"Your TV won't work any more!" the electronic stores say and advertise.

Actually your TV set will still work. It just might pick up any stations using your antenna if you do nothing.

You might only need to buy a converter box, which can sit on top of the TV set and which is connected between the antenna and the TV.

You should get at least the same picture quality as you are getting now.

A new TV set may or may not pick up more stations than the converter box gets for your old TV set.

If you subscribe to cable TV or satellite TV service you should not have to do anything now.

Definition: "Television receiver" -- The TV set (itself). "A/V receiver" -- The amplifier unit with video and audio inputs and AM/FM radio tuner. "Dish receiver" -- The box that goes with a satellite dish.

What will happen?

Late on June. 12, 2009 "full power" licensed TV stations will sign off their analog broadcasts in the usual manner at the end of their broadcast day schedules. These transmitters will not be turned back on for broadcasting. Stations already have their digital broadcasts' transmitters in operation and the digital broadcasts just resume or continue, business as usual.

Actually some stations will stop analog broadcasting sooner. Some stations do not wish to pay for the electricity to operate their analog transmitters, and a few have technical difficulty with their analog transmitter and will not be making repairs.

A few specialized or non-commercial or low power TV stations may continue in operation with analog broadcasts.

Which Converter Should I Buy?

Our "quick picks" are: the Zenith #900 and #901 (newest), the Zinwell #970A and #950A (newest), the Insignia DXA-1 series, and the Channel Master #7000. These have good sensitivity and good picture quality.

The converter box should offer at least three aspect ratio modes, or screen shape modes.

A:  Full screen 4:3 (Zoom; Crop To Fit; Pan & Scan),
B.  Letterbox (Shrink To Fit; Regular 4:3),
C.  16:9  (Wide; Anamorphic; Native; Unmodified)

Actually the choosing is easy. Just flip through the aspect ratio modes (sometimes called zoom modes) until the picture looks good.

The normal viewing mode is B for a 4:3 TV set and C for a 16:9 TV set. Better picture quality can be obtained if you have all three modes to choose from.

Other useful features:

Add Channel -- After the box has scanned for what it thinks are available channels, it lets you add channels it missed.

VCR Timer -- The box can be set to turn itself on and change channels so your VCR can record off of channel 3 (or 4) only and catch all of your favorite shows.

Sensitivity -- Being able to pick up more distant stations with not quite as good an antenna.

S-Video Output -- This gives the best picture quality from boxes that are eligible for the $40. government coupon discount.

Consumer Reports (tm)

Use Consumer Reports magazine to help find good points and bad points you might have overlooked yourself. Both your own opinion and Consumer Reports' opinion should be good before you decide what to buy.

When you install your converter box, you may find additional programs that you couldn't watch before. Many stations are broadcasting two or three or even six shows at the same time on their digital channel. Only one of these shows is broadcast at the same time on the analog channel.

On average, the digital TV broadcasts do not have as great a geographical range as analog broadcasts. You may need a "better" antenna.

Most HDTV sets sold before 2006 also need the converter box. If you have not bought the converter box and you don't have HD cable or satellite service, you have only been watching in standard definition.


In most cities and towns, just a UHF antenna is used for HDTV. Sometimes you will need an all-channel (VHF/UHF antenna. Regrettably in some towns you might need a "better" antenna than the one you have been using. For an indoor antenna, putting it in a window without Venetian blinds usually helps. A so-called HDTV antenna is categorically no different from a UHF antenna. However our present suggestion is to compare two thirds of the mileage rating for a "plain" antenna with all of the mileage rating for an "HDTV antenna". For example shop for a 30 mile regular antenna if stations are about 20 miles from you.

Simple Generic Hookup Instructions

If you have connected up a VCR or a DVD player before, you should have no problem connecting up the converter box. In most cases, you disconnect the antenna from the TV set and connect the antenna UHF* wires or cable to the converter box. Then you connect the converter box to the VHF jack or terminals behind the TV set. The converter box should come with a cable for this second step. Depending on how you adjusted the converter box, you leave the TV on channel 3 or channel 4 and choose channels using the converter box' remote control.

* In some cities you may need to connect both UHF and VHF wires from the antenna using a small "splitter" connected backwards or a combiner intended  for that purpose.

Wide Screen, Full Screen

All HDTV programs "assume" you have a wide (16:9) screen even though some programs are in the traditional 4:3 format. Here we show the different aspect ratio choices offered by a converter box and their effect on 4:3 pictures with black side bars (left side of screen) and 16:9 pictures (right side of screen).

