The picture above is of digital captions using the worst-looking font from a coupon-eligible digital-to-analog converter box. Imagine if you were to spend your $40 coupon on a coupon-eligible converter box (CECB) where all the caption choices looked as hard to read as those captions do. It could happen.
The purpose of this thread is to provide a central place for evaluations of how well closed captioning issues have been addressed in the different coupon-eligible converter boxes (CECBs). While all CECBs are required to relay CEA-608 caption data to analog TVs, only some of them offer the option of decoding CEA-708 caption data, which provides the user the ability to adjust the captioning to one's own preferences.
The main focus of this thread is on evaluating CECBs that decode CEA-708 captions to provide advanced captioning features. However, if CECBs that don't decode CEA-708 captions have any problems relaying the CEA-608 captions used by analog TVs, that's important information as well.
Collecting such evaluations is highly desirable as there have been many problems reported with captioning for some set-top boxes used for pay TV services, and it is important to evaluate how well captioning is implemented before people who rely on captioning use $40 coupons on converter boxes with poorly designed captioning features. (Once the $40 coupon is used, the customer may not be able to get the value of the coupon back, and there may be no other good converter boxes suitable for the customer at the retailer.)
Advantages of Advanced Closed Captioning
Well-implemented advanced closed captioning can significantly improve the lives of consumers who currently have problems with their existing televisions or other equipment:
CECBs with Digital (Advanced) Closed Captioning
- Many older TVs had very poorly designed analog caption fonts that are difficult to read and which require being seated close to the TV.
- People with impaired vision may not be able to read the analog captions on their current TVs at all but could find that some digital caption fonts can be clear and large enough for them to read easily.
- Being able to choose a translucent or transparent background for captions can allow sports fans and their friends to watch televised games without having to miss information that would otherwise be obscured by the solid background of analog captions.
- Using colored captions or background can help people identify more quickly where the captions are, especially when the captions are showing up in unpredictable places on a screen with competing text.
- Large captions can allow people to view television from longer distances than they could before.
- CECBs that provide digital captions can also provide captions for analog TVs that do not have built-in captions, such as small ones less than 13 inches or very old TVs, or even monitors that have composite video inputs.
- CECBs with digital captions may even be able to do a better job of receiving captions over digital channels than some HDTVs do; I have found this to be the case for my own Sharp HDTV.
- If desired, CECBs with digital captions can produce open-captioned video signals that can then be recorded on TiVos, DVDs or other electronic media, and potentially be converted to a form that can be viewed on computers, portable video players, etc. For example, the TiVo Desktop software which transfers TiVo recordings to the user's computer has not provided decoding of captioned programs, but open-captioned recordings could provide access to such recordings for the first time to many deaf and hard of hearing TiVo users.
Which coupon-eligible converter boxes (CECBs) are supposedly offering advanced closed captioning? This information is still being collected as information becomes available. (Manufacturers often aren't specifying whether they provided advanced closed captioning, CEA-708 or DTVCCs; simply saying they provide closed captioning isn't adequate information as all CECBs are required to pass through the "analog" caption data that should be in the televised signal.) The following are two source of information that are still being updated, and which also list additional features of interest:
(Updated May 27, 2008)
(The posting above contains a zipped Excel file.)
Here's my own current and not necessarily complete list of CECBs with advanced closed captioning (and some other features): Apex DT250 Link is to negative review on separate thread.
Artec T3APro Caption button does not work with digital captions decoded by box
CASTi CAX-01 (CC button on remote)
Channel Master CM-7000 (S-video, 24-hr EPG) First review of captioning
DigitalSTREAM D2A1D10 (S-video)
DigitalSTREAM D2A1D20 (S-video)
DigitalSTREAM DTX9900 (8-hour EPG) First review
GE 22730 (Eight-day EPG)
Goodmind DTA1000 (Eight-day EPG, Smart antenna interface)
Insignia NS-DXA1 CC button on remote First review of captioning
MicroProse MPI-500 (Can pass through analog channels, has buttons on box for menu, channels, etc.)
