Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Antennas Direct Clearstream 2 The Right Choice To Put Under The Tree

Give the gift of free HDTV this year with this powerful, compact antenna.

At the heart of any over-the-air setup is the single most critical component that will make or break your experience: the antenna. The antenna is your lifeline to free TV. Remember, even the best TVs, signal amplifiers and receivers can only make the best out of what your antenna is feeding them. With a bad antenna (or the wrong antenna for your geographic location), your reception will be weak and spotty and you may not get all the channels that are available in your area. The good news is that many good antennas exist out there; the bad news is that a lot of bad antennas exist too.

So how do you know what antenna is right for you? Well as we outlined in many earlier posts, the internet is a great resource to learn the most you can about what you need to get the perfect OTA setup. Sites like TVFool can let you know what is available for free in your area and who strong the signals are and from which direction(s). Other discussion forums can link you to members in your area who may post on what works for them. In the end, you should have an answer to all your questions and get the perfect setup for your location.

However, I often get emails and messages asking which antenna I recommend for general purpose use in major Canadian cities and suburbs. After testing various models, the Antennas Direct Clearstream 2 is a good general purpose antenna that delivers the most bang for the buck for the majority of urban or suburban Canadian consumers. Let’s get into the details on antennas and why this one is probably a sure bet for you.

Model: Antennas Direct Clearstream 2 Antenna (also “CS2 Complete” or SC2 VHF upgrade kit)

Size: 12” wide by 20” high x 4” thick. Back mounting brace requires another 4”.

Package includes: Clearstream 2 antenna and all necessary hardware to install to a mast (not included). Assembly required.

Output: One F-type connector (cable coax) for RG-59 or RG-6 cable.

Pros: Powerful antenna in a small package, wide angle reception, good gain on distant channels, indoor friendly, finished look, easy to point and install. Great for metropolitan and suburban areas. Testing showed it was able to consistently pull in DTV signals originating 70 miles away. Robust reception in poor weather conditions.

Cons: Basic Clearstream 2 model is UHF only (channels 14 and up), a VHF upgrade kit or “CS2 Complete” model is required to get the UHF and VHF-Hi channels (7-13). For rural areas, this antenna may not be the best choice.

Antenna Basics

Antennas come in many different shapes and sizes, mostly to serve different purposes. Some are meant to be highly directional, only picking up channels from a specific direction and ignoring noise from other directions. Others are meant especially for long-range reception.

In general, the larger the antenna, the better the ability to pick up distant signals and to hold onto them during bad weather. The higher up you place your antenna, the better your reception will be as well. Ideally, if your antenna is within the line of sight with the transmission tower, all but an act of God could break your flawless reception of the DTV signal. Indoor antennas are easy to use and install but TV signals can easily lose 50% of their strength by the time they’ve fought through the bricks, pipes and siding in your house’s walls.

The biggest challenge I’ve seen for consumers is that not everyone can (or wants to) put up 80-foot towers with antennas the size of a 4-wheeler in their backyard, yet everyone would love free HDTV. So, Average Joe went on a mission and reviewed and tested a few antennas to find one that was compact and powerful enough to be used indoor or outdoor, and would be easy for consumers to install and mount.

What to Look For

First and foremost I suggest to any consumer to do their research first. The good news is commercial TV antennas have been around since the 1950s so there are a lot of good companies with years of valuable experience out there.

• Look for a reputable company and analyze their line of products. A company with many different makes of antennas and accessories (masts, rotators, amps) is usually a good sign.
• Who do reputable vendors carry? No not just the big box stores or discount electronics outfits, call some well-known installers to see what they recommend in your area and what brands they carry.
• Do your research online. Sometimes a Google search for reviews or hitting up a discussion forum may save you from a costly mistake.
• Avoid antennas from companies that make outlandish claims. Antennas the size of a coat-hanger than can pick up TV stations from 100 miles away in all directions are usually too good to be true. Reputable companies will honestly post the limitations of their antennas for consumers to see and even provide charts showing how it fairs for a given frequency (channel) and distance.

Beware, there are many “junk” antennas out there on the internet and your money may be better spent elsewhere! Antennas such as the one above have been proven by experts to not live up to their claims and to be cheaply built. On the plus side though your neighbours may act nicer to you seeing as you have a death ray on your roof pointed at their house.

• Try to see the antenna before buying it. If you are mounting it outdoors, look at the hardware and the construction of the antenna. Does it look sturdy? Will metal parts rust or are they sufficiently protected? Does it look like it can handle years of wear and tear from wind, rain, snow and ice? If you are looking for an indoor installation only, look at the size of the antenna – will it fit in your room? Where will you put it and how will you adjust its position? Does it have sharp edges or pointy parts that may scratch your paint or even injure sometime?

Clearstream 2 Installation

The CS2 antenna came with a great instruction manual showing the gain chart of the antenna as a function of direction. Using this chart and TVFool, I was able to find an orientation that would allow me to capture signals coming from two major directions without the need to rotate or adjust it.

If you want to go way up high with this antenna, the antenna easily installs to a any standard antenna chimney mast or tower. One great option with this antenna model is that you can also use a satellite dish J-mast to mount it to the roof, eaves or siding of your home. The mast also acts as a stand for use indoors.

