Like many people with limited technical acumen, I am labeled as the “tech guy” whenever I go home for the holidays. This Christmas break I was destined to spend some time setting up the digital-to-analog television signal converter for my parents.
My parents live in rural Northern Illinois, about 90 miles or so west of Chicago. The majority of their television channels come out of the Quad Cities on the Mississippi River with a smattering of stations coming in from other markets, mostly Rockford. The signal has never really been that good, with what I always considered a lot of visual interference and an audio signal that clearly had lost some of the range of audio signal.
I watched with interest the trial balloon for the digital TV signal transition the FCC held in Wilmington, NC this past fall with interest. One of the interesting outcomes of the trial was that people on the fringe of the Wilmington television market found that they could not receive the digital TV signal over the air. With analog you begin to see a degradation of signal quality, and many people can receive degraded quality signals (such as my parents) and you just “learn to live with it” if you don’t want to spring for DirecTV or Dish. With digital the drop-off in quality is very steep and television with degraded signal reception simply becomes unwatchable.
Because of the experience of people in the rural areas around Wilmington I was very skeptical that my parent’s would be able to receive a digital signal from their analog television stations. We agreed that they would need to see about this so that my parents could finally spring for satellite if they weren’t going to be able to receive their digital signal. As an aside, I fully expect that DirecTV and Dish will see a considerable uptick in new subscriptions from rural subscribers in the first months of 2009 as people either transition direct to satellite or find after the analog turn-off that they have no over-the-air television signal.
I’m surprised and happy to report that my parents’ are able to receive the digital signal from their Quad Cities stations (CBS affiliate WHBF, NBC affiliate KWQC, ABC affiliate WQAD and Fox affiliate KLJB). My parents were amazed by the improved picture and sound quality. They’ve also go new channels offered by their traditional stations such as local weather channels, classic TV channels and alternate programming schedules. They’re also able to receive new channels they were never able to receive before– PBS was always a crapshoot that depended on the weather. So they’ve gone from four channels to about 15 over-the-air channels and a much higher quality television experience. This has all been a very pleasant surprise.
Not everything is flowers and sunshine, though. Brace yourself for a few moments with August Rooney:
- The remote control for the Magnavox digital converter is definitely not designed with senior citizens in mind. It has tiny buttons with itty-bitty print. Why does it seem that remote control designers must all have some sort of grudge against their fellow man that remote controls are designed so poorly?
- The converter box also adds a layer of complexity to the act of turning on the TV. It drives me crazy that between receivers, tuners and components turning on a TV has become more complex than launching a space shuttle. Because of this issue and the ugly remote control I see gifts of unified remote controls in my parents’ future.
- My Mom still records shows with a VCR, and my efforts to convince her to get a TiVo have continually been rebuffed. The converter box adds additional layers of complexity to recording shows and greatly reduced the functionality of the VCR: she can’t record one channel and watch something else anymore or program the VCR to change channels to record different shows. Maybe/hopefully this will push Mom into the TiVo camp, and I’m actively seeking advice on the best choices for over-the-air DVRs with digital tuners.