The normal mode for a digital TV converter box used with an older TV set is B (Letterbox). (The proper mode for a 16:9 TV is C or Anamorphic). It is best if you buy a converter box offering all three choices (A), (B), and (C) regardless of the age of your TV set.

Full Screen; Letterbox

The "Zoom or "Crop To Fit" mode (A) is the same as the "Pan and Scan" choice on a DVD player. The converter box trims off the sides of the wide picture and passes the middle on to the TV. The TV puts what it gets on the screen. The HDTV converter does not pan the picture back and forth to show the most important action.

The "Letterbox" or "Shrink To Fit" choice (B) is the normal mode for 4:3 TV sets and shows the entire picture on the screen without the need to adjust the TV. The converter resizes the picture to fit in the middle of the screen and adds the black stripes above and below. The TV set puts what it gets, black stripes and all, on the screen. If the show was high definition and 4:3 to begin with, you will see black on all four edges.

Anamorphic; Windowbox

In the 16:9 or "Anamorphic" mode (C) the converter box does not reshape or add to the picture. For HDTV shows the picture is squashed onto the screen (by the TV set) showing everything tall and skinny (morphed). HDTV shows originally 4:3 will still show black side bars added by the studio or producer. Some standard definition (480i; 480p) shows originally in 4:3 format come out correctly as in the left side of diagram (A).

If your TV set has an easily adjusted "16:9",  "VSIZE", or "Height" menu or knob, you should try mode (C) on the converter box. When the height is adjusted downward for a wide screen show, the proportions will magically correct themselves. The picture will then look like that in diagram (D). This is the same size and shape but sharper compared with choosing (B) from the converter and not adjusting the TV set. Note that the Zoom mode on your converter box will not fill the screen until you to crank the height up again at the TV set. You may find that an in between height setting is acceptable for all shows using converter box mode (C).

Zooming the TV set or choosing (A) from the converter box does not always eliminate black borders completely. When the movie has an aspect ratio greater than 16:9, the TV station or movie producer adds additional black area above and below the picture. The converter pretends that this additional black area is part of the picture.

For your converter box, the names "letterbox", etc. of the various modes may differ from those given above.


Windowbox, Overscan

When we said that the TV set takes what it gets and puts it on the screen, the TV may spread the material out slightly larger than the screen, cropping all four edges. This is called overscan. See diagram (E) above which shows the consequences of overscan on both 4:3 full screen and letterbox programs. (You've been missing parts of the picture all along all these years.) The HDTV pictures will be similarly trimmed. When choosing mode (A) (Zoom) for an HDTV show, overscan will exacerbate the amount of material trimmed off. You may find that selecting mode B (Letterbox) gives acceptable results all the time.

The long range solution is to adjust the picture width (HSIZE) as well as the picture height (VSIZE).

On many TV sets the picture expands slightly when the overall content is fairly bright and shrinks slightly when the overall content is fairly dim. If you readjust the width and height you will have to compromise on the settings to account for this.

Overscan is more common with traditional tube type TV's and with rear projection TV's and is very minimal with flat panel TV's.

Add Channel Feature

When you first use your converter box, you will have it scan for stations and skip unused channels. Depending on which way your antenna is facing, the box may or may not pick up all stations in your area. It is useful for the converter to let you add additional channels to the ones it already identified as being live, without have to start the scan over again and possibly miss different stations.

VCR Timer Feature

Once you have installed your converter box, your VCR can record off of only one channel (3 or 4 or sometimes Video In). With the VCR timer feature, the box can be programmed to change channels automatically at different times so when your VCR starts recording, the desired show will be there at the VCR's input. Programming the converter box is similar to programming your VCR. The converter box and your VCR turn themselves on independently; so it doesn't matter what brand of VCR you are using. Some models of converter boxes don't turn off after a show to be taped finishes. The electricity consumed is small enough that you should not forego other features to get a box that turns itself off. One caution: Do not confuse the VCR timer with the Sleep timer. If the Sleep timer is left on also, the converter box could turn off while the VCR is still taping. Also, for non-consecutive shows, it is a good idea to program the converter box to turn on and switch to the desired channel a minute or two before the VCR comes on, and stay on for a minute or two after the VCR would stop recording.


Some converter boxes and TV sets will pick up more stations than others. Sensitivity is important since when reception of a digital channel is poor, the picture and sound cut in and out obnoxiously. TV sets with built in digital tuners are not always more sensitive than converter boxes.

