Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Converter Boxes - Everything You Wanted to Know but Were Afraid to Ask

What’s the Deal With Converter Boxes?

I think the largest amount of questions I’ve received to date were from people scrambling to figure out if they need a converter box and if so, which one to buy. After some extensive testing and research, YOUR Average Joe here to help take the confusion out of conversion.

A little clarification first!

First and foremost, I hate the name “converter” box. The word converter seems to have caused a lot of mix-ups with most people thinking they simply plug it in between their antenna and analog TV and the digital over-the-air signal magically becomes analog again so that they can use their TV as they did before. WRONG! … and I don’t blame you if you were confused. For me a converter is like those white thingies you bring with you to Europe to plug into the wall so that you can use your hairdryer from home. A DTV converter box works differently.

A better name would be a “DTV receiver”. Fact of the matter is it’s used for OTA DTV in the same way as a satellite or digital cable box would be used, essentially over-riding the tuner on your TV. Your old analog TV does not have the digital tuner needed to decode and display over-the-air DTV signals, hence much like its satellite and cable counterparts the converter box does the receiving/decoding and the TV is used only to display. Because you are controlling the signal through the receiver box now, you can only change channels by using the receiver and not your TV.

A typical converter box will come with a remote and at least one cable to connect it to your TV.

So despite whatever the chumps at the big box electronics try to tell you about the one model they carry, the average consumer has to be critical about the box they are buying. Don’t just look at picture quality alone because although that is important not all so-called “converter” boxes are created equally. Other factors that can serve as the tiebreaker in making a purchase decision such as the user interface of the receiver, features such as program guides and channel scans, and the size and layout of the remote.

Jeez, good thing your Average Joe is here to help you navigate these waters! Nothing is simple, eh?

So what is an Analog owner to do?

Basically judging from people around me and some of the questions I’ve received I have broken down the remaining cluster of analog TV owners into four categories.

Next stop: a museum?

I’m Anything But Obsolete – your old analog TV is out-dated but it’s not ready for the dumpster yet. It makes no sense to get rid of it but at the same time you can’t justify busting the bank to bring it up to speed. Having a perfectly good antenna-only analog TV is fairly common (even for people that have pay subscriptions) in places like the kitchen, the cottage, break rooms or waiting areas at workplaces and even in bedrooms. Isn’t there a converter box out there that can add many more happy years of life to the TV and not cost an arm and a leg? Average Joe has a suggestion.

Hanging in There – Whether it be your parents or an elderly neighbour, this is the last TV these people will probably own before they start watching their shows at the retirement home. The goal here is to keep the analog TV working in the digital age with a box that will be easy and effective to use. One box out there seems better suited than others.

The Cadillacs – these are the TVs that cost a fortune back in the day and have plenty of good mileage to go on them. You know what I’m talking about – those big screens that are the size of a shelving unit for example. You want a good receiver that will enhance your viewing experience for many years to come. So what’s out there?

The Write-off – You’ve had some good times but it’s time to take ol’fuzzyvision behind the shed out back. So what new TV should you buy? All new TVs have built-in digital tuners but are some better for an OTA DTV setup than others? Average Joe has looked into it and has the answer.

What to do Before Buying

When you head out to the store don’t just believe what the salespeople are telling you about their boxes. Be sure to ask about functionalities and take a good hard look at the remote, this is what you will be using from now on to watch TV! Ask to see display models or open a box. A good store will have demos set up so that you can compare picture quality and play with cool new DTV features such as program guides and signal strength meters.

A very good summary of commercially available boxes is available from Consumer Reports. Feel free to use it to see which features are important for you, and research models of interest on the internet to see what they cost and look like. Don’t be shy to print the table out and bring it shopping with you.

One note: analog pass-through is becoming of less and less importance. Unless a station in your market is not converting to digital, this feature is essentially useless.

Coming Up

Over the next few posts, we’ll look at each of the four scenarios and let you know what Average Joe recommends for the savvy consumer. As each post comes out, I’ll come back here to link it in as well.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

"Average Joe Approved" Resources for OTA DTV

So where can someone turn to for good advice on an OTA setup?

