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Just the basics: Buying a plain digital TV

With the transition to digital television next year, some consumers might want or need a new set. But they don't have to pay top-dollar for an HDTV set; other choices are available.
Image: Samsung 20-inch standard-definition TV
Samsung's 20-inch, flat-tube standard-definition TV retails for around $250, and is among the offerings for lower-cost digital TVs.Samsung

By the end of 2007, more than 50 percent of American households owned a digital television, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

That doesn't mean that by Feb. 18, 2009, when the nation's television broadcasters switch from analog to digital formats, 100 percent of U.S. households will have made the switch to digital TVs.

They will, however, need to be able to receive digital broadcasts. The main ways to do that are by buying a converter box for analog TV sets, subscribing to a cable or satellite service or buying a digital TV.

If you choose the latter, you don't have to purchase an expensive, high-definition set in order to have digital television. HDTV is one kind of digital TV; others are enhanced-definition TV (EDTV) and standard-definition TV (SDTV).

The alphabet soup is important, to a degree. It helps to know what not to worry about if you just want a basic, digital TV, also known as DTV.

“We’re seeing a lot of consumer confusion in the marketplace,” said Joel Kelsey, policy analyst for Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports.

“We’re extremely concerned that confusion will result in consumers spending money on equipment that they shouldn’t have to, or that they don’t need.”

Checking the labels on a set is important. Since March, 2007, all TVs imported into the U.S. or shipped in interstate commerce have been required to have digital tuners. TVs with analog tuners can still be sold, but are supposed to be labeled prominently for buyers because of next year’s switch to digital.

The label starts with these words: “Consumer Alert: This television receiver has only an analog broadcast tuner and will require a converter box after Feb. 17, 2009, to receive over-the-air broadcasts with an antenna because of the Nation’s transition to digital broadcasting.”

Last week, federal regulators fined several large companies, including Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Circuit City, Sears and Target, a total of $3.9 million for not properly labeling analog TV sets.

The mental checklist
With the digital deadline less than 10 months away, analog TV sets are starting to disappear from store shelves, and “digital TVs are everywhere,” said Megan Pollock of the Consumer Electronic Association, an industry trade group.

And, figuring out which type to buy is a challenge.

TVs, she said, “are changing, much like other consumer purchases. If you went out to buy a computer, you ask yourself, ‘Do I want a laptop? A desktop? How much RAM do I want? How much memory?’ Those are things you’re going to think about before you walk in the store to shop.”

Buying a TV now involves a similar thought process: Do you want standard-definition TV or HDTV? How many connections on the TV will you need for additional devices, like DVD and video game players? LCD or plasma?

“TV now has those kinds of options,” she said. “It does make the decision process a little more robust, but that’s not a bad thing for consumers because it’s such a great marketplace right now.”

“Robust” is one word for it. “Confusion,” as Kelsey suggested, is another.

And if your comfort level about TV shopping is the same as for car shopping, it can be intimidating.

Here are some points to consider if you’re shopping for a basic digital TV:

Expect to spend around $250 for a 20- to 27-inch standard-definition TV, which displays 480 interlaced scanned lines in widescreen or letterbox (traditional TV) format. Enhanced-definition TVs have at least 480p (progressively scanned) quality; high-definition TVs have at least 720p.

Make sure the set has an ATSC tuner, which is a digital tuner, vs. an NTSC, or analog, tuner. Some sets come with both, and that’s fine, but the ATSC tuner is the most important.

“If it’s an HD set, make sure it’s actually an HD set with an ATSC tuner,” said Kelsey. “There’s not many HD sets out there anymore that are analog, but there were 15 or so models that came on the market three or four years ago. For the most part, you can’t really find them anymore. It’s very rare to come across it.”

Digital tuner labels or words to look for include “Integrated Digital Tuner,” “Digital Tuner Built-In,” “Digital Receiver” and “Digital Tuner,” according to the Federal Communications Commission.

The words “digital monitor,” “HDTV monitor” “digital ready” and “HDTV ready” do not mean the set has a digital tuner, although it may.

Consider buying a TV with a cable card, even if you don’t now subscribe to cable or satellite TV, so that you have the option to add cable or satellite later, said Kelsey.

If you have cable or satellite service, it’s a good idea to check with your provider to see what, if anything, needs to be done in your household, said Rob Stoddard, of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, an industry group.

“If your TV set today is hooked up to cable, your operator will manage that digital TV transition for you,” he said. “In essence, you won’t have to take any action.”

Satellite customers, he said, “by nature of that technology, are digital customers. The satellite technology delivers the signal to a digital cable box, which is then hooked into a TV set.”

If you are drawn to HDTV, in order to watch television in high-def, you’ll also need to have a high-definition receiver, either built into the set or provided by a cable or satellite provider, and receive high-def programming from that provider, usually at an additional cost.

“Just because you turn on the TV and it says ESPN HD doesn’t mean you’re watching ESPN in HD,” said Pollock.

If you have an analog set, and don’t want to buy a new set, “the cheapest alternative” remains a converter box, which changes digital signals to analog, said Kelsey.

The federal government, through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, is issuing two $40 coupons per household to be used for the purchase of the converter boxes, which can cost up to $70 each.

So far, nearly 11 million coupons have been requested, with more than 500,000 of them redeemed, said Todd Sedmak, NTIA communications director. Consumers have until March 31, 2009 to request the coupons.

Once consumers receive the coupons, they have 90 days to use them. Consumers Union has asked the NTIA and Congress to give consumers longer than 90 days.

Kelsey said some $40 converter boxes are due on the market this summer, meaning the cost of the box could essentially be free for consumers who have not yet redeemed their coupons.

“The 90-day expiration remains unless Congress changes the law,” Sedmak said.