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Posts from June, 2008

GPS and the new iPhone 3G

Jun 16

Iphone3g_map
Portable GPS navigation devices aren’t just for car drivers and hikers anymore. An increasing number of cell phones are adding turn-by-turn navigation services and location-related capabilities. (See: "Cell phones that tell you where to go.") The latest of these is the recently announced iPhone 3G (Click on image), due out on July 11.

Our colleagues over at the Cars Blog can’t wait to get their hands on a new iPhone—just like us here on the Electronics Blog. Naturally, they’ll want one to test out how its GPS-based navigation feature will work compared to a dedicated GPS unit. And in preparation for the day we get a few into our labs (and test cars), they’ve already gone ahead and mapped out (sorry) some of the iPhone’s navigation potentials. (See: "Apple puts new iPhone 3G on the GPS navigation map.")

The new iPhone shows promise as a full-featured smart phone with improved navigation abilities over the current iPhone. But:

  1. Its actual performance hasn’t been assessed yet
  2. There are questions of overall cost, and more importantly
  3. It’s still weeks away from stores

That last point is obviously a bummer if you’re shopping for a last-minute Father’s Day gift. But, you still have several options if you’re looking for a high-tech present for your "directionally-challenged" dad.

Our Ratings of cell phones and smart phones (both available to subscribers) can help you find GPS-capable models, such as the LG VX8350 (Verizon), the Samsung Blackjack II (AT&T), the Blackberry Pearl 8130 (Sprint Nextel), and the LG Voyager (Verizon).

Of course, dedicated GPS navigation devices have become much more affordable, too. Our latest Ratings of GPS systems (available to subscribers), for example, lists models that are as low as $155. In fact, one of Consumer Reports’ Recommended portable GPS navigation units (also available to subscribers) costs only $200—making it a "CR Best Buy" recommendation.

For more ideas, check out what our Car Blog editors have to say in "Choosing the best GPS for Father’s Day."

—Paul Eng

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Two digital photo frames that try to do more

Jun 16

Gift
The creep of convergence—that is, of devices that take on extra tasks once done by separate, standalone units—has now reached the digital photo frame, with mixed results. Yesterday, we blogged about the Sony DPF-V700, $189, a decent-performing 7-inch frame that’s also a fine slide-show player for your HDTV. Today’s post covers two more attempts to integrate a digital photo frame with another device: the SmartParts SP8PRT, $279, an 8-inch frame with a built-in printer, and the GE 27956FE1, $130, a 7-inch frame with a built-in cordless phone.

Both are the first of their kind that we’ve seen and tested in our labs. And an electronic picture frame that does more than just show off digital photos might sound cool—and a seemingly perfect gift for Father’s Day or recent graduate.

Unfortunately, neither the SmartParts or the GE digital picture frame fulfills the promise of convergence.

The Smartparts SP8PRT

While the frame’s screen that scored good in overall quality, and performed especially well in contrast, the dye-sublimation printer produced 4×6 prints that were only fair. Some looked soft, while others were marred by color bleeding or blotching in areas of solid color, such as blue skies.

These problems likely result from inconsistent alignment of the images’ three color layers. Prints make four passes through a dye-sub printer, one for each of the yellow, magenta, and cyan colors, followed a final pass to apply a clear, protective coating. The three color layers need to be aligned correctly for the print to look sharp and for the color to look good.

The printer has other drawbacks. Protruding from the back of the unit, it makes the SmartParts more than twice as thick (at 4.1 inches) as other frames we’ve tested. It also makes the frame weigh a hefty 5.5
lbs. And prints don’t come cheap—they run 42 to 56 cents apiece, depending on the price of the cartridge ($15-$20 for 36 prints).

