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View Full Version : Does a new digital TV need a cable converter box?


Musicat
01-23-2009, 10:14 AM
This question is NOT about over-the-air TV broadcast signals, just USA cable TV only.

I have been using an old analog TV -- it's good enough for me, as I rarely watch it anymore -- but recently my cable provider (Charter) rearranged some channel assignments from the under-100 numbers to the 9XX range, available only as digital channels.

So I got a converter box from Charter and it's hooked up and working. It occured to me that it might be time to bite the bullet and spring for a new TV, all of which seem to be digital anyway. Then I'd have fewer remotes and a simpler system.

I assumed that a modern, state-of-the-art digital consumer-grade TV would not have a need for the Charter-supplied converter box. But Charter claims not, and that I won't be able to receive some channels or access some features without that clunky add-on box.

Is that true? Do the Charter techs (talked to two of them) know what they are talking about? What features does this box have that a new TV doesn't?

And if I get a digital TV tuner card for my PC, do I need another Charter converter box for it, too? Doesn't seem logical.

Edward The Head
01-23-2009, 10:33 AM
Yes, the cable companies can do whatever they want in that regard. I believe they only have to offer the local over the air channels in their basic package, and not even in HD. They can and do move channels around and then scramble them so the only way to get them would be to rent a converter box. You might be able to pick up some channels with a new TV, but only if it has a QAM tuner in it and the stations are low enough. I know here in my area even with the QAM I can't get any of the local HD channels as they are all in the 200 range. They do this so you have to rent the box from them. And yes this means you'd also have to get one for your computer.

Si Amigo
01-23-2009, 10:47 AM
I didn't find this to be the case when I got a new/second TV for the bedroom last month. I plugged it straight into the cable line and started getting channels like 2.1 and 2.2 that were in HD while 2.0 was still in standard definition. I don't believe that the non cable company provided converter box for analog TV's has anything to do with getting the 200 level channels. You should not need the box if you have a new TV and a cable line.

Musicat
01-23-2009, 10:55 AM
I'll amend my question to include "a new digital TV" or "tuner card" to include a QAM tuner. I don't know what this is, but it seems to be necessary from what I've heard.Yes, the cable companies can do whatever they want in that regard. I believe they only have to offer the local over the air channels in their basic package...Charter, at least in my area, offers a basic package that includes channels 980 thru 999, which of course, requires a digital system. So "basic" doesn't mean "analog", it just means you get a very limited number of channels. And they aren't only over-the-air ones, but include some cable-only ones as well.

Oddly, those with analog TVs can get channel 97, which is a simulcast of 986. But with my converter box, I can't get 97 at all, just 986. The lower numbers come in fine either way.

WhyNot
01-23-2009, 10:59 AM
Depends on the TV. I was just in the market, and some are labeled "digital cableready" and some not. The not ones require a cable box, just like the old TVs. Even if you don't need a box, however, you'll need a CableCARD from the cable company to get the digital cable content. I eventually chose a sweet Samsung which does indeed need a cable box. Oddly enough, just before I went to call Comcast to switch to an HD box, my husband flipped through some HD channels. Confused, we looked at the box again, and we've had an HD box for three years! Which was way cool, as it meant we didn't lose all our DVRed shows.

From BestBuy.com's glossary:
Digital Cable Ready (Abbreviated DCR.) Describes TVs that incorporate a CableCARD slot to receive digital cable content without the need for a set-top box. You can typically get a CableCARD from your cable provider for a nominal monthly fee (contact your provider for more information).

Edward The Head
01-23-2009, 11:06 AM
I didn't find this to be the case when I got a new/second TV for the bedroom last month. I plugged it straight into the cable line and started getting channels like 2.1 and 2.2 that were in HD while 2.0 was still in standard definition. I don't believe that the non cable company provided converter box for analog TV's has anything to do with getting the 200 level channels. You should not need the box if you have a new TV and a cable line.

