We've updated our exclusive Ratings of DTV converter boxes, which now cover 24 of the 50 or so models now available. New arrivals include a box with the best picture quality we've seen so far, another that has the first VCR timer we've encountered, and several boxes with analog pass-through. (Read the latest update to our DTV converter box guide for more information, including free access to the DTV converter box Ratings.)
Prices for tested models range from about $50 to $90. (Prices are what we paid. Some readers have reported that they've found different, sometimes higher, prices.) You can use a $40 government coupon to defray the cost. Call 888-DTV-2009 or go to www.DTV2009.gov to request one or two coupons; you'll also find a list of online retailers there. Visit our guide to the digital TV transition, free to all visitors, for more complete information on the digital TV switchover and DTV converter boxes.
The Channel Master CM-7000 was tops for picture quality. It's among the first boxes to have an S-video output, which can deliver better picture quality than a composite-video or RF out. It's pricey, though, at $80. The Apex DT250 also has an S-video out, though its picture quality didn't quite match the Channel Master's. Older TVs don't have an S-video input
output, so you'd have to use either the composite-video or RF input output.
With a run-of-the-mill TV set, it might be hard to appreciate the incremental improvement in picture quality offered by the top performers. Converter boxes that are a step down in picture quality provide better video than most analog sets and might be perfectly satisfactory.
The Dish Network DTVPal, $60, has both a VCR timer and analog pass-through, as does its brandmate, the TR-40 CRA, which is available in limited quantities for $40. (It arrived too late to be included in this latest update to our DTV converter box guide.) The timer will change the channel on the box so your VCR can automatically record from different channels. Analog pass-through enables a box to feed your TV analog signals as well as digital signals converted to analog. Other tested models with this feature are the Philco TB100HH9, Magnavox TB100MG9 (seen above), and Digital Stream DTX9950. (See our "How to choose: DTV converter boxes" for more information that will help you decide which DTV box features are right for your needs.)
As in our first round of tests, all tested models converted broadcast digital signals from our rooftop antenna into analog signals that an older TV can accept, with decent picture and sound quality. They also performed comparably in their ability to pull in digital stations. The number of digital channels that will be available to you depends on how many stations broadcast digitally in your area, the distance from your home, your antenna, and whether trees or other obstructions block the signals.