Rather than but the Antennas Direct mast, I purchased a J-mast from a satellite store as it was available at a much lower price (it was grey instead of black but whoop-de-doo). With the antenna mounted on the mast I added a flat wooden foot to keep it from toppling and was able to easily install it indoors on a bookshelf.
Using a satellite J-mast also makes it easy to install the CS2 outdoors as it would install like an ordinary satellite dish. With a few screws it installs easily to the roof or siding, or if you’re switching from satellite to OTA, simply toss the dish and replace it on the existing mast with this.

The clamps and mounting hardware are well built, sturdy and easy to adjust and tighten into place. My test model was up during early winter snow and ice and a late fall rain storm and it hasn’t budged a bit.

If installing outside, check your local by-laws to see if you need a permit. The important thing here is that this is not a conventional antenna, most city by-laws or restrictions are to limit those enormous roof or tower mounted antennas that are 10 feet long. Average Joe says that if people are allowed to install satellite dishes, then you should be good to go with this baby as it is more comparable to a satellite dish than those eyesore antenna juggernauts.

Clearstream 2 Performance (Outdoors)

Wow, wow and wow. They weren’t kidding round with this antenna. For the test, given my location it was deemed I would require a small 26dB amplifier. The tests were then run with about 50ft of RG-6 cable between the antenna and TV (amplifier is in-line about 5ft from the TV).

My first test consisted of just holding the antenna out a second floor window in the general direction from my TVFool analysis and easily yielded all my channels as predicted. The tuner showed strengths of 92% and up for my locals (less than 30 miles) and strengths of 80% for the distant (60-70 miles). A second test with a permanent outdoor mount adding a bit more height, kept the local signals rock solid with some topping off at 100% giving the farther stations a jump to 86-87%.
During inclement weather, the weakest distant channels would drop closer to 60% (yet no issues in terms of viewability) and the locals were bulletproof.

Clearstream 2 Performance (Indoors)

If you really have no option to install this antenna outside (hard to believe since it’s so compact, versatile and easy to install) you can use the CS2 indoors. Reception was degraded by about 50% by aluminium, brick and shingle siding, especially for long range (30miles+) stations. Vinyl siding was OK but finding a “sweet spot” indoors was trickier than outdoors. In general, the best locations for the antenna were high up on bookshelves and/or near windows. Forget about use in a basement or inside thick stone / cement walls that you may find in an “industrial condo loft” environment.

Overall, it definitely won't be worse than other type of indoor antenna being sold on the market, just be careful as it is larger than most typical indoor-only antennas so make sure you have enough space to give it the elbow room it needs for andjustment and installation.


Unlike other types of antennas (i.e. bowties or arrow-style directionals), the CS2 has no sharp protruding edges. The plastic cover on its “figure eight” front end gives it a nice finished look and does not look too out of place when used indoors (if you really have no option). Also, the nice black finish on the reflector and large spacing between grids won’t make it seem like you have a BBQ grill hanging over your TV.

When mounted outside, the antenna is no more conspicuous that a satellite dish, and will cause even less strain on your siding or roof as the wind will blow through it much easier than a solid Shaw or Bell dish.

Prices and Where to Buy

Before we get into pricing, I would just like to give kudos to Antennas Direct on their support of the Canadian market. Being a US company, its primary interest is the US market so most promotions from its website do not apply to Canadians and certain products are not available north of the border. The good news is that when contacted the US offices were always supportive and willing to assist Canadian inquiries. In certain cases they offered to do special shipping for products not yet available through Canadian distributers. For another inquiry, they offered to work through a Canadian distributer of their product to provide a product also not yet available in Canadian as a special order. This is great customer service as opposed to some other companies that seem to think of the Canadian market as just an afterthought.

As for where to buy, Antennas Direct products are not yet carried by any major Canadian retail outlets or electronics big box stores. Your best bet would be a specialized antenna dealer or smaller scale electronics store (a list is available on the Antennas Direct website). The good news is these retailers ship from online orders and luckily the CS2 is lightweight and small enough so shipping costs are reasonable, but not negligible. A Google search may also pop up a few specialized stores in your area that carry this product as well. Prices vary by about +/- 10 dollars from retailer to retailer.

If you can’t pick it up locally, generally your best savings will be on shipping so be sure to shop around online and getting the complete total from two or three different retailers before purchasing. Buying from out-of-province may be an option as the shipping fee may be marginally more but you may save in the end on the local provincial sales tax.


The Antennas Direct Clearstream 2 Antenna is a great general purpose antenna that comes at a reasonable price and is compact enough to have an installation solution for everybody. Don’t waste your time and money on junk antennas; if you’re looking for a good antenna to become serious about going with an over-the-air TV setup, this is a good model to start with!

More info on this antenna is available on the Antennas Direct website.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Cord-cutting Comes to Canada

Are Canadian Consumers Finally Waking Up?

As per this Globe and Mail article, it seems the steady decline in Pay TV subscribers in the US after the digital transition may be repeated in Canada.

Even if going without cable or satellite isn't for you because you love those speciality channels, statistics like this will help the pay TV companies keep their prices competitive and a bit more honest. Could the days of $70/month "basic HD" TV packages be numbered?