Philco TB100HH9 (Can pass through analog channels, no CC button on remote) First Review of Captioning (incomplete)
Philco TB150HH9 (Can pass through analog channels, Smart Antenna interface)
RCA DTA800B (Smart Antenna interface) First review of captioning CC button, no caption preview, no SAP button
TATUNG TDB3000 (Smart Antenna interface)
Tivax STB-T9 (Smart Antenna interface)
Zenith DTT900 Same as Insignia NS-DXA1 above
Zentech DF2000 (7 day EPG, CC button, analog pass-through?)
The links for the different CECBs are generally to documents or postings that show that the CECB has digital (CEA-708) closed captioning decoding.
Many of the above CECBs may have other noteworthy features, and may have CC buttons on the remote control, but this information was not available at the time of this writing. All reported features should be confirmed prior to purchase by examining the user manual or other public documents. Please note that the menus for some CC buttons may not be well-designed.
Note: S-video should provide sharper digital captions, but many analog TVs do not have S-video pass-through. If you have a TiVo or other recording device with S-video inputs, however, you may be able to use the S-video output from the CECB for higher-quality analog recordings.
Evaluating Digital Closed Captioning
Some of the issues to consider in evaluating the captioning features associated with a CECB are:
- Which digital closed captioning features are available, including enhanced ones such as changing the alignment of the captions and adding an edge to the text to make it thicker and bolder, and the number of colors available.
- Whether or not a button is available on the remote control to operate closed captions directly
- The choices in the menu activated by the CC button and how usable the menu is
- If analog captions can be decoded by the converter box, the ease of reading the font provided for those analog captions
- The ease of reading the eight different fonts available for digital captions, particularly the default font
- The availability of a "caption preview" of some kind when changes are made in the settings for the digital captions, and how well this predicts the largest font style.
- How large the digital captions are actually capable of becoming: do the longest lines of the largest captions fill the entire width of the screen, and if not, please describe what proportion of the screen is filled by the largest captions.
- How usable the optional translucent background is in providing sufficient contrast to the characters used in the captioning (if it is too transparent, it will be difficult to read the captions)
- Whether there are any bugs associated with captioning, such as a failure to detect analog captions automatically if there are no digital captions, jerky movements of captions, cut-off captions, unexpected changes in the background, etc.
- Whether the remote control has an SAP or audio button to switch to a second audio channel (for descriptive video services), a raised dot on the 5 button, raised dots on the Power button or other buttons (useful for low vision or blind users), or other accessibility issues.
- How well the user manual explains the different digital closed caption settings; please indicate whether it advises choosing Service 1 or explains how to choose it. If you have found the user manual online, please provide the URL if it is not already provided in the first posting.
- Whether the CECB has crashed or otherwise malfunctioned, and what the circumstances were; this question is best answered after extensive use of digital closed captioning with different channels. Please indicate how many hours or days you've been testing the CECB with digital closed captioning turned on.
Suggested Evaluation Process
Please look at the other evaluations that have been done to get an idea of some of the issues that have been seen.
If evaluating a converter box for the first time, I suggest not changing any of the display settings on the converter box after completing the initial set-up, the auto-tuning, and the addition of any channels that weren't automatically detected. It's probably best to use the better video cable available to you, which would be either S-video, if available, or composite video. Please indicate what kind of cable you're using in your evaluation. Please also indicate what size TV you are using, its manufacturer and the approximate year or period of manufacture, and whether it has any relevant known features like advanced comb filtering (which can improve the display of the captions). Also indicate if you're using a DVR like Tivo. Analog captions decoded by analog TV: The converter box should send to the analog TV any analog closed caption data (CEA-608 captions) that is being transmitted by the television station, and may do this automatically. Leave the analog captioning activated on your analog TV and determine if closed caption data is being transmitted from the programs (not the commercials, which don't have to be captioned) on all the digital channels. Make a record of any digital channel that is not transmitting analog caption data as this will be rare. If you don't see captions on the TV, doublecheck the user manual to see whether it is necessary to turn this feature on and how to do so.
