Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Review: Tivax Digital TV Converter Box

Because I don't watch any TV, I never bothered with a cable subscription. A few years ago, Lisa indicated she wanted to watch PBS or NPR once in a while, so we bought an indoor amplified antenna (a pair of rabbit ears), and the signal was so bad that we immediately gave up and returned the antenna.

Thanks to the stimulus package, we applied for and received $40 coupons to buy a digital TV converter box, due to the impending switch-over to digital TV. Since the converter box would have been useless without an antenna, we also bought a matching amplified antenna. According to the Amazon reviews, this was a consumer's report choice, so I bought it. The total cost after coupons: $25.

The box is surprisingly small, about the size of an external 3.5" HDD. It comes with an IR remote, which inexplicably wouldn't teach my 4 year old Sony Universal Remote. It takes as input the RF cable from the antenna, and you have a choice of outputting to an RF cable to feed into the TV, or composite + audio cables on the TV. Since those slots were taken by a Wii, we opted for the RF cable. There's a selector that lets you choose between Channel 3 and Channel 4.

The device powers up slowly, but once it comes up is fairly easy to use. The responsiveness is slow --- it takes about a second between button pushes for each change to happen. The first thing to do was to take about 10 minutes to scan for digital TV signals. I was surprised at the number of digital TV channels it found! Then we started to see pictures. This was quite interesting because we had never seen TV so clear before! (Remember, we're on an ancient Sony analog TV!)

Then there was a few minutes of frustration as I tried to deal with a black box that filled the bottom 1/3rd of the screen. It turned out that we had close-captioning on, but set to an incompatible setting. A quick adjustment on the TV's menu fixed that. We took a look at the various channels, and checked the signal strength --- it was apparent that our input signal was mediocre at best, with only one of about 12 channels showing a strong signal. With the amplification on the indoor antenna turned down, we would get stuttering or a frozen picture, so the amplification was clearly necessary. But when watching TV, we saw no sign whatsoever that our signal was so attenuated --- clearly this digital stuff works!

I probably still won't watch much TV, but with $25 for a one time charge for the KQED, I guess this is not a bad deal, especially since we're unlikely to upgrade any time soon. This is literally the first time in 9 years we've had a working TV set in the house, so if you're like me, go apply for that coupon already!
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