The bottom line: The Smart Parts isn’t bad as a photo frame, but its printer falls enough short of the mark as to make the device a dubious buy, even for those who seek a single device to display and print their photos. For about $100 less than this SmartParts, you could buy a standalone frame with better image quality—very good overall, rather than merely good—that was lighter and slimmer to boot. Our current Ratings of photo frames (available to subscribers) include three 8-inch models priced around $180. And if you really want a portable printer, $100 is about what you’d need for one of the more modestly priced, high-performing models featured in our latest Ratings of snapshot printers (also available to subscribers).

The GE 27956FE1 PhotoPhone

The frame’s screen was unimpressive. It scored fair in overall quality. Its low resolution showed jaggedness along edges and only fair color reproduction. It also has a widescreen, 16:9 ratio, similar to an HDTV. That’s fine for photos shot with a digital camera that supports a wide format, but for the squarer images most cameras produce, it forced you to either stretch the pictures or display them on less than the full screen. We didn’t test the phone’s performance; we’ll include it in our next Ratings of cordless phones (available to subscribers).

The GE did have an interesting feature: It can provide photo caller ID (displaying a photo of the caller) if you have caller ID service from your provider.

The bottom line: Even if a frame/phone combo is truly an idea whose time has come (and that remains to be seen), the GE isn’t a good choice.

—Terry Sullivan

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The Sony DPF-V700 digital photo frame: A great slide-show player, too

Jun 16

Sonydpfv700
If you’ve ever fed images from your digital camera to your HDTV, you’ve probably been disappointed at how they looked on the big screen. That’s because most cameras can’t output images in high-definition. Enter the Sony DPF-V700, $189. (Click on the image, right, for a closer look.) In our latest tests of digital photo frames, this decent-performing 7-inch frame proved adept at turning an HDTV into a megasized photo frame of superb quality.

On its own screen, the frame produced very good image quality overall, although it scored slightly lower in one image attribute, contrast, than in the others, color rendition and clarity. Its greatest distinction (besides being one of the first frames from Sony, whose HDTVs typically score very well in our Ratings of plasma TVs and Ratings of LCD TVs) is that it’s one of the few frames with an HDMI output for connecting directly to an HDTV.

When connected to an HDTV via HDMI cable, the DPF-V700 successfully transmitted 1080i resolution images that looked as good on the big screen as on the device’s own smaller display. That’s an unusual achievement since most frames output only at low, VGA resolution, which invariably yields dreadful images on an HDTV.

As a slide-show player, the DPF-V700 has minor drawbacks. Most digital photos have either a 4:3 or 3:2 aspect ratio, squarer than the 16:9 aspect ratio used by HDTVs. When you view photos on a TV set, then, you generally must use the menu system on the frame to either zoom in and crop off images’ edges or live with a letterbox effect-black bars framing the edges of your photo. Also, high-res viewing requires an HDMI cable, an extra that costs about $20.

The bottom line: This Sony is well-priced and performs decently as a photo frame, though it falls a little short of the very best models in our Ratings of digital picture frames (available to subscribers). But it’s worth serious consideration if you’re a slide-show aficionado who wants good quality images, but can’t display them directly from a computer, which is the only other way to enjoy them in their original resolution.

—Terry Sullivan

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New iPhone: Lower price, higher cost

Jun 16

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The new iPhone 3G, announced yesterday and available next month, costs $200 less to buy than its predecessor. But the new version (click on the image for a closer look) will actually cost a little more to buy and use in the long run than its predecessor, due to higher service costs.

The new phone is $200 in its 8-GB version and $300 in its 16-GB version, compared with $400 and $500 for the older iPhones of the same capacity. An unlimited data plan with the new device is $30, $10 a month more than with the old iPhone. (The least-expensive voice plan, with 450 minutes a month, is the same price as with the old iPhone, at $39.99 a month.) Multiply the $10-a-month extra data cost times the required 24-month contract period and you’re on the hook for $240 in additional charges for owning the new iPhone rather than its predecessor.