If my previous posts (dare I say “rants”?) about the Public Service Announcements and retail world left you feeling a bit discouraged, don’t worry – there are in fact some good resources out there for a person looking for an over-the-air setup. In this posting I’ll give you some resources on where you can go for honest, straight-forward information and guidance for the digital transition.


Forget about the teenager at Future Shop who thinks you can get TSN over an antenna. The website www.TVFool.com tells you exactly what free digital signals come to your door. Knowing what channels are available in your area can allow you to make an informed decision about your setup and what equipment you require. The best part is that unlike antennapoint.com, it recognizes Canadian broadcasters, addresses and postal codes.

There are essentially two majorly useful tools on TVFool.com: the radar plot and the coverage map. Both tools list the available channels in your area rate the ease of reception by colour codes with green being the easiest (i.e. indoor antenna) with red and grey being the most difficult (outdoor mast-mounted antenna).

For each tool, you simply enter in your postal code, city or co-ordinates (attained easily from Google Maps) and at the click of button a personalized report appears. You can also play with the antenna height to see if it improves the channels you can bring in. The radar plot is excellent for showing you where the signals are coming from, which is critical for knowing if your antenna setup needs to capture signals from multiple or single directions. The coverage map shows any “dead zones” where signal reception will be difficult due to terrain features, which may explain why certain stations will be more difficult to receive than others.

This particular radar plot (above) shows that signals are coming from primarily two different directions and some are fairly distant (red zone). This information is crucial to having the right antenna setup.
This coverage map (above) shows a very large purple/blue "shadow" caused by a mountain in the way of a DTV transmitter. This predicts reception problems for people in the area.

In the end, consulting this website should be the first step before dabbling with your OTA experience or buying an antenna. It's an easy (and free) way to become a DTV reception "expert" for your household.

DigitalHome.ca OTA Forum

While other websites such as AVSForum and HighDefForum have good over-the-air DTV resources, DigitalHome.ca’s OTA Section is easily the best out there as is the one place that has it all.

If you are interested in adding an over-the-air setup to your home, want to check the broadcast status of local stations, want to know which antenna you need (or even build your own) and what other products are out there such as tuners for your computer, PVRs and other accessories – this is the place for you. The forum has everything you need whether you are a beginner or what to talk about pro subjects such as antenna design or DXing (for the rest of us that is the art of grabbing long range stations due to atmospheric conditions). The threads are well organized, moderated and the conversations are informative and mature (no FLAMING DA n00bz !!!1!!11!! to be found here). The best part for people feeling left with online “US Digital Transition Envy” is that this forum is 100% devoted to Canadian content; almost every major Canadian city is covered.

Average Joe says the OTA forum on Digitalhome.ca is the best you can find online.

So where to start in this encyclopaedia for free TV? My first recommendation is to become a member to have access to all the major content and photos. As with all online forums please follow Average Joe’s three internet forum commandments:

- Thou shall READ THE FORUM RULES before posting thy first message
- Thou shall use the search feature before asking a redundant question
- Thou shall honour the subject heading and not diverge the topic of thy thread

Your first stop should be to read the new member welcome post in the main forum; here you will have access to a lot of good information and what I believe is the best antenna comparison charts available to Canadians (hmmm none of the indoor Future Shop models seem to have made the list?).

The new member welcome post is a good starter for OTA DTV information and should be used as a guide to get the most out of forum.

After that, I would suggest checking out your local reception result thread in the subforum. These are posts from other OTA users in your areas and will give you an indication of what channels you should be able to get. Also, if a particular antenna interests you, run a search in your local reception thread for the antenna name or model to see what people in your area are picking up with it.

Don't worry Canada, DigitalHome.ca has you covered with personalized OTA reception threads for most Canadian cities.

If you have an OTA setup already, I suggest you check out the local station status threads if a station you normally receive well is acting up. This thread will tell you if others are having the same issues as you and can save you the hassle of uselessly checking your cables and equipment when the problem is really at the broadcast end.

If you feel like delving deeper in the OTA DTV world, check out the threads on what Canadians are choosing as OTA receivers and PVRs, and other threads about which stores / installers are recommended. If you’re more of a DIY kind of person, there are plenty of threads about building your own antenna and what tools or materials will allow you to make your own custom OTA setup while saving a few bucks.

