A dash of modernity for Luddites & Cheap Yanks

It will come as no great surprise to my regular readers to learn that I watch TV on one of the older/bulkier CRT sets, and that I was not among the hordes who dashed out to buy a flat-screen digital television when the FCC mandated that transmissions all be digital by June of last year.  That’s because I’m frugal and couldn’t care less about the “latest & greatest” technology being pursued by the masses.  Anyway, I have bad eyesight & my husband has lousy hearing, so high-definition & surround-sound would be wasted on us.

Unless you’ve been in a coma or hiding in your secluded mountaintop retreat, you probably know that the older sets (like mine) that used to be able to pull in analog television broadcasts are incapable of processing the new digital signals.  So you could upgrade to a digital TV, buy a digital converter box (or get a no-frills one free via government coupon), or subscribe to cable/satellite television service.

The digital transition last year didn’t affect my household, as we’ve been very satisfied subscribers to Dish Network for about 10 years — we currently have a satellite receiver that has a built-in hard drive DVR so that we can record programs (sort of like TiVO but without subscription fees).  You may or may not know that the one weakness in satellite service is the provision of local channels.  You can use an antenna and pull the locals in yourself (we did this for about 7 years), or you can pay your satellite provider a bit extra to have them included in your channel line-up (we did this the last couple of years).

Because we weren’t directly affected by the digital transition, I confess that my husband and I didn’t pay close attention to what exactly was going on in the over-the-air world of television broadcasting.  Then one day earlier this year my husband heard of a show on PBS he wanted to watch, and couldn’t seem to find it on any of the PBS affiliates we’ve been getting in our “local channels” package.  He discovered then that many broadcast channels now have “sub-channels“, and our satellite “locals” didn’t include those!

I’m probably one of the last to discover these “sub-channels”, and if so, feel free to skip this paragraph — it’ll be old news to you.  For those few of you who didn’t already know, these extra channels became possible because digital transmissions use less bandwidth within a particular channel’s frequency than the old analog transmissions.  PBS, for instance, now transmits 6 channels from Boston over the same bandwidth that once could only hold two analog broadcasts — channels 2 & 44.

If you’ve been paying for cable television throughout last year’s transition, you’ve probably just noticed a few extra channels in your on-screen guide, so perhaps the note above will have been news to you also.  Cable subscribers have usually received most local channels, even in the basic packages, and given what cable subscribers pay, they certainly ought to.

Anyway, the discovery of these “sub-channels” has caused my family to rethink some  decisions — and no, we haven’t switched to Charter.  My husband did some homework and discovered that Dish Network had created a digital converter that has a built-in hard drive, like our existing satellite receiver/DVR.  It’s called the DTVpal, and we’ve had one since last spring.  Despite being marketed by Dish Network, there are no fees involved with this device — just attach a coaxial cable from your existing over-the-air antenna and you’re off & running.

So when it’s time for us to renew our subscription to Dish Network service, we’ll be kissing their “locals package” goodbye, thanks to the DTVpal.

I could have gotten one of the government’s free converter boxes, of course, but to record programs I’d still need to pipe them into a VCR or DVD recorder, and I’ve grown attached to recording shows to a hard drive in my satellite receiver.  For that reason, the DTVpal was the perfect choice — and the interface & remote are very similar to what we have enjoyed on the satellite receiver.

This post is primarily a “heads-up” to those folks who’ve been getting local channels through a satellite provider, and also for those people who only get the over-the-air channels, and who might like to have the ability to digitally convert *and* record shows.

my new pal

The DTVpal was sold exclusively by Sears at first, though you can now find them on eBay and on a few websites, because — unfortunately — the DTVpal has been discontinued.  For the quickest of my readers, there’s a very reasonably-priced new-in-the-box DTVpal being offered on a nearby Craigslist site for even less than we paid for ours.  And even better bargains can be had if you don’t mind a second-hand unit from eBay.

If you prefer something new, there’s an identical product now being offered by Channel Master called the CM-7000PAL DVR, which will cost you about $100 more.

To give you a sense of what’s “extra” out there now in the digital spectrum, here is a list of the channels my DTVpal currently brings in:

2.1 7.1 10.1 13.1 26.3 38.1 48.1 62.2 69.1
2.2 7.2 10.2 13.2 27.1 44.1 56.1 64.1 69.2
4.1 7.3 11.1 23.1 28.1 44.2 58.1 64.2 69.3
5.1 8.1 11.2 25.1 28.2 44.3 58.2 68.1 72.1
6.1 8.2 11.3 26.1 36.1 44.4 58.3 68.2 72.2
6.2 9.1 12.1 26.2 36.2 46.1 62.1 68.3 74.2

A few of the new channels are simply high-definition versions of the same thing being broadcast on another sub-channel in the same frequency.  Several channels above just aren’t of interest to me or my family.  And a few of the above channels have weak signals — in case you didn’t know, with digital broadcasts, there are no “snowy” channels, you either receive the signal or it cuts out completely.  When all is said & done, that leaves a LOT of local channels, far more than I’ve ever received over the air on an analog TV, and about as many as my husband used to get from Greater Media Cable’s “basic package” in the 1980s — but this time for free.

I recommend that you explore what’s out there.  In particular, I enjoy several programs on the Rhode Island & New Hampshire PBS affiliates (hello, Doc Martin), and the Boston PBS affiliate at channel 44 has sub-channels for niche interests like children’s television & home improvement.  You might just discover something “extra” on digital television that you didn’t previously know was available to you.

6 thoughts on “A dash of modernity for Luddites & Cheap Yanks

  1. Joe says:

    Does your dish pick up the local stations, or do you have an extra antenna?

    Do you get all your local cable access programming via the website?

  2. Nicole says:

    We’ve currently got local stations via the dish because we’ve paid a bit extra for the “locals” package, but that package doesn’t include any of the new sub-channels — just the stations that existed pre-2009.

    But now we’re also pulling in 50+ local channels via antenna using the DTVpal mentioned in the post. We’ll drop the Dish Network “locals” package when our subscription next renews, as the antenna and DTVpal give us far more than Dish Network can.

    You’re right, we can’t get cable access channels via satellite, but since most are now available online, that suffices.

  3. jmstewart says:

    is it hard to install an antenna

    • Nicole's husband says:

      Only if you’re afraid of heights.

      😉

      There are a few different ways to install one, including strapping it to a chimney or bolting it to the side of your house. Some antennas are omni-directional, in which case you just get it up there as high as possible; others are directional and you need to point it toward the broadcasts you want (for Worcester, that’s usually east toward Boston).

      Lots of inexpensive options are available at Stark Electronics:
      http://www.starkelectronic.com/
      And you can ask the salespeople for advice for your specific needs.

  4. Nicole says:

    For any Dish Network subscribers, here’s a really good price on a DVR that stores 60 hours of programming and doesn’t require an additional DVR subscription fee:
    http://westernmass.craigslist.org/ele/2057092666.html

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