Stay tuned!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Shame on you CBC

CBC drops the ball on over-the-air DTV

I will always remember June 2011 as being one filled with potential for Canada. The Vancouver Canucks were on the verge of bringing the Stanley Cup back to Canadian soil and in many markets Canadians were watching the games for free in HD on the CBC’s test DTV broadcast setups. The promise of OTA DTV was getting me impatiently optimistic for September when the digital transition would finally hit across the board in Canada. Unfortunately, just like the Canucks fell short in their quest for hockey’s holy grail, we are months into the Canadian DTV revolution and there are still plenty of key players in the TV industry coming up short as well.

Let’s ignore about the lack of clear communication of the transition, the remapped spectrum, misplaced broadcast towers and the fact that certain analog stations got extensions (not only leaving certain towns in the TV stone age but in some cases causing interference for the reception of other DTV signals). In my book, the biggest disappointment by far has been the CBC.

In its proud history, the CBC has always been at the forefront of television technology for Canadians including creation of the first TV stations in Canada, the first colour broadcasts and use of satellites for a nationwide TV feed. So why is it dragging its feet for OTA DTV?

The CBC (and SRC for French Canadians) is the flagship television network for Canada. It is our face and foothold in the television world, it belongs to us as it is subsidized by our tax dollars and has been ensuring Canadian programming earns its rightful place on the airwaves to showcase our homegrown talent. As unfortunate it is to admit, it has dropped the ball on a national level when it came to the DTV transition.

What went wrong?

The CBC’s first bad move was the reduction in picture quality. While the network blew us away with 1080i HDTV during its test run all summer long, it dropped to 720p only a few weeks after the digital transition. While some may argue that the progressive scan isn’t that much of drop in quality from the interlaced format, fact of the matter is that picture just doesn’t look as crisp as it once did on the bigger screen televisions. The reason for the downgrade? At the request of the cable and satellite companies picking up the feeds, the network agreed to downgrade to spare bandwidth, completely to the detriment of the over-the-air audience. So yes ladies and gentlemen, Canada’s flagship network isn’t even broadcasting at full HD potential.

While people with smaller screens may not care as much about the small reduction in picture quality, there are other issues that can’t be ignored. Various users across the country were plagued with signal dropouts or poor reception from transmitters that even to this date are not yet operating at full power. Also forget about program info and on-screen guide functionality – most CBC stations are still not sending any of that useful PSIP data yet, so good luck trying to figure out what’s on when ... let alone trying to find / record your favorite show automatically with a OTA DVR or PC setup.

What really gets your Average Joe frustrated was the potential that was within reach with the CBC. Long criticized as having insufficient, uninteresting programming options and being a burden on the taxpayers, the CBC should have been at the forefront of the push to allow the CRTC to permit multicasting in Canada (multicasting = using unused DTV bandwidth for broadcasting subchannels like 4.2, 4.3, etc from the main channel 4.1).

PBS in the United States makes optimal use of multicasting (i.e. multiple broadcasting using DTV). Most stations have 2 or more subchannels, an excellent example that the CBC should push for from the CRTC here north of the border.

Multicasting for the CBC could have mirrored the success of PBS south of the border. Most PBS stations added 2 or more subchannels to increase programming options for its viewers and of course generate additional revenue from advertising fees from the extra feeds. Remember, multicasting uses the same transmitter and antenna so only minimal equipment upgrades in the studio are required meaning minimal cost... in restaurant terms: same kitchen, more menu items.

So what could be put on a CBC subchannel?

If they did not want to expend too much effort, CBC could easily make a “CBC Two” subchannel by simply mish-mashing and recycling versions of its popular shows (ex: Dragon’s Den, Little Mosque, Love Hate and Propaganda), then add in hourly CBC News updates as well as select programming from the pay-TV only Bold and Documentary channels. Double-dipping by time-shifting other popular shows (Coronation Street) to later in primetime from the main channel could also be advantageous in attracting more viewers as well. As an alternate to non-sports fanatics, while Hockey Night in Canada would be playing on the primary channel, CBC2 could showcase comedy specials or some of those Canadian films that seem to always win at the Golden Globes or Oscars but never make it to the screen where I can actually watch them. Weekend or daytime timeslots could promote children’s programming for a longer period of time, or even air retro CBC children’s shows (c’mon, who doesn’t remember Cyril Sneer on “The Raccoons”?).

In areas served by only English CBC programming where there is enough of a potential francophone audience, the SRC could also be run as a subchannel. If the CBC wanted to go further, they could also add in a “CBC Three” which could have specialized local programming in certain areas (such as aboriginal or other cultural programming) and they could fill off-hours with revenue-generating TV shopping programs promoting Canadian artisans and other homegrown products. Audio-only subchannels could be added as well to expand the coverage of CBC Radio One and CBC Radio Two.

What could be: Average Joe’s ideal DTV setup for CBC national broadcasters.