Antenna Installers and Retailers

If you want help on selecting OTA products, personalized service to answer specific questions or want someone to install an antenna for you, you won’t find it at the big box electronics store. The best service Average Joe found was at the smaller and specialized stores, namely:

- Professional antenna installers
- Authorized retailers of big name antenna manufacturers (search for distributers of Channel Master or Winegard)
- Some satellite (Free-To-Air) retailers
- Smaller electronic component stores

Antenna installers are few and far between these days, especially in the city. If you are having trouble finding one (or there is a lack of selection) in your urban area, check for those in the surrounding countryside as antenna installations are more popular in rural areas. Before committing to a purchase, be sure to have the company send a representative to check your house for any potential issues (obstructions that could block reception) and you should make sure there are no restrictions in your area (check your city or condo by-laws). Also, the installer should know what setup is best for you and your neighbourhood, be sure to ask what channels the recommended setup can bring in before agreeing to its installation. If anything, print out your TVFool report (as mentioned above) and discuss with the installer beforehand to better understand their reasoning behind their recommendations as well as the justification for more expensive equipment such as a long-range antenna, rotor and such. If something doesn’t seem to make sense or if your installer is having difficulty explaining your expected reception, go elsewhere to make your purchase.

Local authorized antenna manufacturer retailers can help answer specific questions and even let you know which models are the most popular sellers, giving you a good idea on what other people are buying and installing in your area. When in the store, look and avoid products with opened or taped-up packaging – chances are they were returned by an unsatisfied customer.

Some of the best service, prices and selection your Average Joe found was from the small fish – the FTA / electronic component retailers (i.e. the guys who sell RG-6 satellite cable in rolls, amplifier, co-axial connectors, etc). One store visited even had an OTA TV set up with different receivers / converter boxes for customers to play with and try out in order to compare program guides, picture quality and user interfaces. Service is usually more personalized at a small store as well. One thing to keep your eyes open for though is a store stocked with only knock-off antennas. If you think things are looking fishy, put off making a purchase, take down the model and brand names and do research on forums such as DigitalHome to see if the equipment is legit.


With that being said, the digital transition will soon be upon us! Your Average Joe will still be here to review and recommend various OTA items and equipment over the coming months. Hope you have all enjoyed the build up to the big transition day - keep the comments coming and keep reading! Have a great digital transition everyone, after months of plotting and scheming those rabbit ears may finally get their revenge!

Wow, a Great DTV Offer From my Cable Company!

Only a marketing genious could turn an upgrade in free TV into a marketing pitch for a pay TV service.

Hey, did you know that all I need to do to get over the upcoming end of analog transmissions was to sign up for cable TV? They'll even convert all those pesky new digital signals for me! Wow, ain't that swell of those guys?


Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Slow Demise of Pay TV?

Seems like Americans are fed up of paying through the nose for their TV - but will their neighbours to the north do the same?

Another interesting article comes out about the shifting TVscape.


I posted a while back about how the big pay services are very concerned (dare I say scared?) of the outcome of the Canadian digital transition. In the States, the trend continues. Is the digital transition in Canada going to have the same effect once people realize how awesome free over-the-air DTV is? Only time will tell.

Monday, August 15, 2011

No More Snow In Canada!

Finally, a PSA catch phrase that seems to do the DTV transition justice

Check out this print ad circulating in local newspapers that grabbed my attention. I know I was pretty hard on the industry for its very fluffy and almost misleading PSAs in my previous posts , but I just wanted to say "well done" for the ad below!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

OTA in Retail Land

Despite a few false leads, there is hope for OTA at the mall

Based on my last posts, there’s not much to help from the major TV networks for the average consumer to learn about and set up for OTA DTV. Sure, there’s a slight smattering of information available for Canadians from major TV networks on their websites, toll-free numbers and TV spots but unfortunately there is also an active campaign to round up the last of the non-pay TV subscribers and sign them up for satellite or cable services. (By the way, kudos to the marketing brains that found a way to take an improvement to a free alternate service and spin it into a way to make a sales pitch to get more subscribers! They’ll have to teach that one in business school.)

Meanwhile, what is happening in the retail world? Electronics stores and other TV-point-of-sales must be ready to jump on the DTV bandwagon, right? I mean someone out there must be willing to extol the benefits of DTV’s crystal clear uncompressed picture, new programming features and all those new OTA gadgets. Surely a business plan exists to generate some sales when as many as 1 out of 5 Canadians still receive their TV over the air.

