More zeros, more ones – fewer knobs. Going digital … again.

Over lunch we stopped in and picked up a digital converter box with one of the coupons I got us. I’m a gadget freak and the idea of possibly $80 towards a box that should only cost $20 (so realistically it ends up costing about $60 at the store was hard to pass up. Even when it became obvious that as I suspected the boxes would be in the $60-$80 price range. Politically it upsets me to see our government wasting money like this, yeah they’re making a killing auctioning off the spectrum and they could probably get a 47″ HDTV for every household in the country and still be well above what they expected to make in the auction, but I still don’t like to see the government spending money. But if they’re gonna hand it out anyway then I’m not going to refuse it. Politics aside what do I think of the converstion, read on.Last weekend I did a bit of shopping and found that Circuit City does have a Zenith converter box that qualifies.  It doesn’t pass the analog signal though and they wanted $76 for it.  I spoke with someone on monday who said they’d checked walmart and none had the pass there either but the prices were a bit better.  Since we were already going to the mall to quench an In-N-Out craving – and tonight is the season premiere of Amy’s favorite induldgence, Hells Kitchen, and the coupons do have a fairly short life.  In fact our coupons expire in June – had the site you apply at bothered to mention the short expiration period I would have waited to apply since there are so few boxes on the shelves at this point.  On the other hand – I’m dying to try digital and the coupon eligible boxes are all way crippled anyway so why not jump in ASAP.  Heck FOX is digital so I can get my Simpsons fix – that’s all I need!

The only other two places in town listed on the paperwork that came with the coupons for finding the boxes were Radio Shack and Best Buy.  Well, Radio Shack is hard to get in and out of and…well…it’s Radio Shack!  Being an obsessive tinkerer with no electronics supply places nearby I have to make due out of their meager parts bins fairly often.  I’d hate to loose them since they’re my only option – but it’s such a lousy option I can’t really support it either.  So a quick stop at Best Buy found the situation to be similar but cheaper than Circuit City.  No name brand (or at least not one that’s a household name) and no frills explains the price difference – options were about the same but aesthetics paled compared to the already homely Zenith offering.  Still I’m cheap (remember, we don’t even have basic cable or dish.)  And don’t know if it will work.  And since we have two TV’s I’d rather not both cards on one box.   So we got the no-name cheapie at Best Buy for about $23 out of pocket.

We got home and it took me all of 2 minutes to get it hooked up.  Just slipped in between the antenna and the DVD recorder.  Powered it up, set the defaults…and did a scan.  We got 1 station.  In Spanish.  That was such a marginal signal it kept boxing up like a corrupt MPEG (which not so oddly enough is basically what it was!)  A quick search on the web showed that we should have more stations…and my antenna should even be pointed the right directions.  You may remember this antenna, I got it for $20 on ebay I didn’t expect much from it – but it did have a cheap rotator mechanism – I was quite happy to find that it worked rather well on analog and brought in most stations quite well.  Fox was lousy but that’s a lousy local affiliate, they’re even lousy over cable and on digital.

I knew from having previously checked the FCC license sites that the digital transmitters ran considerably lower power than the analog transmitters here.  But I still figured I should be able to see them.  And sure enough manually inputting them did show a signal – just not enough to get audio or a picture.  Rats.

Then this evening it hit me.  I have my antenna polls from my HF vertical that isn’t setup yet.  They’re just 12′ TV mast sections so they should match up…and sure enough about 5 minutes later I was back on the ground looking up at a MUCH higher antenna that now easily cleared the carport and tree between it and the transmitters.  (Though it’s still shorter than the large tree in our backyard so I should be safe in our rare but powerful lighting storms.)

Went back inside and after re-running the channel scan we now have about 7 wonderful digital channels.  The program guide works on all but one, and that one is in Spanish anyway so we don’t care.  Fox is still goofy, but like I said before – that’s just our affiliate.

Going digital is a major upgrade for TV.  Yeah, the captions are still not timed well – but at least you can customize them a lot more so they’re less distracting.  And when the signal drops it goes from amazing to painful quick.  But as soon as you have enough signal to lock the quality is astounding – even with a crippled coupon box.  Even without HDTV you could get a better signal (DVD quality) by stepping up to component connections and digital for the audio – but the coupon program won’t cover converters that offer anything other than composite video and stereo output.  Our fox signal may still feature greenish skin tones on the Simpsons, gibberish in the captions over commercials, and a default aspect ratio that makes little sense on some programs and all commercials – but it’s a lot better than the fuzzy sometimes nearly unwatchable signal they had over analog.  And the other networks – their fuzzy but clear broadcasts are now sharp and clear as they should be!

The downside.  Well, one more box and one more remote.  But just until we get a new TV or DVD Recorder that has a built in tuner … at which point, since I’m spending my own money, I’ll be sure it will not be limited to low quality analog conversion.  I know some people don’t like the way audio/video breaks up over digital when things go south.  For me it seems like usually a signal weak enough to loose capture on digital – would also be incomprehensible to me over analog.  I can copy digital PSK signals on HF that I can’t even hear – but then again I’ve also met guys who can copy a weak CW signal in a pileup of louder stations … if I had ears and a gray matter DSP like that, maybe I’d prefer analog too.  But I don’t, so for me that’s not a negative in this equation.   Really it’s no worse than having a cable box on a TV was before the days of “cable ready” and works basically the same way.

I still love knobs that have direct control over an analog signal, a big old analog volume knob just seems more “real” to me than a digital.  The big knobs you get now aren’t analog – they’re usually just digital encoders with some weights and dampening on them to make them feel like they’re doing more than spinning a plastic disc past a sensor.  The feel just isn’t the same and neither is the effect.  But at the same time I love the flexibility in control that is possible with a digital signal compared to an analog one.   The trend towards interfaces that aren’t interfaces doesn’t appeal to me.  The anti-interface of the iPod click wheel isn’t my cup of tea – drives me crazy using them – and the iPhone appeals to me even less.  I like buttons I can feel and which move when they interact with me.

We lost knobs on our TV’s a long time ago though.  And the little rubber nubbies on a remote give far less satisfaction than the resounding clunk through the speakers of an amplifier getting power preceded ever so slightly by the gentle click of a plastic pawl clicking past a stop as you twist the combined power/volume knob off it’s rest.  While I may hold some false nostalgia for the interfaces of my youth I won’t miss the old analog broadcasts any more than I miss adjusting the tracking on my VCR.

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