The hike in fees may be rooted in a change in the business arrangements between AT&T and Apple for the new iPhone. With the original iPhone, subscribers paid full price for the device, even though a two-year contract commitment was required—an unusual arrangement. The new version reverts to a more traditional business model for the industry. That is, AT&T will buy the phones from Apple and sell them to customers for less than they paid. Then they’ll devote a part of subscribers’ bills every month to reimbursing themselves for that subsidy.

So customers will pay a little more to buy and use the new device as the old, but they’ll pay that slightly higher cost more slowly. The lower upfront cost likely will, as Apple’s Steve Jobs predicts, allow some people to buy the device who couldn’t swallow the $400 price tag for its predecessor. And, at $200 the iPhone 3G will be very competitively priced, given that plenty of plain cell phones that lack the iPhone’s versatility cost that much or more. Also, new iPhone owners are getting a faster, more capable 3G network, rather than the slower AT&T EDGE (2G) network used by the older iPhones (the data plan for which will remain priced at $20 a month, according to AT&T).

All that said, the headlines proclaiming the new phone as cheaper than the old don’t quite tell the whole story.

If you’re looking for other money-saving tips, see our recent post, "Cell plan extra charges: Why and what you can do." Additional information on ConsumerReports.org will also help you find the best cell phone deals as well as other ways to cut your cell phone bill (available to subscribers only).

—Paul Reynolds

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The new iPhone: Some pluses, some questions

Jun 16

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Well, we got some of our wishes, at least. The new iPhone 3G, announced today at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco, will indeed use a connection to a high-speed 3G network, one of the attributes on our top 5 wish list for the new phone, posted a few days ago. Apple chairman Steve Jobs even claimed performance would be faster than other 3G smartphones. The new phone boasts slighter thinner edges than the original, but retains a close family resemblance. (Click on the image at right for a closer look at the iPhone 3G.)

The new phone, which goes on sale on July 11 at $200 (for an 8-GB version) and $300 (for a 16-GB version) will also boast true, satellite-based GPS, another of our wish-list items, rather than the earth-based location technology of the current iPhone. (Click on image at left for a closer look at the original iPhone.)

On the other hand, the new phone will not add stereo Bluetooth capability, a feature we sought that would allow it to be used with pricey Bluetooth stereo headsets. But Apple has at least banished the old iPhone’s much-derided recessed headphone jack, which demanded use of a third-party adapter to be used with any but the headphones supplied with the phone.

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Less clear is whether the remaining two items on our list will be addressed. That is whether iPhone 3G will have voice command, a feature that’s all-but-standard even on less pricey phones, or a last-number one-button redial. Neither feature was mentioned at the presentation or included in the online list of specifications for the device.

It’s also unclear whether the phone will offer the option to operate solely on the slower AT&T EDGE (2G) network used by the current iPhone. The specifications for the iPhone 3G list talk-time figures for both 3G and 2G operation. That unusual differentiation seems to raise the possibility of being able to select 2G operation to conserve battery life, instead of the phone automatically selecting 3G operation where it’s available, as is customary.

The new phone will add some other welcome features as a result of an upgrade to the iPhone’s operating system. The upgrade will also be available free to owners of the original iPhone, and for $10 to owners of the iPod Touch, the iPhone-like music player. The enhancements from the new iPhone 2.0 operating system include:

  • Support for Microsoft Office. For the first time, iPhone users will be able to open and edit documents in Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and more.
  • Better e-mail management. This includes the ability to move, delete, or reorganize a large group of e-mails.

As usual with such announcements, much remains unclear or up in the air. Among the points we’ll be watching: What, if anything, Apple or AT&T, the exclusive iPhone carrier, may do to accommodate those who want a new iPhone and are in the middle of the mandatory two-year service commitment for an old iPhone.

—Mike Gikas

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DTV converters: Best performers from our tests

Jun 16

We tested 14 of the first digital converter boxes on the market, and the preliminary results are in: The models we tested—all of which are approved for use with the government’s $40 coupon and thus have a basic set of features in common—didn’t differ significantly in performance.

