For the Love, Please Get Ready for the DTV Switch
Apparently 7% of you are woefully unprepared for the switch from analog to digital over-the-air TV signals on February 17, 2009. The easy answer is to get satellite or cable service, but a lot of folks just aren't willing to shell out the bucks. Plenty of you are also unwilling to grab a new TV that can pick up the digital signals. Even those of you aware of the DTV switch might not be getting a signal after the switch due to the way that the digital signals work. (For instance, I had no idea I'd need to point an antenna at a heading of 279° to get digital stations at full strength.) In that spirit, I though it would be a good idea to bring together a round-up of resources to set you straight.
First, go to Comsumerist and use their flowchart to figure out what exactly you need to do in very simple terms. You basically have three options: subscribe to a cable or satellite package, buy a new TV with a DTV tuner (if you don't already have one) or buy a converter box to use with your old TV.
If you're going for a cable or satellite package, note that cable companies are required to support analog TV sets until at least 2012 due to FCC mandates. That said, a lot of cable providers are moving a lot of their analog channels onto more expensive digital packages, so make sure you're getting the channels you want. I don't think Satellite providers are under the same mandates, but support for analog TVs is not going away anytime soon.
If you're buying a new TV, it might be a good idea to wait until after Christmas to do so. Most analysts predict that a 32" LCD HDTV will drop to around $300 by that time as consumer spending continues to drop and retailers become eager to dump inventory. If you have the funds, consider going with a plasma TV instead of LCD. The colors are brighter and richer than an LCD, but it's only available on larger sets. Also save money by buying a 720p set instead of a 1080p one. Unless you're getting a screen larger than 50" and plan to watch HD content (like Blu-Ray movies), you're wasting your money.
If you plan to stick it out with your old set and a converter box, sign up for a converter box coupon NOW. Not tomorrow, not next week, NOW. The cut-off for coupons is December 31, 2008 and they're good for up to $40. Most converter boxes are $50-60, so this is a significant savings. Consumer Reports has a shoot-out of various converter boxes and you can get the coupon from DTV2009.gov.
If you go for a HDTV or converter box, you need to pay special attention to what antenna you use. Unlike current analog TV signals, DTV signals do not handle interference well and just like with a cell phone, a bad signal results in chunks of what you're watching disappearing. AntennaWeb lets you punch in your address to see a list of available TV stations, what compass heading they're broadcasting from and what type of antenna you need to pick them up. In some cases a cheap antenna pointed in the general direction of the broadcast tower is enough. In some extreme examples, you might need to have a new antenna professionally installed on your roof and aimed more precisely at the tower.
If you still have questions on the digital TV switch, go to DTV Answers for for information. And don't say I didn't warn you if you can't watch your favorite programs on February 17.