The last several years, I have had little to no interest in OTA reception (except by necessity, such as during power outages). Nevertheless, I was very curious to see what could be done with DTV on a minimal budget in a situation with more minuses than pluses. (A summary that could well describe many of the folks who will be dealing with the transition.) Having a small 13 analog set by my bed (used primarily for viewing DVDs), I figured if I could also access the area DTV signals, that could give me something else to help pass the time during my frequent spells of insomnia.
The TV is a several years old Durabrand that was originally purchased for about $60 on sale. The DTV converter is a Digital Stream DTX9900, purchased with a $40 coupon at Radio Shack, so total outlay there about 24 bucks with tax. (I wanted the Zenith, but the local RS stores haven't gotten them yet. I figured to take a chance on the DTX9900, and planned to just exchange it if there were problems.) And the antenna is a $10 Philips passive UHF/VHF combo with a 12-position fine tuning knob. Yup - we are really talking on the cheap here.
The main advantage to my location (suburban Orlando, Florida) is that I am less than 20 miles from the vast majority of the local DTV transmitters, and most of them also lie in the same direction. There is also, however, a major disadvantage. I am in a 55+ mobile home community (I live here as caretaker for my elderly mother) that borders another mobile home community. So, we are talking a sea of metal as far as the eye can see.
The antenna was set up in my bedroom window, which faces just about due north. Most of the area transmitters are on about a 60 degree heading, so they are at least within view of the window.
First, about the DTX9900. In general, it seems to perform well, and is fairly easy to setup and use..IF you are of average to moderate intelligence. I can see how some aspects might be confusing to, say, an elderly person, or perhaps a person with little education. The remote gives one-button access to such features as the EPG, CC, signal meter, etc. The signal meter is a horizontal bar graph showing a scale of 0 to 100, divided into three areas of red (poor signal), yellow (acceptable), and green (best). In most cases, I find a reading of at least 40-45 (solidly in the yellow) is needed to produce a stable signal. Below about 40 you start to see some pixelization, and when you get down to about 30 or less, you're totally SOL. The meter is a bit slow, lagging a few seconds behind what you see happening on the screen.
I set up the unit, and let it do a scan for signals. The results were almost exactly what I had predicted based on research (TV Fool and other sites) and having previously observed the strength and stability of the DTV snow displayed on the analog set. You can then edit the list of found channels through the menu. You then subsequently may do a new rescan, wiping out these saved channels, or an update that will only scan the previously unlogged channels to look for new signals (leaving what you have already saved intact). It does NOT, however, let you manually enter an RF channel as do several of the other brands of converters - this is one of the only features lacking on this box that I would have liked to have had. (The DXing crowd won't like this box as a result)
The result is 12 stations (transmitting a total of about 30 sub-channels) that are stable enough to watch on a regular basis, covering almost all the commercial networks (ABC/CBS/NBC/Fox/CW/MyTV), an independent, three PBS stations (more on that later) and a few religious channels (of no special interest to me). 2 or 3 of these have some occasional light breakups, but can be remedied with the fine tuning knob on the El Cheapo antenna. (Fortunately, it seems to have a sweet spot of 3 adjacent positions that handle all the stations I want to view.) The only area stations that are unusable are the ones I predicted - the ION affiliate (fortunately, I can live without seeing the umpteenth rerun of Mama's Family) and the Telefutura affiliate can't be found at all, no doubt because they lie in a more southeasterly direction (i.e., right through the mobile home) and are a bit more distant. The Univision affiliate lies almost due north, but is a bit further than the others and not terribly high power. (The signal is found by the unit, but just can't be stabilized enough to watch.) If they increase power come 2/19/08, I may be in luck; else I will just have to rely on cable if I want to practice my Spanish skills watching the telenovelas.
Several stations come out WAY ahead in the analog vs. digital race, chiefly because of better transmitter sites for their DTV facilities. One example is WESH, the NBC affiliate licensed to Daytona Beach. Because of the restrictions that place their analog site about 30 miles distant (to be closer to Daytona and also protect WPBT in Miami), as well as the usual combo of ambient electrical noise and summer skip that plagues the lowest channel, WESH has traditionally been a wash for those using bunny ears in Orlando. The digital transmitter, on ch. 11 (the only VHF DTV around here) and located closer on one of the same antenna farms as most area stations, puts a good solid signal in here. Likewise, two fringe PBS stations - WCEU (licensed to New Smyrna Beach) and WBCC (licensed to Cocoa) -- while both available on cable, have almost no presence here on indoor antennas. Their digital facilities, like WESH relocated to the local farms, provide excellent signals.
Picture quality is excellent - certainly far better than even the strongest and most stable analog signal. HD programs look great, even downconverted to 480i. Aspect ratios can be changed on the fly with a dedicated button on the remote. (I prefer full 16:9 where available - I don't mind the borders, and I prefer seeing the entire image.) Haven't really played much with the CC option yet, so I can't comment on that. The EPG is minimal, but somewhat useful; that is, when the station uses it. (WMFE, the local PBS, doesn't have it programmed yet. Neither does a certain favorite subchannel that will be mentioned later.)
Yes, even a small, simple antenna stuck even 10-15' up outside would probably clear up what few minor reception issues there are. But I don't have the money (we are quite economically challenged) nor the physical aptitude (bad feet, bad knee, etc. -- ladders and I don't get along) to bother messing with it right now. This setup is not bad considering the low expense and effort involved. Overall, my experience has been just about what I expected.
Oh, and one subchannel will be getting a lot of viewing from me. WRDQ (the local indie) recently put RTN (Retro Television Network) on a subchannel. High quality prints of classic 60's and 70's shows - comedies, dramas, all the QM detective shows, etc. It's kind of like what TVLand used
to be. Being a middle-aged dude who just turned 50, these shows are very comforting nostalgia to watch as I plunge headlong into my old age.