Analog Pass Through Feature

This lets you watch analog broadcasts (if there are any left in your city) without disconnecting the converter box from the TV set and connecting an antenna directly.

Remote Controls

Almost all digital converter boxes have remote controls. Some of them can be adjusted to turn the TV set  (most brands) on and off and/or adjust the sound volume. Some converter boxes have their own volume control that can cause confusion. If the converter box volume is set too low, then turning up the TV set volume will not help much or may blast loudly if you change to an analog broadcast.

Channel Numbers and Names

TV stations broadcasted programs in digital using a second channel whose actual number is of course different from that in their name or logo or slogan. Meanwhile the converter box and its remote control use the named channel number rather than the actual channel number to arrange the digital stations in order. When a station stops broadcasting in analog, it may or may not keep its old channel number (that matches its named channel) for digital broadcasting. Most will not.

Digital channels are referred to by hyphenated numbers (such as 24-2 or 9.3) including when only one show is being broadcast (as named-channel dash one).

Government Sponsored Coupon Discount

Generally we are suggesting that if you are on the waiting list, then you should hold off on buying the converter box until your coupons arrive.

Converter boxes that qualify for the $40. discount all have limited features and are meant for older TV sets. These boxes will work with HDTV sets but will always deliver standard definition picture quality. The picture quality would be typical of analog broadcasts, a DVD player connected using the yellow video jacks (not the best method) or a DVD player connected using the S-video jacks, depending on how you installed the box.

Definition: "CECB" -- Coupon eligible converter box.

Why S-video?

S-video gives the best picture quality on a standard definition TV set for digital and HDTV shows while still having a simple hookup method. It is not high definition. Your TV must have an S-video jack in the rear for you to take advantage of this feature. The other simple hookup methods are composite video (the yellow video jack) and the antenna connection.

With both the S-video and yellow video jack hookups, you must have additional cables (with red and white ends) for the sound (audio).

Unfortunately very few boxes with S-video qualify for the $40. U.S. government sponsored coupon discount program. One highly recommended model is the Channel Master #7000 but it is hard to find. A common model by Apex, the #502, has been reported to not have good quality control and the chances of bringing home a defective one are high.

Connections for still better picture quality, component video and HDMI, represent an advanced topic. We have included some paragraphs on these topics on this web page.

What Cables Do I Use Or Need

For TV's with two screws for the antenna connection and no other inputs, you will probably need a "75 to 300 ohm transformer" which is a small gizmo perhaps resembling an AA battery with a coaxial cable screw on jack and with two short wires coming out with lugs on their ends. You won't need this if the converter box also has an antenna output to the TV consisting of the same two screws. Also if your antenna has just loose wires to connect to the TV, you will need a "300 to 75 ohm transformer" that perhaps looks like the end of your thumb, with two screw terminals in it and that snaps onto the antenna input jack of the converter box.

If your TV has an S-video input or component video input, it is better to connect up the digital TV converter this way. Use the yellow input or the antenna cable only if the TV has no other input.

Do not put HDTV or progressive component video into a older TV's "generic" component video jacks. The latter are for 480i standard definition video only. You may be able to restrict the converter box to outputting 480i, using a switch on the back.

Not all makes and models of converter boxes can be purchased with the $40.00 discount coupon. The discount is mainly for converter boxes intended for older standard definition TV sets.

Some digital broadcasts are also standard definition You still need the converter box for these shows. Usually you do not have to adjust the TV each time you switch from an SDTV show to an HDTV show.

Even though the digital channel has its own number, some HDTV converter boxes put the stations's analog channel number up on your screen when you switch to a digital broadcast. When you are watching a digital broadcast, the channel number is always hyphenated with a subchannel number following (for example 5-1 or 14.2) even if only one show is being broadcast on the digital channel at the time. So if you see just a whole number as your channel number, you are watching an analog broadcast. 

Simple Specialized Situations

*** My TV set has a digital tuner or ATSC tuner.

You can stop here. Whether your TV set is standard definition or high definition, you do not need to buy a converter box. You are probably already enjoying HDTV shows including the multiple subchannel offerings.

You would leave your antenna connected up the same way as before, although you may already have discovered you need a "better" antenna.

Like TV sets, some converter boxes pick up more stations than others. If you borrowed someone else's converter and found it to be more sensitive, you might go out and buy a converter of that brand and hook it up to your TV just for the better reception.

