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Say goodbye to cable and hello to free digital TV

You can supplement your TV diet with rentals and downloads.

By Karen Datko Sep 28, 2009 2:46AM
This post comes from partner blog The Dough Roller.

Are you tired of paying for cable or satellite TV?

Would you like to get digital-quality TV and many of your favorite cable shows for free?

If you answered yes to these questions, today is your lucky day. Today 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 or DTV transition. Starting Saturday, June 13, full-power television stations will broadcast only digital over-the-air signals. Many local broadcasters have already made the transition.

For those cable and satellite customers who would like to stop paying for TV each month, this article will walk through each step of the process. Here's what we'll cover:
  • Cable vs. 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 provided by cable companies.

Cable vs. free digital TV picture quality. Free digital TV picture quality is as good as 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 wide-screen (16:9) format.
  • Enhanced-definition TV (EDTV). EDTV is a step up from analog television. EDTV comes in 480p wide-screen (16:9) or traditional (4:3) format and provides better picture quality than SDTV, but not as high as HDTV.
  • High-definition TV (HDTV). HDTV in wide-screen 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 manual 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 coupon 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 coupon, you need to buy a converter box. You can find a wide selection at just about any electronics retailer.


Reception with digital TV. Reception will vary depending on your location and antenna. In urban areas, a set-top antenna will likely be sufficient. There are tools to determine the reception quality in your area. The place to start is AntennaWeb.org. This Web site will tell you which TV stations have switched to digital TV, what the signal strength is, and the type of antenna needed to get clear reception.


Keep in mind, however, that the Web site 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 electronics 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). 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 a month), you also get more than 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 and 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, which is required for digital TV.
    • Xbox. If you have a gamer in the house, the Xbox can also steam Netflix video.
    • Roku. The Roku digital video player is designed specifically to stream Netflix video. The box costs $99.
    • Blu-ray players. Both LG and Samsung Blu-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 or BD-P4600.

Hulu.com. Through Hulu you can watch hundreds of shows and movies 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. The 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 who want high-definition TV or want 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:

  • Saves up to 20 hours of HD programming (or 180 hours of standard definition) at one time.
  • Records two shows at once.
  • Supports high-definition TV.

The TiVo box costs about $299. 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 three-year plan for $299, and they offer yearly and monthly plans as well. At these costs, it will take us less than three 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 fainthearted, 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.


Related reading at The Dough Roller:


Published June 12, 2009

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