We've been anticipating this day for years. February 17, 2009 was supposed to be the day when all analog TV broadcasting ceased, meaning anyone who gets TV over the air would need to have a digital tuner by now. Otherwise, dead air.
But thanks to the procrastinators in Washington and 5.8 million U.S. households across the U.S., some of you are getting a reprieve. While 641 TV stations will shut off their analog transmitters today (or have already done so), the cutoff date for all analog transmission was pushed back to June 12, giving everyone a few more months to get their digital ducks in a row.
If you have an old TV with rabbit ears, you still have time to get a converter box for it, and we've singled out the best ones from the hundreds available. We also warn you to steer clear of a few stinkers. Hit the jump for the list.
1. Cheapest: Airlink 101
These are the most popular boxes, for good reason: They're free. Well, if you can get a government $40 coupon, and if you can find one of them — most are sold out. But we found one that's available and costs $40 — the Airlink 101. You'll have to lay $6.95 shipping, but that's about as close to free as you can get.
2. Coolest Looking: GE 23333
Our parent company GE makes this pricey ($80) Model 23333 when they're not busy making missile guidance systems, and wow, ain't it purdy? We wouldn't be embarrassed to have that sculptural artifact on top of our old TV.
3. Consumer Reports Favorite: Zinwell ZAT-970A
Consumer Reports put the Zinwell ZAT-970A box at the top of its ratings, calling its picture quality "among the best, close to what you see with a good DVD." It's also equipped with a program timer, letting you turn it on at a certain time and tune to a specific channel so you can record a show on your VCR. Good luck finding a Zinwell box anywhere — they're sold out everywhere we looked.
4. CNet Favorite: RCA DTA800B1
The reviewers at CNet liked the RCA DTA800B1 the best because of its easy-to-use remote control and program guide, and "solid video quality and reception." We like its vertical placement capability, reminding us of a tiny XBox 360.
5. Most Versatile (and Expensive): Dish Network DTVPal DVR
Dish Network got itself into the DTV converter game, cranking out a line of boxes topped by this fancy-schmancy device, the $300 DTVPal DVR. It can record HDTV over the air, and acts like a TiVo by pausing live TV. Its best feature: Also like the TiVo, it has a 30-second skip button, perfect for jumping past annoying commercials.
6. Cheapest TV to Buy Instead: Sansui DTV1300
If you're thinking of spending your hard-earned moolah on one of these sleazy boxes, what about just getting a new TV with a digital tuner built in? We searched far and wide and here's the cheapest one we could find: The Sansui DTV1300. This tube-type TV is just $95.78, and it has a digital tuner on board.
7. Cheapest HDTV to Buy Instead: Magnavox
Target may have already run out of its $199 Magnavox 720p HDTVs, but that's got to set some kind of record, and hopefully it'll be matched by more cheapo TVs to come. Too bad the government won't chip in $40 if you want to buy a new TV.
1. Ugliest: Channel Master D2A
While this Channel Master D2A box is highly rated, it just got slapped around by the ugly stick. Hide this one under the bed in that guest bedroom.
2. Most Inconsistently Priced: Artec T3A Pro
What's up with the pricing on this Artec T3A Pro? We saw it at Amazon for $93.18, and at Game Java for $48.99. And besides, who would call themselves a professional TV watcher? This is taking the "pro" designation way too far.
3. Most Hazardous?: Access HD 1080D
There must be some reason why multiple Amazon reviewers said this Access HD 1080D box runs hot. One even went so far as to describe it as a fire hazard, while another called it the "worst converter box you can buy...horrible." Even if it doesn't run hotter than a two-dollar pistol, the box's maker raises red flags by using the number 1080 and the letters HD — both of which are typically associated with high-definition television, which has nothing to do with the Access HD 1080D. That's a misleading model name we'd say is not so hot.
4. Stupidest: U.S. Government
Take the money and run. As soon as you get the government involved, you find yourself in an alternate universe that should be avoided at all costs (well, only after you've snagged your two $40 coupons). Shame on you, Feds, for making the coupons $40 instead of $50 (the price of most of the converter boxes), and for creating a coupon expiration date of 90 days. Why not just make the coupons never expire? Or at least have them last until the DTV transition actually takes place? Pathetic.