CBC should be taking a leadership role in the DTV revolution in the interest of all Canadians. They should be getting the most they can out of their shiny new tax-dollar funded transmitters and provide program guide info and stable HD images. Multicasting technology is now a reality and if it means challenging the CRTC and Industry Canada to allow for it, well, so be it. A multicasting format as suggested above will not only guarantee the survival of the CBC for many years to come and reduce the tax burden on the public, but it will provide better programming selection and variety for all Canadians. The CBC belongs to us and the heads at the CRTC and CBC cannot be allowed to ignored this fact.

Don’t forget this is the very same CRTC and Industry Canada that suggested to consumers switching to cable or satellite service as one of the options to mitigating the digital transition. There were no “converter coupons” handed out either like in the US. There are heavy restrictions imposed on Netflix, TiVo and other TV over IP. The problem here is not everyone has this luxury in Canada to pay through the nose for television, which seems somewhat unclear to the CRTC and IC.

While there are many consumers using OTA out of choice, there are also many Canadians that use it as their only option for television programming. Average Joe knows of families on tight budgets, elderly people who are not technologically inclined and single parents whose kids look forward to their Saturday night “treat” of watching hockey. These people have limited resources at their disposal, no fancy antenna setups, no high speed internet – most have just a generic name brand TV and an indoor antenna and rely only on local Canadian programming. Having a CBC that fulfills everything that is technologically possible thanks to DTV would benefit these people, and as being a taxpayer-funded organization representing all Canadians, I see no excuse to not demand that it does.

Shame on you CBC.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Channel Master's DVR a Cut Above The Rest

CM7000PAL Receiver Gives Consumers the Most out of OTA DTV

Message from Average Joe:

Dear savvy consumers and blog followers,

thank you so much for your feedback concerning this item. After reading your comments and doing some additional research I have decided to retract my initial review recommending this item due to the lack of support of Channel Master of its Canadian customers. It seems many of the issues you have raised could be easily fixed by a simple software update, and yet Channel Master has made none available and refuses to give a timeline.

Coming up short: one of many frustrating problems for Canadian CM-7000PAL users is the inability to enter a 6-character Canadian postal code. This means that crucial TVGOS (TV Guide On Screen) data being broadcast by CTV cannot be downloaded to enhance the PVR experience of the end user. A simple software upgrade could easily solve this as well as other reported issues such as slow channel changes and remote response. At over $300 a pop, wouldn't you think Canadian consumers deserve some resepct/support?

Due to "crippled" functionality and limited features to north-of-the-border residents, I cannot in all honesty no longer recommend this item for purchase to Canadian consumers at the current list prices of its major Canadian distributors. It is very unfortunately as minor software tweaks would certainly make this unit a must-have for any OTA enthusiast.

The CM-7000PAL is essentially the famous Bell TV PVR that is re-purposed for OTA DTV signals. Even the remotes are doppelgangers. Unfortunately it lacks the back-end support that could have easily made this a great product for all Canadian OTA TV viewers.

With that being said, I sympathize with the frustration felt by many of you. What's strange is that most of you are not necessarily upset with the quality of the product but with the inability of the manufacturer to take a few basic steps to make this product exceptional.

Samsung TVs Deliver For Over-The-Air DTV

Time to “write off” that old TV? Samsung is the right choice for over-the-air DTV users.

What many people don’t realize is that unlike satellite or digital cable, no additional receiver box is required to view over-the-air DTV broadcasts. Most TVs sold in Canada since 2008 have a built-in DTV tuner, which means all you have to do is plug in your antenna coax cable to the TV and you’ll be up and running in no time. This has many advantages – think about how easy it is to place a TV in the kitchen, home gym, bedroom or have a sleek wall-mount setup without a bulky black receiver box.

TVs are getting thinner and easier to mount, while still giving a bigger picture. Unlike cable or satellite, a person enjoying over-the-air DTV doesn't need to find room for a bulky receiver box leaving only a sleek and easy TV setup. (Photo courtesy of Samsung.com)

However, not all TVs are created equal. When shopping for a new TV, are you asking if a TV has the latest generation DTV tuner? How sensitive is it to help you pick up those long-range stations? Does it have user-friendly features such as a built-in program guide?

While some manufacturers have dropped the ball, Samsung stands out not only for the quality of their TVs but for delivering the overall best over-the-air broadcast DTV package out there for consumers.

Model: Samsung LCD or LED TVs
Package includes: Varies per model line, remote is always included; certain models may come with coax or even HDMI cables.
Inputs: For OTA DTV all Samsung TVs have a co-axial antenna input. Samsung TVs will also have minimum one HDMI input and the other standard component and composite inputs.
Pros: Most sensitive DTV tuner on the market, best on-screen program guide for a TV to date, easy-to-use and fast responding built-in signal meter, very user-friendly remote, good size selection and models available at most retail stores so good prices can be found
Cons: Cannot add channels manually on most models (complete re-scan necessary) which is bad news if your antenna requires a rotator

Tuner Sensitivity

When tested, three models of Samsung TVs consistently showed that Samsung has done something right with their DTV tuner. In all cases, when compared to a reliable 3rd party external DTV tuner, the Samsung TV tuner was able to pick up all the available channels from the antenna source with equivalent or better signal strength. Even with the signal being between one to two bars out of ten, the tuner held on to the signal and showed almost no pixilation or sound cuts. The tuner was also very robust as it would not lose signal very easily in bad weather.

