The Big Switch: Buying your first HDTV


By Mark Bullock - bio | email

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - The Big Switch is less than a hundred days away and many people are wondering if they're ready.

WSFA 12 News offered some advice Monday with our monthly Big Switch Phone Bank. We took more than 400 calls from viewers with questions about the transition to digital television. Beginning February 17th, TV stations are required to stop broadcasting their analog signals.

You only have to take action if you have an older (analog) television set and you get your signal from an antennae. In that case, you need to buy a converter box.

Cable and satellite customers don't have to make any changes. But many people are buying new sets anyway to experience high definition television. So how do you pick the right set?

Pixels: 1080 vs. 720?

Morris Pollock is chief engineer at WSFA 12 News. He says you should start by looking at the number of pixels the television has. You can choose between 1080 and 720.

"More is always better," Pollock said. "So 1080 is going to be a better resolution image than 720."

But not everyone can tell the difference. So Pollock suggests that you spend time in the store watching both types of sets. If 720 looks good enough to you, buying one will save you a little cash.

Tuner: Mark Sure it's Digital

Do make sure your new set has a digital tuner. Otherwise, it won't pick up signals after the February transition.

"Early on, there were these 'HDTV-ready' sets, which really weren't sets at all," Pollock explained. "They were monitors."

If you have cable, you may want to invest in a QAM tuner to save a little on your monthly bill. A QAM tuner allows you to see local channels in high definition without paying for high definition cable service.

"QAM tuners are able to decode these uncompressed local HD signals," said Pollock. "And the customer can get the benefit of that without having to get a 'digital' package from their cable company."

Consider the Size

Finally, only screens bigger than 30" are required to comply with all FCC regulations. So 30" should be your starting point. But don't go so big that your set is too large for your room.

"Getting an education, that's the big thing," Pollock suggested. "Just doing your research."

The Internet is a great place to do that research, we suggest you start in the Big Switch section of this web site. Then click on the Web Extra link above to find other sites that promise product reviews and low prices.

Converter Box Options

If you're not ready to upgrade to an HDTV and you're buying a converter box instead, most of them are similar. But experts suggest you buy one with a "digital pass through" option.

That option will allow analog signals to pass through the digital box so they can still be viewed. Some smaller, low-powered television stations are not required to broadcast digitally (and will still be analog), even after February 17th.