To see what the average consumer would encounter from the retail world, your Average Joe has gone “undercover” to three big national electronics retail chains. At each of these stores, I’ve asked for information and products to help me complete a new OTA setup for my HDTV. At each location, the staff was asked the following questions to see how much they knew about the digital transition, how much OTA gear they actually had, how much they knew about their OTA products and how willing they were to sell it to me in the place of other alternatives such as satellite and cable boxes.

Typical questions consisted of:
• What digital channels can I receive in this area?
• What antenna do you suggest? (for various setups)
• What date is everything going digital?
• I think my elderly parents’ TV is analog ... will they need a converter box and do you sell any? (Which do you recommend?)
• Have you been selling a lot of this OTA stuff?

Let’s check out the scorecard at these stores:

OTA gear selection: Limited. Best Buy has about 1-2 models of basic converter boxes and a few indoor antennas available online and in store. The store display was limited to shelving at the back end of a row. It wasn’t easy finding it.

Stock: The locations I visited all had good had stock of a few indoor RCA antennas. Only one type of converter box was available though. Limited accessories.

The Good: Friendly and eager staff, always ready to answer my questions. 30-day return policy.

The Bad: Very limited knowledge of OTA DTV technology and limited options to match. The staff seemed confused and different associates gave conflicting information.

Prices: Ouch!

Recommended: NO

The two stores I visited were well stocked (albeit limited in selection). The staff was friendly and eager to help. I liked that they encouraged me to try out an antenna, as I could bring it back within 30 days if I didn’t like it.
Despite being eager to help, the staff generally wasn’t very informed on OTA and OTA gear.

Although all staff members were aware of the digital transition date, unfortunately no one was able to tell me which stations were and will be available in my area. At least one associate mentioned that unlike satellite or cable, the station selection could not be guaranteed and varied per location. When I asked if I could get TSN on this antenna, most said I would have to try it out and see (hmmm not really sure where the cable-only TSN broadcast tower is though).

When I specified that I was interested in also getting the channels south of the border, no associates were able to tell me what the ranges were on their indoor antennas and if they could recommend the antennas they had in stock. However, one optimistic fellow said I shouldn’t have any issues as it was the same broadcast tower that served the entire area so if I could get the locals I should get the Americans as well. Yikes. Another associate recommended their most expensive model; when I asked what the difference was he said that it could support 1080 while the others couldn’t. (For the record, an antenna has nothing to do with the resolution of the picture being transmitted to your TV. It can improve the reception of the signal but not the image format of the signal! I’ve received 1080i on an old UHF loop antenna from the 80’s.)

As for the prices – they were overblown and over-rated. Online searches for the same equipment showed that it could be procured for cheaper even with shipping rates from most online retailers. For the same price range, several other better options also existed from more specialized stores.

In the end, Best Buy doesn’t even qualify as an Adequate Purchase for OTA gear.

OTA gear selection: While slightly better than its sister store Best Buy, very limited selections with some locations being worse. Expect the same basic converter boxes and indoor antennas. Converter boxes were separated from the antennas. One store had a display with a guide for selecting based on reception strength.

Stock: Poor in general. Two locations I visited were ransacked with almost empty racks; in some cases, certain antennas at another location were placed under the wrong price tags.

The Good: Friendly staff, 30-day return policy.

The Bad: Again, a lack of DTV knowledge. Several employees questioned my choice of OTA and tried to upsell a pay service so that I could get the most out of HDTV. Another suggested I buy a new TV instead of a converter box for my analog clunker.

If you listen closely you can hear my wallet crying

Recommended: NO

It seems Future Shop and Best Buy employees attended the same DTV training course. Although the staff was friendly and professional at all times, they just didn’t have the goods to help me with basic questions. Most associates recommended their premium indoor antenna for my basement TV. (Considering I can barely get 2 bars of cell service down there I don’t think this was the best advice)

As for extra OTA gear and accessories, some associates were able to tell me that my LCD HDTV I purchased last year did not require a converter box except for one fellow who still wasn’t sure. Unfortunately no one was able to tell me how (or sell me items) to set up two TVs off the same antenna, with most advising to just buy two antennas. Most associates didn’t know of the existence of DVRs for OTA and referred me to subscribe to a pay service to get a free PVR rental on promotion. Others said none existed while one other advised me to go to another store (hey, kudos for being honest at least).