Sniff sniff, how could you be insensitive? An insensitive tuner can mean you may be missing channels or have drop-outs in bad weather. Samsung’s tuner is one of the best on the market and will get the most out of your antenna.


Samsung TVs in general are one of the better looking units on the market with their sleek look, glass trim, “touch of colour” accents and button-free front panels (touch panel only). It’s no surprise that they easily fit in to any sleek home theatre setup.

Sleek and easy to use, what more would you want from a remote?

The Samsung remotes are simple, uncluttered and have well labeled buttons. The larger TVs and higher end model series have a few more features on their remotes (such as backlighting), however the basics are all there across the board no matter what size or model you select.

Note: One thing that is becoming a feature of Samsung TVs is the default tone that plays when the TV is turned on or off – the good news is it can easily be turned off permanently in the menu options for those that don’t need to hear a jingle every time they want to tune in to watch the news.


The antenna DTV setup is fairly simple. With you antenna connected to the coax input and “TV” selected as the source, simply go to Menu > Channel > Autoprogram. The TV will then do a sweep and collect all analog or digital channels available (including subchannels). Again, the awesome sensitivity of the tuner will make the most out of any reasonable antenna setup.

When channels are added, you can tune them and then evaluate the signal strength to help point your antenna. Despite having the signal meter well hidden under Menu > Self Diagnosis > Signal Strength, once you’re there it is easy to use. While some purists may complain that there isn’t enough detail (i.e. no SNR sound to noise ratio or numerical percentages), fact of the matter is the clear graphics make it easy to interpret and easy to use for any Average Joe who just wants to make sure the signal won’t cut off during the hockey game. The best part is the meter is fast responding, giving you almost instant feedback on antenna adjustments.

Light up as many bars as you can and you’ll be enjoying your DTV with perfect picture and no drop-outs.

The one bad point (and it may be a biggie for some people) is that there is no way to manually add a channel. This means that if you have a weak channel that comes and goes, you will need to ensure it is there when the scan is done or else you will need to do an entire re-scan again until you get it. Another disadvantage of the lack of this feature means that if you need to adjust your antenna to get different channels (i.e. move around a set of rabbit ears or if you have an antenna rotator) then you will be incredibly frustated as there will never be one position of antenna that will allow the TV to scan and compile all the possible channels in your area. A work-around is to go with a two-antenna (or multiple-antenna) setup. Although extra cost is associated, this is actually a practice that is becoming more and more common, especially in cities where signals come from two different directions. For example, in Toronto many users will have a small antenna for local stations coupled with a longer-range antenna pointing at Buffalo, NY. The result is a seamless feed of all the availble channels without the need to rotate or adjust the antenna when changing channels.

Also note that the tuner will still pick up any analog channels still kicking around, however the signal meter is non-functional for them as they are not digital. These channels however can be manually tuned individually through other menu options.

Guide and Program Info

The onscreen channel guide and program info on Samsung TVs is the best there is on the market. The on-screen info is easily accessible on the “INFO” button on Samsung controllers. When pressed, it shows you all of the available program description for the tuned program, which is a luxury as some television manufacturers truncate it after a certain number of characters (or don’t show it at all). During testing, the Samsung TVs allowed me to scroll through a whopping 3 pages of program info for a PBS documentary. As always, the TV can only display what is available from the source, so if the TV station is not transmitting you obviously won’t see anything. Despite also showing the picture resolution, the onscreen info unfortunately does not show the signal strength for that channel unless you go specifically to the signal meter.

The Samsung on-screen info display is the best one currently on the market.

The guide is accessed through the button “CH LIST” on the Samsung remote. It shows a list of all the available channels in a menu type format with the titles of the programming. By scrolling to a channel, you can then get specific info on the program or scroll through upcoming programs. An added bonus is the guide is transparent meaning you can still watch your tuned program.

The only downside to the guide is that it does not do an automatic refresh upon loading. This means that you will only see program info if you have tuned the channel at least once during your current use of the TV. This can be easily solved by simply sweeping through the main channels (sub-channels will get their info off the main).

Samsung's built-in DTV guide shows you a list of current programs on all available channels (top), you can then select a channel and browse its upcoming programs (middle) and then select to see their untruncated (thank you Samsung!) program description (bottom)

Prices and Where to Buy

Samsung TVs are carried at almost every major electronics or home furniture retailer so be sure to shop around to get the best deal for you. Promotions vary from price reductions to free delivery to no-interest financing or even store rebates. To be honest, there is no reason to purchase these TVs off any “open box” or refurbished retailers as the risk of getting a lemon or reduced warranty to save a few bucks isn’t worth it in the end. Stick to the main retailers but be sure to compare prices, shop around and negotiate. Overall, the lowest prices on TVs historically happen about three times a year: on Boxing Day, February or late August / early September when the old models are being cleared out.


In the end, nothing is cleaner than having a flat screen mounted directly to the wall without a clunky cabinet needed to house your receiver boxes. A Samsung TV will deliver great OTA DTV performance on its own without the need for a secondary receiver, making it perfect for a space-saving wall-mount application (say in a kitchen) or in those hard-to-reach areas where you only watch TV occasionally (for example, in front of the treadmill). Even if you have a pay service it will make for a sleek wall-mounted secondary TV source when you don't feel it's worth it to spring for the additional receiver.

