With the digital switch-over looming, it's time to learn how to upgrade your television viewing to the digital age.
Most of regional NSW went digital-only in 2012 and now it's Sydney's turn, with analog broadcasts set to end on December 3. This time next year, old televisions and video cassette recorders (VCRs) won't be able to tune into the handful of fuzzy analog channels that served us well for so long.
More than 90 per cent of Australians have already embraced digital television, according to the Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy. Many lounge rooms have upgraded to new widescreen screens with built-in digital TV tuners, offering access to the traditional channels along with a range of new digital-only channels. But if you're not ready to put your old television on the nature strip, it's easy to upgrade an old television to digital with a cheap set-top box.
The first step when upgrading to digital is to test your digital TV signal strength, says Jez Ford, editor of Sound+Image magazine.
''A good analog signal is no guarantee of a good digital signal,'' Ford says. ''It's worth borrowing a digital set-top box to test your digital signal strength, so you'll know in advance if you should get advice from a local antenna specialist before making your purchase.''
''If you run into interference issues, with the picture freezing, try upgrading your aerial cable to RG6 quad-shielded cable and removing unnecessary signal splitters. Sometimes these changes alone are enough to fix the problem.''
High-definition set-top boxes are slightly more expensive than standard-definition boxes, but Ford says it's worth the extra money to gain access to the five additional HD digital channels. If you don't yet own an HD television, an HD set-top box can downscale these channels for your old television. This way you can still watch the HD channels but they won't look any sharper than the others.
A cheap HD digital set-top box is the easiest way to prepare for the jump to digital TV. Look for a digital set-top box with an antenna output as well as input, Ford says, so you can loop the aerial signal through the box to your television as you perhaps did with your VCR.
A digital set-top box will plug into an old television's composite or component video inputs, just like a VCR or DVD player.
''Now to watch digital television you simply turn the television to the AV channel, a concept people should already grasp if they own a VCR. They can keep their old VCR for watching programs they've recorded previously, or watching movies they've purchased on tape, but the VCR won't be able to watch or record the digital channels.''
If you're running out of video inputs on the television, an AV switch lets you plug several devices into the one video input and choose between them. If the television is so old that it only features an aerial socket, look for a digital set-top box with a built-in RF modulator which sends the digital channels to the television through the aerial cable. Some set-top boxes feature an aerial output but lack an RF modulator, so choose with care. Alternatively you can use a VCR as the middleman, plugging the set-top box into the VCR's video inputs and then the VCR into the television's aerial socket.
With the digital set-top box running through a VCR, it is possible to record the digital channels, but it's a rather cumbersome workaround. It's easier to upgrade to a digital video recorder with a built-in hard drive, known as a personal video recorder. PVRs can perform impressive tricks such as pausing live digital television, recording several shows at once and even letting you watch the start of a movie while you're still recording the end (see Toss-Up below).
Unfortunately, PVRs tend to be more complicated than old VCRs, with their time-bending abilities presenting a steep learning curve for some. Some PVRs, such as TiVo and Telstra's T-Box, also require a constant internet connection in order to download to the program guide. They won't suit people without broadband access to their lounge room. Other PVRs can extract the program guide from the broadcast signal.
Thankfully many set-top boxes and digital televisions can record digital broadcasts to an external USB hard drive. You're often sacrificing the bells and whistles of a dedicated PVR, but recording to a USB drive could be a handy first step for homes looking to bring their lounge room into the digital age.
A helping hand
The Digital Switchover Household Assistance Scheme helps older Australians, veterans and people with disabilities make the upgrade to digital TV. It can include a high-definition set-top box, installation and demonstration on how to use it. If you own your home, you may be eligible for upgrades to your cabling and antenna.
If you live in an area unable to receive terrestrial TV, the scheme provides equipment to receive free-to-air TV via the Viewer Access Satellite Television (VAST) service. If you currently have access to the Aurora satellite system, or live in the remote central and eastern Australia licence area, then you can move to VAST now.
Why the switch?
Since the beginning of television broadcasts, programs have been transmitted using the analog signal. In the past decade, the advent of digital technology has allowed programmers to deliver more channels, better picture and sound, and electronic programming guides, among other improvements. Importantly, the switch allows governments to free up the analog spectrum for sale to mobile phone operators and internet service providers.
According to the federal government, Luxembourg was the first to make a country-wide total digital switch, in 2006. Other nations, including Australia, have staggered the switch over several years. That process ends on December 3, 2013, when our analog TV signal is turned off for good. Check when your neighbourhood will lose the analog signal, if not already, on myswitch.digitalready.gov.au.
- With Lia Timson