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Converter Boxes, and More

February 10, 2008

It's one week before the one-year count-down begins, and information about the release of converter-box coupons is still not settled.

Coupons will start flowing either February 17 or "late" February, depending on which government voice you believe.

The NTIA just posted this notice on the web site:

Important Information about Coupon Distribution

TV Converter Box Coupons are plastic cards that look like gift cards. They will be:

  • mailed to households with approved applications, starting in late February.
  • sent based on the date of application, in the order in which the applications were received.
  • mailed on a staggered basis -- not all at once.
  • delivered by the U.S. Postal Service.

Coupons cannot be printed or downloaded from the Program Website and are not available to pick up at retail locations.

Remember to call ahead to confirm availability of coupon-eligible converter boxes at the store on the day you plan to shop.

So, late February now?

Maybe, but on Thursday Best Buy hosted a press event at one of its Washington, DC area stores that promised earlier coupon distribution. Dept. of Commerce Secretary Gutierrez (NTIA is part of that department) spoke, as did FCC Chairman Martin. Honchos from the various TV industry associations were also there.

Best Buy's Michael Vitelli said they would have converter boxes in their stores on February 17th, when the first coupons should be arriving at homes across the country. Since that's one week from now, we shouldn't have long to wait to find out.

On February 6 Members of Congress and their staffs got another apparently much needed tutorial about the DTV transition in the form of a massive demonstration of converter boxes.

Click here for the event's publicity page; there's even a video segment featuring LG Electronics big whig John Taylor explaining converter box connections and features.

Anticipating the arrival of my two coupons, I'm trying to decide which boxes to buy (assuming the ones I choose will be available). With a mostly common feature set and minimum performance standards mandated by the government, does one buy on price criteria? Maybe not.

I'm in a fringe reception area, with a indoor antenna, so having a superior receiver is important. If you only get a weak signal, or if you're closer to the TV tower but in an area with high multi-path interference (e.g. in a urban setting with high buildings reflecting signals), you'll want a converter box that performs better than required.

LG/Zenith was a pioneer in the development of the digital TV standard; their fifth generation receiver chip was a breakthrough in receiver performance a couple of years back -- it takes multipath signals and brings them in phase with the primary signal, using that potential interference to strengthen the signal. LG's 6th generation receiver is supposed to do better, and is presumed to be in the Zenith DTT900 converter box. (LG owns Zenith)

As it turns out, Best Buy's Insignia store brand box is made by LG, and is cosmetically identical to the Zenith box. I'm assuming the internals are also identical. Insignia NS-DXA1 - cheaper than Zenith, same box.

Zenith has another converter box - the LSX300-4DM - that's not on the NTIA eligible box list (but meets EPA's Energy Star requirements). I haven't been able to determine how it's different, and no response yet from the Zenith people. It may be a fancy version with higher-end features not allowed for coupon-eligible boxes.

The RCA DTA 800 has also gotten a lot of attention, but it comes in two varieties: the 800A and the 800B. The 800A apparently uses the Zoran Supra HD640 chip with a separate Cascade 220 decoder, which is an older design. (Some other boxes use the latest Zoran Supra HD741 with an internal ATSC decoder. One presumes that newer designs perform better, but I have no first-hand knowledge of these chips' actual reception capabilities.)

The RCA DTA 800B has a smart antenna interface (which does not interest me because I have a large 8-bay bowtie antenna and my local channels all come from the same direction), but the 800B uses the newer Broadcom BCM3543 receiver chip with internal decoder, rumored to perform better.

Samsung's newest digital receiver chip is supposed to be in all Samsung TVs and presumably converter boxes shipping from this past fall onward. It's reputed to be one of the best receivers, but the Samsung converter box that has been demonstrated at many government functions has still not shown up on the NTIA's approved list. No word on why, but it was to have been one of my choices.

The AVS forum has a thread on converter box comparisons, if that interests you.

The EPA on February 4 published a new more stringent version 3.0 Energy Star specification for TVs that will go into effect on November 1, 2008. It's a voluntary standard that permits manufacturers to put the Energy Star label on their products if they comply. Expect only about 25 to 30 percent of TVs to make the grade.

The EPA rejected some industry calls to differentiate between different TV technologies (e.g plasma versus LCD), but the standard varies by screen size and for standard definition versus high definition sets.

There is a good TV info page on the Energy Star web site.

How does this standard compare with TVs today?

I looked at three Sharp LCDs (D64 series) and a couple of Panasonic Full HD plasma sets.

For the LCDs, these are the actual power used figures (in watts), followed by the maximum watts allowed by the new Energy Star standard in parentheses: 42" - 215 watts (208 watts), 46" - 256 watts (244 watts), 52" - 290 watts (331 watts). The 52" set would make the standard, while the two smaller sets not quite.

The 42" Panasonic TH-42P2700U uses 580 watts (208 allowed). The 50" TH-50PZ750U uses 705 watts but is allowed only 318 Energy Star watts.

No surprise that you're not going to be buying Energy Star plasmas anytime soon.

A more stringent "Tier 2" Energy Star specification for TVs is planned to go into effect September 1, 2010. Details for this future standard have yet to be determined, but LCD flat-panel TVs with more efficient LED backlights should be on the market by then.

There is also a current specification for digital-to-analog converter boxes.

Energy Star requirements for converter boxes are no more than 8 watts consumed in the On Mode, and less than 1 watt used in Sleep Mode, with automatic power-down after 4 hours or less of inactivity.

As of January 4, converter boxes from Digital Stream Tecnology, Falcon Digital/Sansonic, LG Electronics/Zenith (including Insignia), Philips/Magnavox, and Thomson/RCA qualified as Energy Star products.

Consumer high-definition camcorders continue to improve. Among them are new models from several manufacturers capable of full 1920 x 1080 resolution.

As an example, Canon has six HD models, recording on tape, hard drive, and flash cards. The VIXIA HF10 uses flash memory and the efficient MPEG-4 AVC (H.264) video codec. It has a 3.3 Megapixel CMOS Sensor, and can output a progressive signal at either 24 or 30 frames per second. It's capable of data rates as high as 17 mbps. Lots of other cool features; sells for about $1100.

Market share numbers are in for LCD and plasma flat-panels (top four):

LCD (Q4 2007 vs. 2006) ---

  1. Sony - 12.8% (up from 9.7%)
  2. Samsung - 12.3% (up from 10.7%)
  3. Vizio - 10.7% (down from 10.9%)
  4. Sharp - 8.4% (down from 11.3%)

All of these LCD manufacturers sold a LOT more sets in 2007 than they did in 2006.

Plasma (Q4 2007)

  1. Panasonic - 38.5%
  2. Samsung - 20.4%
  3. LG - 13.7%
  4. Hitachi - 8.7%

Pioneer may be the plasma technology leader, but they don't sell many of their pricey sets.

The administration has submitted its biggest-ever budget for fiscal year 2009. The FCC is set to get $20 million for DTV education efforts. Compare that to the $2.5 million they have for this fiscal year -- a full twelve months. It's a little odd since FY 2009 starts October 1, 2008, which means the FCC will have only 4 months or so to spend the $20 million before the end of the transition on February 17, 2009.

Chairman Martin says not a problem.

Congress will still have to give its okay dokey.

Until next week. We have those two Congressional hearings on the status of the DTV transition Wednesday and Thursday -- should be good.