Remember, if this new TV is replacing that old clunker, please look to recycle your old TV and not just leave it curbside. In most areas, there are municipal or provincial programs to help keep old electronics out of landfills, and there are certain private centers that accept free drop-offs (for example, Toronto Recycling in the GTA). Surely a solution in your area is only a Google search away. Average Joe wants to make sure Mother Earth does not have to pay the price for the DTV transition!

Monday, September 19, 2011

RCA Digital TV Converter

Average Joe’s Recommended Converter Box for the “Hanging in There” TV User

The “Hanging in There” TV group is mainly for people that have no plans in upgrading their analog TV sets anytime soon and don’t really put much importance on new DTV features. This group also includes the elderly that just want something simple and effective to continue enjoying TV the way they’ve always had. For these people I recommend the RCA Digital TV Converter.

Model: RCA DTA800B1
Package includes: Instructions, converter box, remote and coax cable
Inputs: co-axial antenna, smart antenna port
Outputs: standard definition via RCA (yellow / red / white) and co-axial
Pros: Remote is simple, universal with the TV and user friendly with its large buttons and writing, box is compact and can be set up in multiple positions for a best fit, can be bought from most major retailers
Cons: Program guide is essentially non-existent and other DTV features are fairly limited so don’t expect any razzle-dazzle from this model

It Gets the Job Done

When evaluating this converter box and discovering its straight-forward ease of use, I definitely had the elderly in mind. I’m sure some of you out there may have been acting as “digital transition experts” to an elderly parent, friend or neighbour these past few weeks. I myself have had my own family members to assist and I found the RCA converter box the perfect fit for an elderly family member who probably will watch his analog TV until he hits the retirement home.


The box is compact and has a typical black plastic finish you’d find on a DVD or Blu-Ray player. One feature I found advantageous is that unlike other converter boxes, it has two large channel up and down buttons on the front as well as an on/off button. A green indicator LED lets you know when it is working.An extra bonus is that the box can be placed lying flat, or a small “foot” can be swivelled out to place it upright. This last feature is particularly useful if you want to install the box to the left or right of the TV instead of taking up valuable shelf space in a TV unit (prime real estate for all those other electronics).The remote is excellent in its simplicity and layout. The buttons are large and the numbers clearly written in large type. On top of that, it controls the TV power, inputs and volume via a code listed in the instruction manual so there is no need to keep the TV remote lying around. The remote buttons are also coloured such that it is easy to see which buttons control TV features (grey) and which control the converter box features (white).


The initial setup isn’t complicated but it’s not as easy as some of the other models available. Then again the setup is basically done once and then forgotten. The good news is the tools are there and easy enough to use to help you point the antenna and to scan for channels.Also, the all-important option to re-scan to add channels without losing the existing channels saved is also present, meaning people with antenna rotators or indoor antennas that need tuning for different channels will be happy.What’s interesting is that this box also has a smart antenna feature. After doing a bit of my own research (no thanks to the salespeople at the stores carrying these boxes), it appears that certain so-called “smart” antennas are able to electronically tune themselves to have optimized reception without needing physical adjustement. Essentially, a true smart antenna is able to internally and electronically adjust itself for different channels without the need to be moved physically, and the way the box communicates what orientation is needed for which channel is via this smart antenna port (kind of looks like an Ethernet port). While this is an interesting concept as it means saying good-bye to fidgeting and moving an antenna when channels are changed, it appears the market for these antennas is not very strong. An indoor and outdoor version of a smart antenna existed but neither are available for retail anymore, which is shame. Nonetheless, the feature still exists as a bonus should you ever find a used one for resale and want to try it out.

Guide and Program Info

The guide on the RCA converter is fairly weak, so it definitely should not be one of the major features you are looking for should you decide to buy this box. The so-called “guide” consists of a channel list showing all channels available by name and an on-screen pop-up of the program info about the current show (should it be available from your broadcaster). There are no browsing features available or indication of what the next program is.The standard on-screen display info shows the program title, channel, time and antenna strength (the latter always being a huge positive so you’ll know whether the antenna needs to be adjusted).

Ease of use

Once the setup is complete and if your expectations are in line, this converter box is easy to use. The key here is don’t look for the new razzle-dazzle DTV features – the box will basically give you a post-transition DTV experience that was pretty much like you had pre-transition. I also found it perfect for elderly people and here’s why:

First, the remote: You have no idea on how important a universal remote is to an elderly person, and neither did I. I had bought a different box for an elderly family member that didn’t completely replace the TV remote. The result was two remotes on the sofa and a lot of confusion. The family member would forget and enter the channels on his trusty old TV remote like he had been doing for years, only to pop his TV out of VIDEO mode and into a screen of blaring static. After many calls to “tech support” (i.e. me) I replaced the box with the RCA unit and hid the TV remote at the back of the drawer. All is well now.

