The digital transition is now history, which means that nearly all TV stations (some low-power stations are the exception) now beam their programming in digital format. Most offer programming in high definition; others have standard-definition programming in digital form. Many also have one or more subchannels offering news and weather information, shopping channels or special-interest programming.
Nearly all TVs and many DVD recorders currently sold include a built-in digital tuner (the exceptions are those TVs and DVD recorders that lack a tuner of any kind), and that's all you need to receive free TV over the air. You can also purchase a digital TV (DTV) converter box. Though choices have dropped dramatically from the days before the digital transition, when the government coupon program let people get DTV converter boxes at reduced cost (or even free), some good choices remain. Those range from basic boxes designed to bring digital signals to an older analog TV (downscaling HD signals so they are viewable) to HD-capable boxes with built-in hard drives for those looking to cut the cord with cable TV and satellite TV providers.
Among currently available basic DTV converter boxes, we saw some pretty good feedback for the Zinwell ZAT-970A (*Est. $40). Though it's priced similarly to some other basic digital TV converter boxes, it has one significant plus -- eight programmable timers. Any DTV converter box will work with a VCR or DVD recorder that lacks its own digital tuner, of course, but most other basic digital converter boxes don't include timers at all. With those, the ability to schedule automatic recordings on different channels is lost since, unless you are at home to do so manually, the box can't switch channels once the first recording is finished.
Beyond the timers, feedback tells us that the ZAT-970A is a pretty capable digital converter box. Picture quality and audio quality frequently come in for compliments. The tuner is also fairly powerful, able to draw in weaker digital stations that challenge other DTV converters. Analog pass-through is provided (handy for receiving some low-power analog stations; while all will eventually have to transition to digital as well, a number of low-power analog stations remain on the air for the time being).
The biggest knock against the ZAT-970A is its very basic electronic programming guide, and the fact that timers need to be programmed manually -- VCR style -- rather than from the guide as with many modern digital video recorders. A minority of users report that the timers occasionally fail to work. Regardless, the ZAT-970A leaves more owners happy than unhappy.
If you live in an area where receiving some or all digital channels is a challenge, you might also want to consider the Channel Master CM-7000 (*Est. $55). According to users and experts, the tuner is one of the most powerful found in a DTV converter box, meaning you'll be able to pick up more digital stations in some cases. Build quality is also considered to be very good. Picture quality is another plus, and there's an S-Video output for those with TVs that can take advantage of that higher-quality connection. One negative, according to reports, is that you can't manually add a new or newly discovered channel to the guide; instead you must re-scan (though the channel-scan function works relatively quickly). The CM-7000 can be tough to find at retail, but is available directly from Channel Master.
Basic DTV converter boxes are primarily intended for those trying to extend the life of older but still reliable analog TV devices; those who have already gone digital and own TVs and other devices with built-in digital tuners don't need one. That includes those who have decided to abandon cable TV and satellite TV providers in favor of getting their programming over the air and via the Internet; see this blog post for more information. However, those who miss the versatility of cable- or satellite-company DVRs might find the Channel Master CM-7000PAL (*Est. $335) an interesting proposition. That device marries a dual-tuner DTV converter/receiver with a built-in hard drive to create an over-the-air digital video recorder.
Like every DTV converter box, the CM-7000PAL can feed standard-definition video to an older analog TV, but it breaks ranks by also offering the option of sending full HD (up to 1080i) to a compatible HDTV via its HDMI or component-video connections. There's also a digital audio output for sending Dolby Digital surround sound (which is part of the digital broadcasting standard) to an external audio system. The dual tuners are excellent, able to draw in signals that other DVRs capable of over-the-air reception miss.
The DVR side of things has many of the trick features that users have come to expect, including the ability to rewind or pause live or recorded programs, or to fast forward or skip ahead 30 seconds -- the perfect interval to just miss most commercials -- when watching recorded programming. The hard drive is big enough to store 30 hours of HD programming or 250 hours of standard-def.
Though the user interface is very advanced compared to what you see with a basic DTV converter box, it also falls short compared to what viewers used to cable TV, satellite TV or TiVo DVRs have grown accustomed to. While there is a programming guide, its usability is limited, especially in those areas where the TV Guide on Screen (TVGOS) service is not available. In many instances, users have to fall back to VCR-style manual timers, like those of the Zinwell ZAT-970A. Following lots of firmware upgrades, stability is now excellent, a welcome change from this DTV converter/DVR's early days when it was marketed by Dish Network and known as the DTVPal.
ConsumerReports.org has the most comprehensive list of tested DTV converters. Though the list is now old, the article is free. Most other expert reviews are even older or more limited; however, the Channel Master CM-7000PAL has received coverage at CNET and BigPictureBigSound.com. User reviews of DTV converters are available at many spots on the Internet, but Amazon.com and AVSForum.com are the most helpful.