- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2008

NEW YORK (AP) — Did my TV screen just shrink?

That’s the question a lot of people will be asking after installing one of the converter boxes that will keep their older TV sets tuned in to over-the-air broadcasts after Feb. 17, when most stations will switch from analog to digital transmission. The National Association of Broadcasters estimates that 70 million sets are in danger of losing their picture.

Tests on two boxes found them to produce a picture quality far better than any analog channel, giving a whole new lease on life for a tube TV that lacks cable or satellite service, which will still work with older TVs after Feb. 17. The boxes also provided access to more channels than analog reception.

But the boxes also have a peculiar problem: Unless users manually change settings from show to show, the picture from many stations either won’t fill the screen, or it will be so big that parts the picture are cut off by the edges of the screen.

The Digital Stream DTX9900, sold by RadioShack Corp., and the Insignia NS-DXA1, sold by Best Buy Co., retail for $59.99. That cost can be partly defrayed by a $40 coupon available from the government at www.dtv2009.gov.

Both boxes, with some programs, produced “window boxing” or “the postage-stamp effect”: The TV picture occupies the center of the screen, leaving black bars above, below and on either side of the picture.

This occurs because the digital broadcasts of network stations are in most cases formatted for wide-screen HDTVs. When shown on a non-wide-screen TV, the image will be “letter boxed,” showing black bars above and below.

But it doesn’t end there. A lot of these digital broadcasts are actually of non-wide-screen content.

Practically no daytime fare, such as syndicated shows and reruns of old sitcoms, is wide-screen. The stations compensate by inserting black bars to the left and right of the image to pad out the wide-screen frame. On a non-wide TV, the result is window boxing. That nice 32-inch TV you got five years ago is turned into a 24-incher.

The solution is to press the “Zoom” button on the remote that comes with the converter box. That will expand the picture so it fills the screen. Everything good now? No. When the next show comes on, it might have been shot in wide-screen. The “zoom” mode will still be on, which means only the center of the image will be visible. The left and right sides will fall outside the screen, but you won’t know that unless you start mashing the Zoom button again to cycle through a few options until you get to the letter-boxed mode.

The converter boxes have another issue that might affect some people. It’s been widely reported that all analog broadcasts will go away next year. That’s not quite true. More than 2,900 low-power stations and about 4,400 signal-relay stations known as “translators” that extend broadcasts to rural areas will not be required to go digital by the deadline, and might lack the resources to do so. The converter boxes we tested don’t let analog broadcasts through to the set, so these low-power signals will be blocked.

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