If I thought Best Buy was bad price-wise, I was fast forwarded into financial debt by Future Shop. Again, your dollars are just better spent elsewhere.

PLEASE think twice before you buy your converter box from Best Buy or Future Shop. A quick Google search online can save you serious dough, just compare the price of this converter box from Future Shop (top) to the exact same one from another online-only Canadian retailer (below).

OTA gear selection: For a mall retail store, there is an honest effort to stock some selection in indoor antennas and converter boxes. One location actually had an outdoor antenna in stock in the back room. The online selection gets even better and they are the only of the big bunch of retailers that carries an OTA DVR (online only).

Stock: While one store I visited was running on empty, the others were adequate. What really saves them here is their online merchandise which was ready to roll.

The Good: Don’t mistake them for experts, but the friendly staff here is actually knowledgeable. 30-day return policy and free in-store pickup for items ordered online is enough to get on my good side.

The Bad: They are unfortunately in bed with their pay-TV parent company so watch out for the upsell.

Prices: Still somewhat high but at least they have different products of better quality to back it up. Research before buying, please.

Recommended: Soft Yes - if you want to go retail, this is your best bet compared to the two above. Specialized stores will have better prices and guidance though.

I was pleasantly surprised with The Source when I visited their locations. The staff was overall quite knowledgeable and correctly recommended outdoor antennas to have the best chance of catching distant signals from across the border. Unfortunately, most staff could not tell me what those channels were or where the signals were coming from (important as I would get them from two directions and most likely need a rotor). At one location one member actually had an OTA setup at home and was able to rattle off the channels he caught and gave me some tips based on his setup. There were no major gaffes or bumbled responses, despite one location that tried to upsell me to satellite service to get guaranteed reception… and of course the guaranteed monthly bills that go with it.

Despite the blatant cross advertising for their parent company, they also have a much wider variety of products available on their website such as larger antennas from reputable manufacturers, and a DVR/PVR made for over-the-air broadcasts.

Guess who owns The Source? Believe it or not, this is the first thing that pops up on their digital conversion webpage.

Prices for some items were a bit over what I was expecting, but for their online items the fact that it is shipped for free to the store for pick-up offsets certain differences with online-only retails that would charge a fortune to ship large items. Again, it’s just a matter of doing your research.


So in the end, it was an interesting experience to see how some stores can make a half-hearted attempt at selling OTA gear. I can only think of the impression this must give to new, uneducated consumers looking to try OTA DTV for the first time. Imagine dishing out almost $100 for a store-recommended indoor antenna for use in your basement (of all places) and only bringing in 2 strong local channels. What would you think about OTA TV? I can also imagine these stores scooping up these disappointed and misinformed clients when they come back to return the equipment with the higher-margin pay TV services as well.

Next time we’ll discuss what other resources are out there to help the average consumer make his purchasing decisions and get the support he needs to make an informed decision for OTA DTV. As always, stay tuned!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A Look at the Canadian "Public Service” TV Announcements of the Digital Transition

But who exactly are they really serving?

Despite the unfortunate media apathy around the digital transition, chances are you’ve at least started to see spots on the major networks about the upcoming analog Armageddon. These so-called public service announcements are to inform OTA TV viewers of the pening changes.

In all honesty, I like public service announcements. They let you know what’s happening, for what reason and what to do if it affects you. For example, a recent PSA in the local newspaper described some changes by the city water works in my area. In the humble opinion of your Average Joe here, it had all the key elements essential to a clear and concise public service announcement. It stated that our water main was being replaced on a certain date (notification) in order to improve water pressure in our area and replace the aging pipes (reason), thus reducing the risk of a break and to update to the latest materials (benefit). It told us to expect no water service for a period of time (information) and to run the taps once the water was back on (action).

That, my friends, is the form that I would normally expect from a PSA: tell people what’s happening, when it's happening, why it’s happening, how it affects them, and last but not least what they need to know and do about it.

When I finally saw the PSA’s from the three largest national networks concerning the DTV transition, I was disappointed with what I found.

