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Say Goodbye to Cable and Hello to Free Digital TV!

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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:

  1. Cable versus free digital TV picture quality
  2. Digital TV converter box (do you need one and where to get it)
  3. Reception quality
  4. Access to cable TV shows
  5. Alternatives to the digital video recorder (DVR) provided by cable companies

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 Definition 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.

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 buy a converter box. You can find a wide selection at just about any electronics store. Here are a few you can buy online:

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:

Amazon Prime: This is my first choice, and what we are going to use as soon as I get our antenna set up. With the Amazon Prime, you not only can stream TV shows and movies, but you also get streaming music and free shipping on products ordered from Amazon.

Netflix is also a solid streaming choice. It offers the following:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:
  3. 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, which is required for digital TV.
  4. Xbox: If you have a gamer in the house, the Xbox can also steam Neflix video.
  5. Roku: The Roku digital video player is designed specifically to stream NetFlix video. The box costs $99.
  6. Blu-Ray Players: Both LG and Samsung blue-ray players can stream NetFlix video. According to NetFlix, look for LG models LG BD370 or LG BD390 and Samsung models BD-P1600, BD-2500, BD-P3600, BD-P4600.
  7. 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, which is required for digital TV.
  8. Xbox: If you have a gamer in the house, the Xbox can also steam Neflix video.
  9. Roku: The Roku digital video player is designed specifically to stream NetFlix video. The box costs $99.
  10. Blu-Ray Players: Both LG and Samsung blue-ray players can stream NetFlix video. According to NetFlix, look for LG models LG BD370 or LG BD390 and Samsung models BD-P1600, BD-2500, BD-P3600, BD-P4600.

Hulu.com: Through Hulu you can watch hundreds of shows and moves for free. Shows include:

  • The Daily Show
  • The Colbert Report
  • The Office
  • House
  • 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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