And, pricier models aren’t necessarily better than those that cost less.

We’re working hard to gather all the data from our hands-on reviews and present the information in a comprehensive report on ConsumerReports.org soon. Coupled with our expert advice—as found in our "Digital TV Transition" section—along with the questions and comments here on our Electronics Blog and DTV discussion forums, we hope to assist consumers through the analog-to-digital switchover.

But for those who face a looming DTV coupon expiration date or are looking for a Father’s Day gift, here are some DTV converter box recommendations and guidelines that should help right now.

Focus on features

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Every one of these set-top DTV boxes converted broadcast digital signals pulled in by our rooftop antenna (a standard residential model) into analog signals an older TV can accept. They can receive both high-definition and standard-definition digital broadcasts but will down-convert programs transmitted in HD (such as prime-time network fare) to a resolution a standard-def TV can display. When supplied with a strong signal, all produced acceptable picture quality—although some were better than others—plus good sound, and they were capable of detecting a similar number of digital channels. (Note that your location and other variables will determine how many channels you can get with any of these boxes. You can check reception in your area at AntennaWeb.org, a site co-sponsored by the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Association of Broadcasters.)

While you can’t go too far wrong with any of the models we tested, there are several we would consider first, based on a combination of picture quality, features, and pricing.

Some add optional features that increase convenience. For example, the electronic program guides on some have only minimal information while others give you fuller descriptions for more channels and cover a longer period of time. The ability to change the appearance of closed captions to make them more or less visible is another handy feature.

Cro08philco9989_2
We also like boxes with a universal remote that can control your TV as well as the box; button controls on the box you can use if you misplace the remote; and an easy way to add individual digital channels that weren’t detected when you scanned for all channels.

Some suggestions

That said, here are the models that stand out. (Prices shown are what we paid. Several models appeared to be "twins" made by the same manufacturer, with differences noted.)

  • Tivax STB-T9 $50, available from Solidsignal.com and FreeDTVShop.com
  • Microgem MG2000 $65, available from Solidsignal.com and FreeDTVShop.com
  • Insignia NS-DXA1 $60 (See image above left), available from Best Buy and FreeDTVShop.com
  • Zenith DTT900 $60, available from Circuit City, Radio Shack, and hhgregg
  • Philco TB100HH9 $47 (See image above right), available from DSI Systems and SummitSource.com

Read on to see what made these models standouts and for a list of the other models tested.

About the stand-out models we tested

Tivax STB-T9 $50, available from Solidsignal.com and FreeDTVShop.com.
This box was among the best for picture quality, with images that come close to those of a DVD. It had a minor flaw that only the fussiest might notice: If you’re watching a down-converted HD program letter-boxed to fit your squarish screen, images are stretched vertically to a slight extent. It has an informative program guide, a few nice convenience features, and comes with A/V cables (composite-video and stereo audio) in addition to the usual RF cables.

Microgem MG2000 $65, available from Solidsignal.com and FreeDTVShop.com.
The Microgem is one of the smallest units we’ve seen. It too was among the best for picture quality and has the same issue as downconverted HD images. Its program guide lists the program title and run time for several hours’ worth of programming for the currently tuned channel but does not provide show descriptions. It has an informative program guide and a few nice convenience features

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Insignia NS-DXA1 $60, available from Best Buy and FreeDTVShop.com.
Zenith DTT900 $60 (See image at left), available from Circuit City, Radio Shack, hhgregg.
The Insignia (Best Buy’s store brand) and Zenith were very similar both functionally and stylistically. Picture quality was a small step below that of the top boxes but still impressive, better than most analog broadcasts. The program guides presents a limited amount of information. Both boxes are loaded with convenience features and come with A/V cables (composite-video and stereo audio) in addition to the usual RF cables.

