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Bright and Clear Digitally -- Over the Air

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, January 15, 2006

The future of TV looks impossibly sharp on RCA's 27F634T -- except when it comes up as a blank blue screen with a "signal unavailable" message.

This unremarkable-looking cathode-ray-tube set is the cheapest digital television yet sold. That makes it a fulfillment of the part of digital TV that most people don't know about: not high-definition TV, but free, over-the-air broadcasts with far better reception than analog (except when they conk out) and multiple channels for each station.

There will have to be many more sets like this if Congress sticks to its plan to require analog TV broadcasts to end in February of 2009 (over two years later than the original target of Dec. 31, 2006). The 2009 date is in the budget bill now nearing passage in both houses, which banks on the money the government will make by auctioning off spectrum used by analog channels today.

At that time, everybody who watches over-the-air TV will need either a converter box to pull in digital signals -- the budget bill calls for limited subsidies for households that can't afford one -- or a set with a built-in digital tuner like the RCA model. (Digital tuners are often called ATSC tuners, after the Advanced Television Systems Committee that came up with the digital-TV standard.) Sets that are connected only to cable or satellite boxes, VCRs, video-game consoles or other non-broadcast video sources, however, won't be affected by the analog shutoff.

The RCA set is ready for that deadline, and at a list price no steeper than that of many less-capable analog sets: $359.

That doesn't buy you a flat-panel screen, a wide screen or even a particularly large one; the 27F634T's display spans just 27 inches. It's big and heavy, about 130 pounds in its box, and it suffers the strange quirk of taking a good 10 seconds to turn on. The first review unit loaned by RCA even showed up dead on arrival. But the tuner inside this humble set -- with some trial and error -- can provide TV service far better than what you'd think possible from any free, over-the-air signal.

Instead of fuzzy, scratchy, noisy analog reception, digital channels with strong enough signals come in perfectly. Not good, but perfect -- clearer than any compressed version of an analog signal packaged and retransmitted over cable or satellite. And most local stations broadcast multiple digital channels: ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates provide their own weather feeds, while PBS affiliate WETA offers three additional digital channels.

The RCA set and any other "standard-definition" model show these broadcasts at a resolution no better than a DVD's, but any high-definition set would display the full HD picture from the same signal.

If, however, the digital broadcast wavers or the antenna isn't positioned right, digital can look awful. Blotchy patches can bloom across the picture and the audio will cut in and out--like watching Internet video, except the screen doesn't show a "buffering . . ." message when the signal falls short. At worst, the TV will give up entirely, presenting a blank screen with that "signal unavailable" message.

To avoid that requires a return to the lost art of antenna positioning. Initial attempts with the RCA set only pulled in a subset of the available signals at my home in Arlington, four to five miles from the TV transmitters in Northwest Washington. By turning a basic set-top antenna supplied by RCA one way, I could get NBC, Fox, ABC and WETA but not CBS; when I turned the antenna another way, Fox, ABC, CBS and Maryland Public Television came through, but not NBC and WETA.

This is more frustrating with digital than analog, precisely because digital broadcasts look so fantastic with a locked-in signal; analog looks so bad that nobody cares that much if some stations look even worse. We're further spoiled by the generally boring reliability of cable and satellite.

But with further experimentation, I was able to pull in all those local stations, and only ABC came in shakily. I didn't even need the new RCA antenna for that: I used a plain old antenna I bought for $20 eight years ago. (Although many antennas are sold as "HDTV" models, there is no such thing as an HDTV antenna; any model that receives UHF broadcasts can do.)

I repeated these reception tests with the digital tuner built into a Dish Network satellite-TV receiver and got even better results with the cheap, old antenna. One of our freelance writers, who lives almost 20 miles from D.C. transmitter towers, has to use a rooftop antenna but reports the same success.

Results like that show the promise of digital TV: With a good tuner and a little time to position the antenna, you don't need to pay by the month to watch TV -- spending the equivalent of a new TV in cable or satellite charges every year. In the bargain, you get a bonus set of digital channels that a cable or satellite operator probably won't offer at any price. And you only need one remote control to pull this off.

So why do many electronics manufacturers continue to treat digital tuners as some kind of expensive luxury? That's an excellent question. Although screens larger than 36 inches should now include this hardware, per a Federal Communications Commission requirement, many smaller sets omit it--I haven't found any sets smaller than 26 inches with digital tuners.

And it's not as if vendors are simply selling those screens as pure monitors. They do include tuners, only they're the analog kind that will turn into pumpkins in three years -- a tiny fraction of the life span of most TV sets.

You don't have to buy those sets. The alternative isn't shelling out a thousand bucks or more on a new LCD or plasma screen. This RCA model shows that a set with a built-in digital tuner doesn't have to cost more than an analog television with a built-in expiration date. If only there were more like it.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrob@twp.com.

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