more sensitive rooftop antennas (good luck, apartment dwellers!).   

But enough about them. I'm enjoying pictures that are close or equal to DVD quality, which is the best TV signal my 27" Toshiba CRT has ever delivered. It seems even better than what I used to get from DirecTV, back when our pockets were full and our nursery was empty. My converter -- the Insignia model that the Chron reviewed -- is almost as impressive to me as a networkable TiVo, which is truly God's machine. There are nearly 800,000 residents of Los Angeles County who rely on over-the-air signals for their television programming pleasure, but as of the beginning of April, less than 18,000 converter coupons had been redeemed statewide. Trust me -- it's better not to wait.


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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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