Philco TB100HH9 $47, available from DSI Systems, SummitSource.com
The Philco stands out as the lowest-priced of the models we tested and the only one to offer analog pass-through. This allows broadcast analog signals to be passed through from the antenna to the box to the TV, along with converted digital signals. Picture quality was a small step below that of the top boxes but still impressive, better than most analog broadcasts. Although the stereo left/right audio output provides good audio, the RF outputs audio volume is quite low, which results in a noticeable hiss when you raise the TV’s volume to compensate. The program guide presents a limited amount of information. It has fewer features than the other boxes recommended.

Other DTV converter boxes

Here are the other boxes we tested, in alphabetical order. They might be worth considering, especially if the features and price suit you. We will be testing more boxes as they become available and posting results soon after on ConsumerReports.org.

Artec T3A Pro, $55. Picture quality was a small step below the best. A decent choice, though it lacks a few useful features of recommended boxes.

Digital Stream DSP7500T, $70. Picture quality was generally comparable to that of a good analog broadcast, but with noticeable flaws. Has many useful features, including a good program guide.

Digital Stream DTX9900, $60. Picture quality was generally comparable to that of a good analog broadcast despite minor flaws. Has many useful features, including a good program guide.

GE 22729, $80. Picture quality was generally comparable to that of a good analog broadcast despite minor flaws. Has many useful features, including the best program guide.

GE 22730, $70. Picture quality was generally comparable to that of a good analog broadcast despite minor flaws. Has many useful features, including the best program guide.

Lasonic LTA-260, $55. This was among the best for picture quality. Has a very basic program guide that gives minimal information and lacks many useful features. Functionally and stylistically similar to the Sansonic.

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Magnavox TB100MW9, $50 (See image at right). Picture quality was a small step below the best. Functionally and stylistically similar to the Philco but lacking the analog pass through feature. A decent choice, though it lacks a few useful features offered by some recommended boxes.

RCA DTA800B, $65. Picture quality was a small step below the best. Lacks some useful features.

Sansonic FT300A, $60. This was among the best for picture. Has a very basic program guide that gives minimal information and lacks many useful features. Functionally and stylistically similar to the Lasonic.

—Eileen McCooey

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The Verizon/Alltel merger: The consumer promises and issues

Jun 16

Verizonlogo
Verizon, one of the biggest national cell carriers, today announced plans to swallow one of the smallest, Alltel. For consumers, the possible merger raises promise. And, like many such deals, it also raises a number of issues and questions.

Despite their differing size, the companies share a number of attributes that bode well for consumers in a possible merger, beginning with high customer satisfaction. In our recent surveys of cellphone service, both carriers have been standouts for connectivity—that is, for minimizing problems with lack of service, full circuits, or dropped calls—and for customer service.

They also have networks that are technologically compatible—being heavily digital and using CDMA technology. That promises to increase the chance that customers of one company will get access to services now offered by the other, and that subscribers will more fully benefit from an expanded, joint network. It may also minimize the problems that ensued after two other recent cellphone mergers, involving companies with divergent technologies. The Sprint-Nextel merger, in 2005, brought together one company that used a CDMA network and another that used Iden technology. The 2004 merger of Cingular and AT&T married one company that used several technologies, including older analog networks, with another that had a heavily-digital GSM network.

A number of questions and uncertainties remain, however—beginning with whether federal regulators will allow the merger to proceed, and when. (The companies themselves are aiming for completion by year’s end.) Consumer advocates will weigh in on the deal’s benefits and pitfalls. Those groups include Consumers’ Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, which is already flagging such issues as whether provisions may be required to help cell subscribers in some rural areas where Alltel is the leading carrier and Verizon may be a close competitor.

—Paul Reynolds

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iPhone 2.0? Things we’d like to see.

Jun 16

Iphonelfthand
With the one-year anniversary of the iPhone nearly upon us, rumors of a refresh for Apple’s category-defining smartphone are swirling through the blogosphere. Apple is mum, as usual, but the bloggers’ best intel suggests a new model will debut this Monday at the Apple Developers Conference in San Francisco.

