Are you tired of paying for cable or satellite TV?
Would you like to get digital quality TV and most of your cable channels for free?
If you answered yes to these questions, June 12, 2009 is your lucky day. June 12 is the deadline for broadcast TV stations to switch from an analog to a digital signal. This switch from analog to digital broadcast television is referred to as the digital TV (DTV) transition. As of June 13, 2009, full power television stations will only broadcast digital, over-the-air signals. Many local broadcasters (42% to be exact) have already made the transition.
For those cable and satellite customers that would like to stop paying the TV each month, this article will walk through each step of the process. Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Cable versus free digital TV picture quality
- Digital TV converter box (do you need one and where to get it)
- Reception quality
- Access to cable TV shows
- Alternatives to the digital video recorder (DVR) provided by cable companies
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Cable versus free digital TV picture quality
Free digital TV picture quality is as good or better than cable and satellite. One of the reasons is that over-the-air digital TV is less compressed than cable, which often results in better picture quality. Keep in mind that there are three types of digital TV:
- Standard Definition TV (SDTV) – SDTV is the basic level of quality display and resolution for both analog and digital. Transmission of SDTV may be in either the traditional (4:3) or widescreen (16:9) format.
- Enhanced Definition TV (EDTV) – EDTV is a step up from Analog Television. EDTV comes in 480p widescreen (16:9) or traditional (4:3) format and provides better picture quality than SDTV, but not as high as HDTV. Enhanced Defintion Television
- High Definition TV (HDTV) – HDTV in widescreen format (16:9) provides the highest resolution and picture quality of all digital broadcast formats. Combined with digitally enhanced sound technology, HDTV sets new standards for sound and picture quality in television. (Note: HDTV and digital TV are not the same thing — HDTV is one format of digital TV.)
Free digital TV can transmit each of these types of digital TV.
To find out which TV stations have converted to digital TV in your area, you can use this lookup tool from dtv.gov.
Digital TV Converter Box
Whether you need a digital TV converter box depends on the kind of TV you own. Fortunately, converter boxes are inexpensive, and you can get a $40 coupon.
As of March 1, 2007, federal law required all TVs to have a digital tuner. If you bought your new television after March 1, 2007, you won’t need a converter box. For those TVs purchased earlier than March 1, 2007, markings on the TV or in the manuals should indicate whether it has a digital tuner. These labels may contain the words “Integrated Digital Tuner” or “Digital Tuner Built-In.” Keep in mind that “Receiver” may be substituted for “Tuner,” and “DTV,” “ATSC,” or “HDTV” may be substituted for “Digital.”
Also keep in mind that digital TV and HDTV are not the same. You may have a digital tuner but not have an HDTV. If you want to watch HDTV, you will need a high definition television, and that’s true whether you have cable, satellite, or free digital TV.
If your TV does not have a digital tuner, you need to do two things. First, you need to get the government sponsored $40 coupons for the digital converter box. Each family can receive two coupons, and they can be obtained through the TV Converter Box Coupon Program. Coupons are generally mailed a few days after a request is submitted via the Internet.
Second, once you have the coupons, you need to buy a converter box. You can find a wide selection at just about any electronics store. You’ll also find a wide selection of converter boxes at Amazon for reasonable prices.
Reception with Digital TV
Reception will vary depending on your location and antenna. In urban areas, a set-top antennae will likely be sufficient. There are tools to determine the reception quality in your area. The place to start is AntennaWeb.org. This website will tell you which TV stations have switched to digital TV, what the signal strength is, and the type of antenna needed to get a clear reception.
Keep in mind, however, that antenna web focuses on outdoor antennas. With set-top models, it may be best to simply buy one and try it out. Reasonably priced models can be found at electronic stores, and they are easy to use.
Getting Free Cable Channels
There are now several ways to get cable channels without cable. These options are via the Internet, so you’ll need to connect your computer to your TV or get a special device (like TiVo). But if there are cable shows you can’t live without, check out these resources to see if they are available without cable:
NetFlix: This is my first choice, and what we are going to use as soon as I get our antenna set up. With the NetFlix unlimited plan ($8.99/month), you also get over 12,000 movies and TV shows (including current season episodes) to watch instantly on TV. You can connect your computer to your TV to stream these shows.
There are several really good features with NetFlix.
- Instant TV + DVD rentals: With instant movies and TV from Netflix’s unlimited plan, you can still check out up to three DVDs at a time throughout the month. So you get the best of both worlds, and the instant TV/movie feature doesn’t cost anything extra.
- Set-top device options: If you don’t want to connect a computer to your TV, there are several alternative devices (NetFlix calls them Instant Devices) that can stream the TV/movies. These Instant Devices include the following:
TiVo HD DVR: With TiVo, not only can you stream NetFlix, but you can also record TV shows for playback later. If you chose this option, make sure you get the HD DVR version (retails at $299, but is currently $30 off from Amazon), which is required for digital TV.
Hulu.com: Through Hulu you can watch hundreds of shows and moves for free. Shows include:
- The Daily Show
- The Colbert Report
- The Office
- 30 Rock
- The Simpsons
There are other options as well, such as iTunes or Amazon Video.
TiVo or DVR without Cable
We currently rent a DVR from our cable company and pay a monthly fee. Total monthly cost is $20. Without cable, there are two good options–TiVo and MythTV. We have chosen TiVo for several reasons, but MythTV is an interesting option, particularly if you like to build things.
TiVo: The TiVo box comes in three different models: TiVo Series2™ DT DVR, TiVo HD DVR, and TiVo HD XL DVR. For those that want high definition TV or to record over-the-air transmissions (which we do), the TiVo Series2™ DT DVR is not an option. We are going with the TiVo HD DVR because it offers everything we need at a reasonable price:
- Save up to 20 hours of HD programming (or 180 hours of standard definition) at one time
- Record two shows at once
- Works with cable and antenna; does NOT support satellite
- Use CableCARD decoders from your cable company to replace your cable box
- Supports high definition TV
The TiVo box costs $299, but is currently $30 off from Amazon. The XL model can record up to 150 hours of high definition TV. But with a price tag of $599, it’s just not worth the money for us.
You also have to pay for a service plan with TiVo. The lifetime plan is $399, which is likely the option we’ll pick. You can also get a 3-year plan for $299, and they offer yearly and monthly plans as well. At these costs, it will take us a little over two years to recoup our money. But add in the savings from not paying for cable, and the time period shortens considerably.
MythTV: MythTV is open source software that allows you to build your own digital video recorder. This is not for the faint of heart, but if you’re comfortable with source code and tackling big projects, it can be a money-saver.
If you’ve made the switch from cable to free digital TV, please share your experience and any tips or tricks you learned.
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Published or updated March 15, 2013.