*** I subscribe to cable TV or have a satellite dish.

You can stop here. You do not need an ATSC HDTV converter box. Your cable company or satellite company may advise you if you need an upgraded or improved cable box or satellite receiver to get all of the channels you want.

If you have connected the cable directly to the TV set without a cable box, the number of stations you receive will gradually get smaller as the cable company changes over to digital operation.

You will get better results with digital broadcasts if you connect the box to the TV using an S-video cable (or component video cables) instead of a single yellow ended video cable.

*** My antenna has two wires screwed onto the back of the TV for UHF.

You will need a "300 to 75 ohm transformer" if the converter box does not have the same screw terminals to accept the antenna wires. The transformer perhaps looks like the end of your thumb; it snaps onto the antenna jack of the converter and it has two screw terminals in it . You may already have one (which may be larger with more wires on it), or one may come with the converter. Otherwise you will have to buy one. Do not choose a converter only because it has screw terminals for your antenna; other features are more important.

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*** My antenna has two wires screwed onto the back of the TV set for VHF and the TV has no inputs other than that and perhaps a UHF antenna connection that looks the same.

You may need a "75 to 300 ohm transformer" which is a small gizmo perhaps resembling an AA battery with a coaxial cable screw on jack and with two short wires coming out with lugs on their ends. .You might already have one, or one might come with the converter box. Otherwise you will have to buy one. Connect the coaxial cable from the converter box antenna output to this transformer. Attach the loose wires to your TV (VHF terminals). If the coaxial cable can be screwed directly to the TV set, you won't need this 75 to 300 ohm transformer. Do not choose a converter box only because it has screw terminals instead of a coaxial jack to connect to your TV; other features are more important.

* ** One or more of my local stations broadcasts HDTV on channel 13 or below.

Just because the station still has a number between 2 and 13 in its logo does not mean it is broadcasting HDTV on channel 13 or below.

Your hookup will be almost the same as before if your TV had a single stud connector for both UHF and VHF. You will need to connect both the VHF wires and the UHF wires to your digital converter box. and most likely will need a little gizmo for that purpose. These "VHF/UHF combiners" come in different varieties, most are about the size of a credit card although fatter. You will need to choose one with screw terminals and/or stud jacks to match your antenna, and with a coaxial cable plug that screws onto or snaps onto the antenna input jack of the converter box. Do not choose a converter box only because it has two sets of screw terminals for UHF and VHF antennas; other features are more important.

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***  My antenna is connected to my VCR or Tivo (tm).

Disconnect the antenna from the VCR or Tivo and connect it to the converter box. Connect the converter box output to the VCR or Tivo antenna input. The latter should not require more than a single coaxial cable usually used for antenna connections.

Component Video  (advanced topic)

Component video offers better picture quality than S-video and composite video. Again, your TV set has to be able to accept it.

Component video is delivered via three video jacks colored green, blue, and red and labeled Y/Pb/Pr or Y/Cb/Cr. (These last two names mean the same thing here although they mean different things to video experts.)

For a typical component video hookup of an HDTV converter box to a standard definition TV set, you would set the converter box to 480i using a switch or knob usually at its rear. (Other selections may include "variable/native", 1080i, 720p, and 480p.) In addition to the red, green, and blue component video cable set, you also need an audio cable set with red and white ends. You might get away with a red, white and yellow cable set for component video (yellow goes with green, white goes with blue) but you may get smeared color.

No boxes with component video or RGB output qualify for the $40. U.S. government sponsored discount coupon program.

More Advanced Component Video Details

Other than requiring three cables, component video looks simple but there are different formats (flavors if you insist) you need to be aware of which makes this topic complicated. The format delivered by the DVD player or HDTV converter box must match what the TV or Tivo (tm) recorder expects. Otherwise damage could occur.

For now consider the terms 480i, 720p, etc. just as names.

The normal output of a (non-high-def) DVD player is also 480i. You could actually connect the Y (green) part of 480i component video to the yellow jack of a TV and get a picture (in black and white; the Pb and Pr cables are needed to deliver color).

HDTV converter boxes and so called "progressive" or "upconverting" DVD players deliver "480p" component video with the flip of a switch. This may not be fed into a TV unless you know the TV can accept it. Sometimes the TV has two sets of component video jacks, one set for 480i and the other for 480p.