What you get depends on the cable company. In my area Comcast does not give anything except the basic package and an extended basic without a box. They can and do move channels higher up to require you to get a box from them in order to view them. I've heard enough people complain when their cable company starts moving channels around. So if the OP's company decided to move channels they wanted into the 200 range then even a new TV probably will not pick them up.

Musicat
01-23-2009, 11:07 AM
Depends on the TV. I was just in the market, and some are labeled "digital cableready" and some not. The not ones require a cable box, just like the old TVs. Even if you don't need a box, however, you'll need a CableCARD from the cable company to get the digital cable content. Interesting. In my conversation with Charter, the word "card" never came up.

What functions does that card or converter box provide that the TV doesn't?

Terminus Est
01-23-2009, 11:12 AM
As a general rule, if the channel comes in for free, over-the-air in digital format, your digital TV will be able to pick up the signal without a converter box. The cable company is also required by law to provide that same signal in unencumbered form, without the need for a converter box. These channels are generally limited to the broadcast networks - NBC, CBS, ABC, FOX, and PBS. Other channels may or may not be available, but odds are that they will be locked in some fashion, necessitating the use of (at the very least) a CableCARD reader.

ETA: ...and some folks posted while I was composing my post.

The CableCARD (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cablecard), which is provided by the cable company, allows you to decrypt the signal. Some TVs and third-party DVRs have a slot for them.

Kyrie Eleison
01-23-2009, 11:14 AM
A television set with a QAM tuner will be able to tune to the channels that your cable provider distributes digitally and in the clear. For premium channels (HBO, Cinimax, etc.), or any other channels that are encrypted, you'll also need a set that supports CableCard if you don't want a cable box.

Finally, and this is becoming more and more common, if you want to be able to reliably watch channels distributed using switched digital video (SDV) by your cable provider, I am aware of no currently viable alternative to having cable box. SDV optimizes bandwidth use on the cable network by having the cable box communicate with the cable headend to inform it when a subscriber tunes to a channel, and select channels are distributed over the network only if there is someone tuned to them. Without a cable box, your equipment won't be able to transmit that message, and you'll only be able to watch such channels if someone else, who has a cable box, is currently tuned to the same channel.

Musicat
01-23-2009, 12:47 PM
The converter box supplied by Charter was used and probably years old. I wonder if it has SDV capabilties. Not that it matters, as I don't subscribe to anything fancier than basic cable.

SDV sounds like what I term "video on demand."

I guess I'll just have to try it to see, as I see no way to determine in advance which channels might be in the clear and which are encrypted. My guess is nothing in the basic tier will be encrypted -- why bother?

Besides the standard network channels, the only ones I am interested in are in the 980-999 range, all PEG channels (Public/Educational/Government) from very local towns, libraries and schools. With the converter box I have now, they come in fine. I have a QAM TV tuner PC card on order and I'll see if it will provide those, as I want to record them directly to computer hard drive without any extra gadgets or steps.

I notice there are some sub-channels with numbers like 98-2. Are those anything special, obtainable only with the Charter converter box?

Markxxx
01-23-2009, 01:29 PM
To start there are three kinds of tuners, NTSC (analog), Cable (QAM) and Digital (ATSC)

Here's how it works, the FCC has mandated that all over the air local channels and public access channels, must be "passed through to the consumer," without scrambling. So if your analog TV has QAM, and most since the early 90s do, you have to get your local and public acces without scrambling.

The exception to this is if the cable company is getting a high rate a theft. They can file for an exception due to theft and just scramble everything.

The FCC has mandated analog cable must be supported till at least 2012. But it doesn't say what is channels must be in the analog tier, except for the broadcast channels (subject to must carry regulations)

There IS an exception to this, if the cable company agrees to provide AT LEAST one converter box per account (not per TV) for free then they may scrap analog and go to all digital cable.

Remember digital TV is NOT digital cable. Digital TV means taking over the air signals and making them digital. Digital cable means digitalizing the cable signal.

The FCC has also mandated that cable companies make digital cable cards too. This means that the consumer has the option of NO cable box and may use a digital card, IF the TV is designed as such.