Second, the remote layout: The remote is uncluttered, there are no new features to cause confusion and the buttons are large and easy to read - great for people with less-than perfect eyesight. Also, closed captioning is just one button away making it easy for people with hearing problems to switch it on and off.

Third, the channel control and power buttons are on the converter box. There have been several times when the aforementioned family member has forgot where the remote is only to find it between the sofa cushions a few hours later. There have also been times when the batteries have died and he’s had to wait for his weekly visit from “tech support” to change them. Believe it or not, many boxes on the market do not have any buttons on them meaning if you can’t use the remote, you’re out of luck. Having the button on the box at least lends a lifeline to a remote-less TV viewer as they are at least able to manually power it on and change channels.

As for the other DTV features that are blatantly missing (the biggest being the guide), I found these features of not much interest to my elderly family member. He was used to the good ol’ days of analog TV and to this day the paper copy of the weekly TV Guide never leaves the side table in the TV room. So I guess no biggie there?


According to Consumer Reports, the RCA converter box classifies as one of the “better” boxes for picture quality (remember, best = DVD quality on an analog TV). Our in-house testing determined the same: picture edges were sharp and there was minimal blur during fast-moving sequences.

The tuner sensitivity was good as well; compared to other DTV built-in tuners and converter boxes there were no unusual drop-outs or less-than-robust pixilation during bad weather. It was always able to capture the same channels when tested from the same antenna setup at equal or better strength.
Easy to Purchase
One of the best things about this box is that it is very easy to purchase in Canada. It is carried by two major chains: Canadian Tire and Sears. Both are reputable stores with good return policies should you realize this is not the right fit for your TV needs.

Although prices have fluctuated around the digital transition date, Sears always seemed to have a slight edge over Canadian Tire. It retails for just under $60, and there have been no major sales to date on this item. I do give a slight edge to Sears as you can easily order it online and have it shipped to one of Sears’ many pick-up locations to save you a drive into town. Also, if you are a Sears card member you can use your promotion benefits or coupons on this item to save a bit.


This box is your easiest bet and will give you a TV that will pretty much have the same functionality as pre-transition. Don’t expect all the new DTV bells and whistles as the other boxes have, but look forward to something that is easy to purchase, simple to use and the perfect converter box for an elderly person suddenly stuck in the digital TV age.

Friday, September 16, 2011

OTA Program Guide Trumps Bell TV

Pay TV subscribers are furious over Bell turning their program guide into a billboard

Remember those “free internet” companies in the late 90’s and early 2000s that provided free dial-up internet in exchange for having a cheesy ad banner appear on your computer while you were surfing? Kind of annoying, but nonetheless a small inconvenience for having a free service. Well earlier this week Bell TV went one step further and pulled the same stunt - but this time to their paying customers - by turning a line in their program guide into a rotating billboard for pay-per-view movies. The advertisement remains until it is manually cleared by the user via the remote.

Average Joe completely understands the outrage of Bell TV subscribers to having this annoying feature imposed on them. Could this be yet another reason to turn away from the satellite and cable mega-corporations and switch to the pristine program guides available from free over-the-air digital television?

Ask a Bell TV subscriber how they like their new on-screen program guide – they recently lost their last line in the program guide to a rotating banner ad for pay-per-view movies (above). Your Average Joe recommends to consumers to explore the uncluttered program guides offered by Over-The-Air DTV receivers instead which are free from unsolicited software updates to add advertisements from the big telemedia companies (below).

As a paying customer, do you think your provider has the right to flood you with unsolicited advertisements via your on-screen program guide? Send your comments to Average Joe now via my email address in my profile!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dish Network DTVPal

Average Joe’s Recommended Converter Box for the “Anything but Obsolete” TV crowd

In my previous post I identified the “anything but obsolete” group as those that wanted to keep their analog TV for a while longer without breaking the bank, and yet enjoy the new benefits of the DTV viewing experience. For these people I recommend the DTVPal converter box from Dish Network (yes, the satellite company).

Model: Dish Network DTVPal

Package includes: Instructions, converter box, DC power supply, remote and coax cable

Inputs: co-axial antenna

Outputs: standard definition via RCA (yellow / red / white) and co-axial

Pros: Best program guide and user interface I’ve ever seen on a converter box, good picture quality, sensitive tuner, easy to setup and add / edit channels.

Cons: Remote cannot control the TV power, with the digital conversion over in the US the box is end-of-life and can only be bought off aftermarket sources (not retail)

The “WOW” Factor

Having tested a few converter boxes, nothing knocked my socks off like the DTV Pal. Unsuspecting test subjects at the Average Joe household thought that I had a satellite receiver connected to the TV; nobody could believe that this was running off an antenna. The program guide, the antenna alignment tools, the features and snazzy graphics … if you’re looking for the wow factor, this is the converter box that delivers it.

The box itself is compact and discrete-looking with its black colour and only one green LED that lights up when in use. It does not look out-of place at all in a modern home theatre setup. The remote is ergonomic and looks high-end, its buttons are all a good size and are clearly labeled. There are no buttons or controls on the box.