HDTV broadcasts themselves can also be delivered as component video using the formats "720p" and "1080i" and "1080p". These formats, too, can be fed only to TV's that accept them. HDTV broadcasts themselves are 720p or 1080i. Many older HDTV sets accept only 1080i so the converter box also converts 720p to 1080i.

Most TV sets that accept 480p also accept 1080i so the 480p setting from the converter box is not that important.

Do not use the "variable" or "native" output setting of the converter box unless you know the TV accepts all of the component video formats 1080i, 720p, 480p, and 480i, via the same set of jacks. The "variable" or "native" setting will never deliver 1080p; it will deliver 1080i instead if the show was 1080p.

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HDMI, DVI, Digital Video Output  (advanced topic)

A few TV sets that have HDMI or DVI (digital) inputs also need HDTV converter boxes. HDMI and DVI can be interchanged for this purpose. You will need a video cable with the appropriate ends. The HDMI plug is flat and about 3/4 inches wide. The DVI plug is flat and about 1-1/2 inches wide. You should get all of the ATSC formats 480i, 480p, 720p, and 1080i when you use this cable and connection, and not have to select the format manually for each show. Some TV sets may require additional cables with red and white ends for the sound.

TV sets with HDMI or DVI inputs will also work using component or S-video connections from the HDTV converter box.

No boxes with HDMI or DVI video output qualify for the $40. U.S. government sponsored coupon program.

Advanced Specialized Situations

***  It was easy to connect my VCR but I needed to buy an accessory (an RF modulator) to connect my DVD player.

You can connect your HDTV converter box between your antenna and your VCR in the same way you connected your VCR in the first place. You will not be able to record one program and watch a different program at the same time unless you have two converter boxes.

***.  My TV set has one or more video jacks in addition to the antenna connection.

Connecting the converter box to the TV using a video jack gives better quality than using an antenna cable. The S-video jack, if your TV has one, is better than the yellow (composite video) jack. You also need an audio cable set (with red and white ends) that is not needed when using the antenna cable for the hookup.

You can even use video and audio jacks to hook up the converter to a VCR or Tivo (tm) or similar unit. You cannot tape shows if you connect the converter directly to the TV.

***  My TV set is HDTV ready but only gets regular broadcast stations.

You will need to buy and install a digital converter box just as for a standard definition TV. You can connect it up in the same fashion as already described (S-video still preferred) but you will get yet better results if you get a converter with 1080i component video output and use component video cables to hook it up to the TV.

***  I wish to watch  one channel while recording another

If your TV set does not have a built in digital (or ATSC) tuner, you will need two converter boxes and perhaps two antennas. It is possible that one antenna will deliver a strong enough signal to feed more than one converter box.

Antenna splitters have some inefficiencies. A two way splitter delivers less than 50% of the signal strength to a TV. A four way splitter delivers less than 25% of the signal strength to a TV. This is true even if other legs are unused.

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Scan Lines and Resizing  (advanced topic)

The standard definition picture on an older TV set is made up of about 480 scan lines (out of a total of 525).

The letterbox format picture uses 360 of these scan lines with 60 lines above and 60 lines below unused on the screen and filled in with black.

The "720p" show delivers 720 scan lines. It is easy to take every other scan line to come up with the 360 scan lines needed on the screen. (Actually the box plays the every-other line game again coming up with 180 scan lines at a time and the TV wants 240 at a time but this subject is too complex and off topic for this discussion.)

But if you choose full screen (diagram A at the top of this page) you want 480 scan lines worth of picture, not just the 360 initially chosen with some of them duplicated. The converter box needs to choose 480 of the 720 scan lines to begin with.

The "1080i" show delivers 540 scan lines at a time. It is best to pick out 360 of them as evenly spaced as possible. For full screen, the box should pick and choose 480 scan lines as evenly spaced as possible. Again the box should not choose 360 scan lines first and duplicate a few to come up with 480. Also, just taking the middle 480 and discarding the first 30 and last 30 results in too much trimming of the top and bottom especially if your TV has a lot of overscan.

When you choose anamorphic (diagram C at the top of this page) the converter box also works with 480 scan lines worth of picture material, not 360. When you crank down the picture height, all 480 of these scan lines are laid down, evenly we hope, where 360 scan lines used to go. This gives you the more detailed picture compared with the 360 scan line letterbox picture.

The details described in these paragraphs require a very keen eye to spot. We hope that Consumer Reports magazine would rate the HDTV converter boxes on how well they chose scan lines to make up the picture for your older TV set.

Last updated 3/5/09

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