While all three networks notified viewers of the change, there was no talk of the reason for the change and the benefits from it. Without reasons or benefits, changes are sometimes perceived as a burden. Someone who has no idea why the digital transition is being done could easily be confused, even think that they are being suckered into paying for a converter box to compensate for something the broadcaster is doing or the government is imposing on them.

Why not give the reason and the benefits? People can keep their analog TVs and benefit from the more robust signal and new on-screen program info. Owners of HDTVs can look forward to this as well and the availability of HD programming and new functionalities with modern day devices such as TiVos and DVRs.

Second, I was appalled to see the blatant advertising going on – suggesting subscription to a satellite or cable service as a way to prepare for the digital transition. True, technically this is an option as the DTV transition is transparent to pay subscribers, but this is like bringing your car into the garage to have the radio antenna fixed and the guy suggests signing up to satellite radio instead. It's an obvious attempt to upsell, not to help you with the issue at hand. The CTV and Global PSAs go one step further by actually advertising the pay TV services provided by their parent companies on both the TV spot, the 1-8XX number and the website. All this in a so-called public service announcement? Not impressed at all.

Call the toll free numbers or visit the website and the advertising for pay TV services is always there.

Kudos though on CBC for at least specifying that a converter box is easy to install and affordable. Of course, CTV referred their viewers to their parent company’s retail chain to buy the converter box.

Have a look at the following TV spots (barely considered as PSAs in my opinion) from the three major networks. Can you spot the blatant advertising and lack of info?

Global TV:






So remember that example of the PSA I gave about the water works at the beginning of this post? Well, this is like a PSA that tells you they are digging everything up to change the water pipe, but hey, why are you drinking tap water? If you drank bottled water you wouldn’t be affected and by the way Perrier is on sale at Loblaws. Oh yeah and you may want to run the taps or something if you really want to go back to drinking tap water when we’re done.

Well then Average Joe, if you’re so smart, why don’t you make a PSA that’s better than the network ones?

After fuming over the lack of info and the almost deliberate hood-winking of consumers from these PSAs, I decided to make my own! Here is a sample PSA put together by myself in the span of about 30 minutes with my crude computer and graphic skills. The entire PSA would run for less than a minute, which seems reasonable considering the analog transition is about a month away. Here are the screen captures with the captions just below.

If you receive your TV programming “over the air” via an exterior or rabbit ear antenna, this message applies to you.

Your current analog broadcast service is being upgraded to digital television (DTV). Industry Canada has mandated Canadian over-the-air broadcasters to cease analog broadcasts effective September 1st, 2011.

This change is necessary in order for you to enjoy the full potential of modern-day HDTV technology via your antenna TV, including

- 1080i HD picture and 5.1 surround sound
- Easier and improved antenna reception
- On-screen program info and guides
- Compatibility with modern devices such as PVR / DVRs

As well as the potential for future digital programming options and features

To ensure you are ready to receive the new DTV signal, check your current TV for a digital tuner. If you have purchased a new TV in Canada within the past 3 years your TV will most likely already be DTV compatible. To check your equipment for compatibility, look for the DTV logo on your TV or on documentation provided with your TV.

If your TV is not DTV capable, you will need to install a digital-to-analog converter box by September 1st. These boxes are easy to install and can be purchased inexpensively from most local electronics or hardware stores.

On September 1st, be prepared for the new and bright future of over-the-air digital television! If you subscribe to pay TV services such as cable, satellite, or TV-over-internet, you will not be affected by these changes.


OK, so it’s clear we can’t rely on the big networks to help us navigate through the digital transition. But surely the retail market is willing to help us out, right? YOUR Average Joe is going undercover on the next installment of Revenge of the Rabbit Ears so be sure to check back soon and see what we find!

Monday, August 1, 2011

One Month To Go!

The countdown has officially begun! In exactly one month DTV will be the new broadcast norm for Canadians and will still be free as the air (no pun intended)! What a great deal for the average consumer.

What to do in the meantime? Stay tuned right here for more of the latest news, opinions and reviews on OTA DTV. As for your sceptical friends who still seem to be inclined to pay for their HD channels, why not ask them to take the Average Joe TV challenge from back in May?

Enjoy the last month of summer ... and the last summer of analog TV!

- YOUR Average Joe