If and when a new iPhone arrives, we’ll of course buy and test it immediately and post the results soonest. Meantime, though we like and recommend the current iPhone, it’s far from perfect. (If you are a ConsumerReports.org subscriber, you can see our complete review of the current iPhone as well as Consumer Reports’ recommendations of cell phones online.)

So Mr. Jobs, if you’re listening, here are our top five requests for a new iPhone:

  1. Use a faster network. Web browsing on the iPhone’s full HTML Web browser is plenty speedy over a Wi-Fi connection at home or at Starbucks. But doing so via AT&T’s sluggish EDGE network—which you’ll likely use more of the time—can be a real drag, especially when streaming videos or downloading graphics-heavy pages. Let’s hope this new model takes advantage of the much faster HSDPA,
    a so-called "3G" network that AT&T is building. Note: Though AT&T has been
    middling in our Ratings of cellphone service (available to subscribers), we aren’t putting "change carriers" on our wish list to Steve Jobs, since that’s out of the question. (AT&T still has four years to run as the exclusive U.S. carrier of the iPhone.)
  2. Add GPS. The current iPhone has useful Google maps and directions, with live traffic. But the device figures out where you are by triangulating with cellphone towers and Wi-Fi hotspots, and is notably less accurate than the satellite-based technology used by true GPS navigation units. Also, unlike GPS, it doesn’ t provide the real-time, turn-by-turn, voice-assisted directions. Many phones, including some AT&T models, have GPS navigation. Let’s hope the new iPhone adds it.
  3. Enable Bluetooth stereo. A growing number of cell phones support wireless Bluetooth stereo headphones for tangle-free listening. Yet the current iPhone requires an inelegant $40 attachment to do so, a real disconnect for a phone that purports to be a multimedia powerhouse.
  4. Add voice command. Another all-but-standard feature that’s glaringly absent from the iPhone. This feature allows you dial numbers from your phone book by speaking the name or by pronouncing the digits—a must for hands-free users.
  5. Add last-number, one-button redial. On even the simplest cell phones, tapping one button will put you in touch with those you speak to most. But not the iPhone. True, the iPhone lists recent callers and you can tap any of them to make a call. But if you’re not already in that menu, finding that list can end up being a multi-step process. A simple software update could add speed dial to the virtual keypad.

We could go on—to suggest the likes of an unrecessed headphone jack (the current one requires purchase of an adapter to use standard headphones) and more. But tell us what else you’d like to see in your next iPhone.

—Mike Gikas 

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Best Buy ups the ante for retailer recycling programs

Jun 16

Recyclebinpc
A pilot recycling program launched this week in 117 Best Buy stores is turning the company,s outlets into free drop-off centers for your old gear. If successful, it might help boost recycling services as a point of competition among electronics retailers.

The program, at stores in the Baltimore, San Francisco, and Minnesota markets, allows visitors to bring in up to two items per day, per household, for recycling at no charge. No purchase is required. Allowable items include most televisions and monitors up to 32-inches, computers, phones of all types, and cameras.

The company says it will "work with its stores, recycling partners, and manufacturers to evaluate the success of the test and determine options for scaling it across the U.S." Meantime, the company adds, all Best Buy stores will continue to offer other programs  including recycling kiosks for ink cartridges, rechargeable batteries, cell phones, CDs, DVDs, and PDA/smart phones and appliance and television home pickup and disposal for $100.

Traditionally, Consumers Union, Consumer Reports parent organization, promotes the idea that manufacturers have the onus for creating recycling programs, but it of course also welcomes retailers stepping up.

The Best Buy program is among the most extensive yet by a U.S. electronics retailer. Staples seems to be the closest retailer rival. But Staples’ Eco Easy program is free only for smaller items, including keyboards, mice, computer speakers, and phones; there’s a $10-per-item charge for computers, TVs, and other larger items. (You can find more information about the program on Staples’ Eco Easy web site.)

