Published on January 24, 2008, by

It should be an embarrassment to the TV industry that so few folks fully understand what HD television is, how to get it, or why they should care. Do I need a new TV? Do I have HD already and not know it? Or do I mistakenly think I’m already watching HD because I bought a new TV but didn’t upgrade my cable box?

The answers are different for different folks, but if you’re one of the millions of homes that’s not fully HD-ified, don’t fret. There are cheap options that may make you perfectly happy even though the cable and satellite companies might say otherwise.

First Scenario: You have a modern HD-ready TV (most often plasma or LCD with what’s called an ATSC tuner) purchased in the last 4 or 5 years and you subscribe to cable or satellite service. To get HD channels you’ll generally want to ask your provider for a new HD-capable box, which could also mean a new dish if you’re a satellite customer. This will usually bump up your monthly fee, but not by much. And this is the kind of situation where satellite customers should hold out for free upgrades of all hardware since you’ll be paying more monthly in the long term and making the satellite provider happy. Also note that while the major networks and some of the cable networks will then be arriving in HD, many if not most of them will still be the same old channels until every channel is available in HD.

Second Scenario: You have a modern HD-ready TV but don’t want to pay any more monthly or are ready to give up pay service entirely. This is actually a better option than ever now that crystal clear HD signals are being broadcast in every major city. It may seem antiquated, but if you live within about 30 miles of your local TV towers you can usually use an inexpensive indoor antenna to pull in full HD broadcasts of the major networks (NBC, CBS, etc). With zero monthly fee you’ll be watching full HD that exceeds the signal quality of most satellite and cable HD signals. There won’t be any Comedy Central or MTV unless you also pay for standard cable/satellite, but you can’t beat free.

Third Scenario: You have an old TV, no interest in HD, and don’t subscribe to cable or satellite service. Starting in February 2009 (unless they delay it again, which is always a possibility), you’ll need a small analog/digital converter box connected to your TV since the old signals TV stations have been sending for 50+ years will be turned off. This box will probably cost around $50 and the price can be offset by coupons the government is handing out here. You may also want a slightly fancier antenna, but if you get clear over the air signals now you may not need it.

See? That wasn’t so bad.

Helpful Links:

AntennaWeb.org – Type in your street address (you can leave all the other fields blank) and get a detailed survey of digital (HD) broadcasters in your area. They’ll also recommend an antenna type and tell you which way to point it.

Phillips HD Antenna – This cheap antenna at Amazon.com is highly recommended and will pull in beautiful HD signals for folks in most U.S. metropolitan areas.
Update: It’s often out of stock at amazon. Here another decent option by Philips.

DTV2009.gov – Request free coupons that will get you a cheaper converter box for old TVs that aren’t HD ready and won’t be connected to cable or satellite service.