WITH less than a year until Melbourne abandons its old analog TV stations, it's time for the stragglers to finally make the leap to digital television.
More than a decade after Australians got their first taste of crisp widescreen digital broadcasts, the time is approaching to pull the plug on the handful of analog channels. Most of regional Victoria went through the digital switchover in mid-2011 and Melbourne is getting ready to follow suit on December 10.
If you've bought a new widescreen television in the past few years, chances are it features a built-in digital television tuner. If it only has a standard-definition tuner, you're missing out on the five high-definition channels, although, sadly, few programs on the high-def channels are actually broadcast in high-def.
If you're in the market for a new television, look for the purple ''Digital Ready - High Definition'' sticker, which means it includes a high-definition TV tuner so you can watch all the new digital channels. The yellow ''Digital Ready - Standard Definition'' sticker means forgoing the five high-def channels. Be aware that the blue ''Digital Capable'' sticker means it's an analog TV and doesn't have a digital tuner, although you could hook up a set-top box to watch digital channels in standard definition.
Some gear carries the Freeview logo, but this isn't necessary to view all the digital channels.
If you're not ready to part with your old television, or you want to retire it to the spare room, you can upgrade it to digital using a set-top box. Considering the minimal price difference between standard and high-def set-top boxes, do yourself a favour and buy a high-def box. It can downscale the high-def channels so you can watch them on your old TV - they just won't look any sharper than standard-def.
A digital set-top box will connect to your old television's composite or component video inputs, just like a DVD player. The tradeoff for keeping your old television is that the widescreen digital picture will look ''letterboxed'' on your old square-ish television, with black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. It's possible to zoom in, chopping off the sides of the picture, or to stretch the picture to fill the screen.
If your television is so old that it only has an RF aerial input, you'll need a digital set-top box with a built-in RF modulator to send the digital channels through the aerial cable. Many set-top boxes have an RF output for connection to your television, but most lack an RF modulator, so choose with care.
You could also use your old video cassette recorder as the middleman, plugging the VCR into the television's aerial socket and then the digital set-top box into the VCR's video inputs.
Talk of VCRs brings us to perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome when upgrading to digital television: finding a way to record live broadcasts. The analog TV tuner in your VCR will only find static after the digital switchover, although you'll still be able to watch programs you've recorded previously or movies you've bought on tape.
One cumbersome workaround is to use your VCR to record the output from your digital set-top box. A more practical solution is to invest in a personal video recorder, which records digital broadcasts to an internal hard drive. Many televisions and set-top boxes can also record television to a hard drive.
When shopping for PVRs, look for high-def tuners - preferably more than one so you can watch one channel while recording another. PVRs also let you perform tricks such as pausing and rewinding live broadcasts. Some also have access to online video services such as movie rentals and catch-up TV.
Many PVRs have composite or component AV outputs for connecting to older televisions, but look for one that also has an HDMI output, which carries high-def audio and video over one cable. This way, when you eventually upgrade your television, you'll be able to get the best picture quality out of your PVR.
Dealing with interference
INTERFERENCE to an analog signal results in static interrupting your TV viewing; digital interference results in pixelation and freezing. It is possible your interference is coming from within your house. The first step is to move other electrical equipment further away from your TV, particularly wi-fi gear, broadband modems, cordless phones and AC power packs. Avoid running aerial cables alongside electrical cables.
Next, upgrade to RG6 quad-shielded aerial cable running from the wall socket to your television and other video gear. Use screw-in F connectors to ensure a firm connection. Remove any unnecessary signal splitters between the aerial and your television.
If you must use a splitter, use a powered one rather than a passive one. If you need to install a signal amplifier, ensure it allows you to adjust the gain as a signal that is too strong can also cause the picture to break up. You should do everything you can to reduce interference and improve your signal quality before you amplify it, otherwise you are also amplifying your problems.
For more advice on getting ready for the switchover, phone the Digital Ready Information Line on 1800 201 013; see digitalready.gov.au.