Assuming they continue and even expand, the Best Buy and Staples programs might prompt broader programs from other electronics retailers, who now offer more limited recycling services:

  • Office Depot offers a "Tech Recycling Box" that consumers can purchase in three different sizes—small ($5), medium ($10), and large ($15), the latter measuring 24"H x 18"D x 18"W. They also offer in-store recycling for cell phones, rechargeable batteries, ink and toner cartridges.
  • Circuit City offers in-store recycling for cell phones and rechargeable batteries and the option to trade in your old products, including computers, cameras, PDAs, and MP3 players, online in exchange for store credit equal to their value. (Best Buy has a similar trade-in program).
  • Office Max offers a "Max Perks" box for collection of ink and toner cartridges and cell phone batteries. Some outlets also collect ink cartridges.

—Kristi Wiedemann

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DTV converters: Results of our tests of 14 models

Jun 16

Digital converter boxes that allow older analog TVs to receive digital signals—soon to be the only type of over-the-air TV signal, after analog broadcasts are discontinued next February—have been slow to arrive. But there are now at least 25 models available, at prices ranging from just under $50 to about $80, and we’ve tested 14 of them. We’ll be posting results of these tests, with a comparison of those models, within the next week or so, along with more detailed buying advice.

[June 10, 2009 UPDATE: We’ve hit a bit of a snag in posting the results of our DTV converter box tests on ConsumerReports.org. But we’ve posted more details about our findings in this recent blog post: DTV converters: Best performers from our tests. We’ll continue to work on posting the fuller testing details—as well as new results from the latest converter boxes we’re able to buy and get into our labs—as soon as possible on ConsumerReports.org. We regret this unfortunate delay. —Ed.]

Judging by our tests, there isn’t much variation in performance. Every one of these boxes converted broadcast digital signals pulled in by our rooftop antenna (a standard residential model) into analog signals an older TV can accept. When supplied with a strong signal, all produced acceptable picture quality, though some were slightly better or worse than others. In addition, their tuners performed comparably in tests of their ability to pull in digital signals. That suggests you’d get the same number of channels with just about any model.

That doesn’t mean you can expect to get the same number of channels as us, a friend in a different state, or even a neighbor across town. What you’ll see depends on where you live, the local terrain, the number of stations broadcasting in your area, signal strength, and the antenna you use. It would be very difficult for any set of lab tests to accurately predict what you’ll experience at home, given all these variables. Comments from some of our blog readers indicate that they have had problems with reception.

(Check out our special February 2009 digital-to-analog TV switchover section and watch our free five-minute video on ConsumerReports.org for more information about your DTV options. You can also click on the player embedded above to watch the video.)

Most of the converters we’ve seen are black boxes, (though you’ll find the occasional silver, white, or gray box) about half the size of a VCR. The smallest models are about the size of a paperback book. A few converters add stylish curves or other touches.

So how should you choose among converter boxes, and how far wrong can you go? Virtually any model should keep your analog TV operable in a digital world. All things being equal, we’d go with a model offering better-than-average picture quality.

Also consider features. While all government-approved boxes have the same basic features, some add other features that might add to convenience. For example, some of our blog readers want a box with analog pass-through, enabling it to pass along both analog and digital signals, while others want a unit that can control a VCR, enabling scheduled recordings.

Price is likely to be a factor for many purchasers as well. For the lower-priced boxes now available, your out-of-pocket cost after the $40 coupon available from the government would be about $10 or so; with the costlier units, you might have to lay out an extra $30.

Consumers are still waiting for the promised $40 models, which will be covered completely (except for sales tax) by a coupon. EchoStar’s $40 TR40 could be the first to arrive; it’s expected within the next month or so. We’ll test it, and other notable models, when they become available.

Since some blog respondents have reported trouble finding certain boxes, our comparison table will list where we bought them; outlets include online retailers and stores such as Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Circuit City, and Radio Shack.

—Eileen McCooey

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