This has not worked out well, beause the digital cards have a lot problems, and they don't work as well as they should. People have been complaining about the failure rate of digital cable cards. Some are saying the cable companies purposely are not trying hard enough to fix the problems with them so people give up and get a box.

So if you're getting analog cable you will still be able to get this till 2012, unless your cable company diecides to go all digtal (for cable) then you'd need a converter box.

Another complaint levied againt cable companies is they are moving channels off of analog or basic teirs to higher levels without any rate adjustments. Which is exactly WHAT they ARE doing. Though cable companies deny this, study show this is what is happening. The idea behind this is analog subscribers will say, "Jeez I am paying only $5.00 less per month for analog, I might as well get digital and more channels."

mks57
01-23-2009, 02:35 PM
I get digital cable from Comcast, and they encrypt all of their digital channels. The basic tier is only available as analog channels. If you want to watch a local station's digital channels, whether in HD or SD, you have to have the stupid digital cable box. I'm not sure what they plan to do when analog broadcasts, the source of the basic tier, go dark. Even though I have a digital TV, it might as well be an old analog TV when it comes to the cable system. If I want to watch anything in HD, I have to use an external antenna or rent a HD digital cable box. They could make the local stations available on unencrypted QAM, but they don't want to. They really, really, want to make you use their box.

Kyrie Eleison
01-23-2009, 02:54 PM
SDV sounds like what I term "video on demand."
There are a lot of similarities to video on demand -- the same sort of mechanism used in SDV is often used to supply PPV movies and such. I guess the only distinguishing feature is that VOD is typically thought to mean the ability to watch a specific program on demand, start to finish, while in SDV, you just get to tune in to a specific channel, and watch whatever is already in progress. But now that you mention it, those are some of the other "features" that you lose by not having the cable box -- no VOD, no PPV. I suspect that Charter is more concerned about you losing those features than you are, though.
I notice there are some sub-channels with numbers like 98-2. Are those anything special, obtainable only with the Charter converter box?
Nothing special; that's a standard QAM channel designation. Each QAM "major" channel can be further subdivided to carry different programming streams; in this case, channel 98 likely carries two or more different channels. Any decent QAM tuner should be able to handle that without a problem. Usually, cable companies map QAM channel designators to "virtual channels," so, for instance, channel 98-2 might appear in your cable company's lineup as channel 734.

Musicat
01-23-2009, 08:08 PM
Nothing special; that's a standard QAM channel designation. Each QAM "major" channel can be further subdivided to carry different programming streams; in this case, channel 98 likely carries two or more different channels. Any decent QAM tuner should be able to handle that without a problem. Usually, cable companies map QAM channel designators to "virtual channels," so, for instance, channel 98-2 might appear in your cable company's lineup as channel 734.So if channel 98 is subdivided like that, does that indicate a degradation in signal quality? Something must give, no free lunch, etc.?

The reason I ask is I contribute to our local PEG channels and if Charter is giving us less than 100% signal quality, I will be on the warpath and so will the state-wide Association of PEG channels, so I'd like to be informed.Another complaint levied againt cable companies is they are moving channels off of analog or basic teirs to higher levels without any rate adjustments. Which is exactly WHAT they ARE doing. Though cable companies deny this, study show this is what is happening. The idea behind this is analog subscribers will say, "Jeez I am paying only $5.00 less per month for analog, I might as well get digital and more channels." That's Charter's game. Our PEG channels used to be in the 10-20 range, then they moved them to 9XX. They're still in the basic tier, but you need a digital setup to receive them, which typically requires renting a box from them.

Their justification for doing so is they claim that 51% of their customers have digital already, so they have crossed the legal threshhold. But since they won't release the actual subscriber numbers, we have no way of verifying that, and my personal feeling is that the 51% level has not been reached, at least in my neighborhood. Possibly statewide, but not locally.

kunilou
01-23-2009, 09:23 PM
I'll take a shot at this, since I'm a Charter subscriber and I have an analog TV hooked up to a cable box and an HDTV hooked up straight to cable.