The initial setup is one of the easiest I’ve seen on the market. An on-screen setup wizard guides you step by step through the installation process and lets you optimize your antenna placement before running a full scan, which is a very smart feature to have. Essentially you manually enter the channel RF numbers and use the signal strength to guide your antenna placement. For my test setup, I used one channel from the US and one local. Once your antenna is in the right spot, you go to the next step that runs a full scan; you sit back and watch as it identifies each channel it pulls in.Once the scan is done, it downloads the program guide with a progress screen similar to what the big boys on the satellite services have. I never had an OTA receiver box make me feel so classy. One note: if the box has been powered off for a while, the program guide will need to be re-downloaded with fresh information next time you start it up. The delay could be a bit annoying but this step can always be skipped. Besides that, the guide does update itself automatically every so often and if new channels are found they will be added automatically as well. You also have the option to perform re-scans without losing the previously scanned channels which is great for people that have signals coming from different directions and need to use antenna rotors or re-adjust indoor antennas.
As an extra bonus there is even an option manually punch in the RF frequency of a channel and see if the receiver can grab it, which is good for those hard to-reach channels that you just can’t seem to find in an automatic scan.

THIS is what a DTV guide should be!

Now the best part of it all – the program guide. By the way, Bell TV subscribers may find the user interface very familiar, and with good reason too as Bell essentially use re-branded Dish Network receivers. The program guide displays days of information (if available from the broadcaster) in a very easy to browse and user-friendly table. Not only do you get to see your entire programming selection at a glance, but options allow you to search the listing as well. Compare this to the program guide or “onscreen info” provided on the converter boxes in the big stores and you’ll see why this is easily its best in its class. It even beats out several newer satellite / cable boxes I’ve seen (yes Videotron, I’m talking to you: the 1990’s video game industry called, they want their graphics back). As a bonus, even the channel names can be manually edited in the guide to say whatever you want instead of the default DTV station callsign (i.e. "CTV-HD" instead of "WBRF-18")As if it couldn’t get any better, you can even search the guide for your program title and then set up auto-tuning to plan your night of TV watching and have the channels switch automatically. Once again, go ask those salespeople what do those other converter boxes have?

Ease of use:

The remote is well laid out which simply adds to the great user interface provided by the DTVPal. I absolutely love the “View TV” button which no matter where you are in the menu or guide automatically brings you right back to your show. The main program guide is one button away, and by using the left and right arrows you can access an on-screen minimalist version guide for browsing while watching your show.
Program info is also a button push away, and by default the antenna strength is shown when the main program banner appears which is an added bonus as it gives you a heads up to adjust your antenna if you see the bar a bit too low on the scale. In any case, at any point a warning message is automatically displayed if the level begins to drop to levels where degradation may occur, just like the big boys with satellite subscriptions have. Nice.Two small pet peeves concerning the remote: I would have loved to be able to control my TV power with this remote. The DTVPal remote is so ergonomic and sexy that I would have liked nothing more than to take my TV remote and archive it in a drawer in my TV stand. Oh well. The other thing is you may notice there are no dots or hyphens so keying in a DTV subchannel is a bit awkward: rather than dialling say 4-2 or 4.2, you need to tap in 0042 and the receiver will interpret it as 004-2. A small little inconvenience, but to honest with the guide being as good as it is I find myself changing channels mostly through the guide screen than anything.


When compared to other boxes and TV tuners, the DTVPal was found to have the same if not better reception than standard tuners or converter boxes. During certain bouts of bad weather, I found the receiver held onto signals of lower strength much better than my TV tuner. The picture quality is good although other boxes may have marginally better results as per the Consumer Reports chart but there are really no majorly detrimental issues with the picture quality.

It sounds awesome, so where do I buy one?

You have to remember one thing – analog TVs are a thing of the past so a converter box is essentially a one-off piece of technology for obsolete equipment. The bad news is that with the DTV transition being over in the US, the market has shrunk and the DTVPal is no longer available for retail sale.

The good news however is that all those analog TV owners that gobbled up these boxes in 2009 in the US are starting to replace their TVs and are putting their used DTVPal boxes up for sale. With the Canadian dollar essentially at par (if not better) than the American, buying a used DTVPal off eBay or a similar website is your best bet to get this awesome box at a seriously reduced price.

With shipping included, you should be able to find a used DTVPal in good condition for around $50 USD, which is reasonable given the prices of new but inferior converters. As with all online purchases, just remember Average Joe’s golden rules for buying online:

- For used items, make sure the photos in the listing are of the unit that will be mailed to you

- Do your research on the vendor – do they have good feedback, are easy to contact and seem reputable?

- Inquire on which payment service will give you a better conversion rate. Don’t be shy to call your credit card company or compare their rates online to PayPal.

- NEVER ship across the border in anything besides United States Postal Service or Canada Post. Services such as UPS or FedEx will incur you extra brokerage fees that are more than likely not included in the price and are 100% your responsibility to pay once it’s delivered.

- Clean your used item when you receive it, especially in this case the remote which has been manipulated by strangers. I suggest using Lysol Disinfectant Wipes.


Although you may be stuck with a standard definition TV for a while, the Dish Network DTVPal will let you enjoy those years with its awesome features. By far it is the only converter box out there that has that “wow” factor. If you want one: do your research, be patient and you’ll bag yourself a great deal buying a used unit in good condition online.