Digital TV offers potentially better picture quality and more channels than analog over-the-air broadcasts, but getting digital signals might not be as easy as plugging a converter box between your antenna and TV. Here's why.
Most analog stations are in the VHF band, channels 2-13, while digital signals are transmitted mainly over the UHF band, 14 and higher. (However, digital stations in some areas may move to the VHF band next February, when analog channels vacate their station frequencies.) The UHF band is more directional than VHF and more sensitive to obstacles (such as trees, tall buildings, and mountains) that lie between your antenna and the broadcast tower. So getting good UHF reception can be more difficult than pulling in VHF, affecting your ability to get digital broadcasts.
The all-or-nothing nature of digital broadcasts also comes into play. With analog stations, a weak signal can still yield a watchable picture—it might be snowy or have ghosts, but you'll get a continuous picture and uninterrupted sound.
If you're getting marginal reception of digital signals, both the picture and sound might freeze or break up to the point that it's not watchable. If you're really on the fringes—either too far from a tower or with too many obstacles in the way—you'll see a black screen that says "Weak or no signal."
You don't have to wait until next year to get an idea right now as to what kind of reception you can expect after the transition. Here's what you can do right now:
With any of these scenarios, you should first try a basic indoor set-top antenna designed to pick up both VHF and UHF. If you're close to a broadcast station and there are minimal obstacles between your antenna and the tower, you should see a clear, continuous picture that might be better than what you get with analog. (Sound quality will be about the same, though.) Basic indoor antennas start at about $10, though some cost much more.
If reception isn't great, move the antenna around the room or close to a window. Most converter boxes indicate the signal strength you're getting as you adjust the antenna position. If you can't get a strong signal from any position, try a set-top antenna that has a built-in signal amplifier. No luck? Try an antenna mounted on your roof or in your attic. The most effective type of antenna is a rooftop model equipped with a rotor, which can point the antenna in different directions to pull in broadcasts from various towers. Basic outdoor models start at about $50.
Unfortunately, there's a chance no antenna will work for you. Recent reports indicate that some households are in fringe areas with poor reception, and for them, off-air digital TV might not be a good option.
In any case, start soon. If you encounter problems, there will be plenty of time to resolve them before next February so you're not left out in the cold.