You don't get everything on the TV hooked up straight to cable that you get when you're hooked up to the box.

Where I live we have basic cable (the local channels, public access and a bunch of religious and home shopping channels), "expanded basic" (USA, TNT, CNN, ESPN and the like) running from channels 2-99. I get those with or without a box, on both my analog and digital sets.

The next tier up is something called "digital view" that runs roughly from 100-199. This includes BBC America, some kids channels and the high-definition signals. I don't get that on my HDTV. What I do get is the standard def digital signals (480i) of my local stations.

On my cable box, I also get some movie channel that I don't get on any of the other TV's. And only through my cable box can I get premium channels, pay per view or the 80 music channels that Charter thoughtfully throws in the package.

So, to answer your question, Charter isn't lying (this time). You can get more with a cable box that you can get with a fancier TV but no cable box. But IMHO, you won't REALLY get much more unless you subscribe to more expensive packages.

asterion
01-24-2009, 07:26 AM
I hope to answer this later today as well. I've got Time Warner coming out in a few hours to hook me up (hey, it's free installation.) Anyway, my Insignia NS-LCD32 does have a QAM tuner but does not have a CableCard slot, so I'm getting a digital cable box and a HD-DVR (my plans to build a Mythbuntu have been shot down by the better half at least for now.) Time Warner also claims that I can hook up the little 19" NTSC in the bedroom and the Hauppauge WinTV-FM card in the computer and get everything under 100 without a box.

Even if you get cable and have no problem receiving the unencrypted locals using the QAM tuner, I still suggest using an antenna as well for your locals. Most of the anecdotes I've ever heard (and if you really want great help for A/V stuff, try a specialty forum like the AVS Forum) say that the quality is better OTA than over cable/satellite due to the amount of bandwidth available. I plan on watching the Superbowl, for instance, OTA and not through the cable unless I'm having reception issues for the local NBC affiliate. Hopefully the problems I've had in the past pulling in signals will disappear when the broadcasters go full-power on the digital transmission next month.

Musicat
01-24-2009, 09:50 AM
Where I live we have basic cable (the local channels, public access and a bunch of religious and home shopping channels), "expanded basic" (USA, TNT, CNN, ESPN and the like) running from channels 2-99. I get those with or without a box, on both my analog and digital sets.In my area, Charter basic includes some channels in the 900-999 range. Yes, it's basic, but it's digital, and yes, I'm sure about both. That's where the problem lies in my case.

asterion, I do have an antenna, but it's VHF only, fixed in a tall pine tree wihout a rotator, and requires an RF amp to work at all. Since I live in a fringe area (60 miles or more from any TV transmitter), and I'd have to replace the antenna with a UHF one, I think I'll leave it alone for now, but I appreciate your comments.

I'm coming to the conclusion that basic subscribers won't see a difference between a digital TV and a TV with a cable converter box. When I get the PC tuner card, I'm going to do a 1-to-1 comparison, channel by channel, to confirm this.

And to complicate matters, with Charter about to declare bankruptcy, a lot of things may change.

elfkin477
01-24-2009, 02:08 PM
Interesting. In my conversation with Charter, the word "card" never came up.

What functions does that card or converter box provide that the TV doesn't? I'm not sure what one is, but we got a mailing from our cable company about the digital switch. They said you'd need a box, or a card to continue receiving channels and they gave rental rates for both box and card. Until then I didn't know they even offered such a thing, but I get the impression that TV set alone won't work with our company at least.

Musicat
01-24-2009, 03:48 PM
I'm not sure what one is, but we got a mailing from our cable company about the digital switch. They said you'd need a box, or a card to continue receiving channels and they gave rental rates for both box and card. Until then I didn't know they even offered such a thing, but I get the impression that TV set alone won't work with our company at least.An impression the cable company probably wants you to get so they rent more boxes. But "won't work at all" is a long ways from "missing some (un)important features."