CC button on remote in analog caption mode: Push the relevant button on the remote to learn what it does (if it exists). It may be called something other than CC or CCD, like "Subtitle." The button may place words on the screen that are covered up by the TV's analog captions. If so, turn off the TV's captions. Make a note of the menu choices for the caption button when the converter box is in analog mode. For example, you may see something like OFF, CC1, CC2, Text1, Text2, OFF display successively at the bottom of the screen to indicate the current status of the caption decoding. (CC1 is the standard setting for receiving analog captions in the broadcast language; CC2, CC3 and CC4 and the Text options are rarely used.)
Evaluate digital captions and existence of "Caption Preview:" Make sure the analog captions from the TV are turned off. Look at the user manual's section on digital closed captions to find out how to activate the digital captions, and follow the instructions for activating the digital closed captions from the converter box. (Do not assume the CC button will let you do this; you will probably have to get into the menu system of the CECB using the Menu button on the remote.) Select Font 0 or the default font, Service 1, and CC1 for the analog CC. Note whether there is a "Caption Preview" immediately shown when you change and select a feature. Make sure to leave the other settings on the default settings, and exit the menu.
Presence of digital captions on digital channels: Check whether you receive digital captions from the programs on all the major digital channels, especially those that were transmitting analog captions. Make a note of which channels do not appear to be broadcasting digital captions and which ones are. You may find that some stations are broadcasting both digital and analog captions as required by law, while some stations are not properly broadcasting both types of captions (which is not the fault of the converter box), and in some other cases, some stations may be exempted from being required to broadcast any captions at all. You'll need to know which stations to use for testing all the captioning features of your converter box and not to blame the converter box for being unable to decode captions that aren't being broadcast.
Check how large the "large" setting is, optionally for different fonts: After checking all the digital channels for digital captions, then change the size of the font to Large if you have not already done so. Observe whether there is any abnormal display with long lines of characters. Please change the font styles and observe whether the captions are adequately large in all the different font choices (there may be significant differences in size between some of the font styles). Determine which font choice provides the largest captions, and if the largest captions are larger than the captions your analog TV can already provide. Estimate what proportion of the width of the screen is taken up by the longest lines of captions (32 characters) and whether the captions display completely and properly.
Change other digital captioning features: Go ahead and try changing other features. Option: If you have a digital camera, consider taking pictures of the "caption preview" when you change the font, and then snapping several shots of the captions. (To avoid jitter, put the camera on a tripod or still surface.) Take another shot of the "caption preview" for the font you just photographed, and then a new shot of the caption preview for the next font, and so forth. Doing this helps you track what fonts were being displayed on the pictures. (I used the free Picasa program from Google to crop the pictures, create descriptive captions for each picture, and to upload the pictures; it can be downloaded from http://picasa.google.com)
CC button on remote in digital caption mode: Check whether the menu for the CC button changed when you activated digital captioning, and note what the menu choices are. For example, you may now see "CS1" which indicates digital captions using Service 1 (using the primary language broadcast by the station).
Other evaluation issues: Please address the other issues raised in the numbered list above, and create a separate posting on this thread with the name of the CECB that you've evaluated. An evaluation of one CECB has already been posted following this post. Your posted evaluation can be updated with new input by editing your own posting.
FYI, I recommend buying a converter box for evaluation purposes during a trial period and NOT using the $40 coupon until you're sure that you're pleased with the converter box. It may even be useful to evaluate several converter boxes. I also found it very helpful to evaluate the converter box next to an HDTV so that I could see whether captioning was any different on the HDTV. (Of course, lots of people won't be able to do that.)
Before buying a converter box, however, you may want to doublecheck whether there are actually any TV stations in your area broadcasting digital captions for their digital channels. To do this, you may need to use a neighbor's HDTV, turn on their digital closed captions, and take a note of which digital channels appear to be receiving digital closed captions. You can also go to http://www.antennaweb.org and get specific information about your own address. Finally, you can use http://www.tvguide.com/listings with your zip code to look for digital channels that use decimal points (like 4.1, 5.1, 7.1, 7.2).
Thanks for reading this far, and I hope you'll help out! Tons of people need help to figure out which converter box will work best for them, and it's going to be very difficult for them to get this information except through detailed evaluations from people who fully understand the importance of good captions.
To find out where to buy the converter boxes, try:
*If there are CECBs without digital closed captioning features that do have a CC button, please feel free to mention those boxes here.