There are several ways to watch digital channels in analog, writes Adam Turner.
Technology is ever marching forward but there can still be a place for old gadgets in your lounge room.
The big push behind digital television has seen plenty of faithful old sets abandoned but it is possible to give your old television a new lease of life.
For less than $50, you can pick up a digital set-top box, which plugs into your aerial and converts all the digital channels for your old analog television.
Connecting a digital set top box to your old television means you'll be able to watch the new digital-only channels such as ABC2, ABC3, SBS2, GO!, 7TWO and One. Even community television's Channel 31 has made the move to digital.
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If it's a high-definition set top box you'll also be able to watch the high-definition channels, such as the ABC's new 24-hour news channel, although these high-definition channels won't look any sharper than the other channels if you're watching them on an old analog television. Apart from ABC's dedicated news channel, all the other high-def channels are merely simulcasts of a standard-def channel so you're not missing out on anything.
If you're connecting a digital set-top box to an old television, you'll need to dip into the settings and change the box's video output to a 4:3 picture rather than a 16:9 widescreen picture.
This means you'll get black bars at the top and bottom of most shows, an effect known as "letterbox".
You might be offered a choice between 4:3 Letterbox and 4:3 Pan and Scan. The latter will chop off the edges of the widescreen picture so it fits on your old television without black bars.
Most digital set-top boxes feature a range of video outputs on the back — HDMI and component video for high-definition televisions and composite video for standard-definition televisions.
You might even find SCART and S-Video connectors on the back. If you've got an old analog television, you'll probably need to use the set-top box's composite video "RCA" or "phono" connectors — a yellow plug for the picture along with red and white plugs for the sound.
If your television has a SCART input, you can buy an adaptor that converts SCART to composite, component or S-Video (check it's designed to work with a SCART input on a television and not just a SCART output). Of course, if your television is really old, it might not have any of these connectors, just an aerial input. One solution is to look for a digital set-top box with a built-in RF (radio frequency) modulator.
This lets the set-top box send the digital channels through its aerial output. Now you can connect the set-top box's aerial output to your old television's aerial input and then tune the television to the correct channel — probably channel 3 — as you would when connecting a VCR to an old television.
If your digital set-top box lacks an RF modulator, you can buy a stand-alone converter. An easier option is to use a VCR as the middle man, assuming it has composite or S-Video inputs for connecting to the set-top box.
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Now you can tune your television to the correct channel to watch the VCR, then switch over to the VCR's AV input to watch the set-top box (as you might if your DVD player is connected to your VCR).
The digital switchover has already begun in Mildura and, by the end of 2013, analog TV broadcasts will have ceased across the country. At that point, your analog VCR won't be able to record television shows and you'll want to upgrade to a digital video recorder that records to a DVD disc or internal hard drive. Hard drive-based recorders are a better option as most let you pause and rewind live TV, record two programs simultaneously and even watch the start of a movie while you're still recording the end.
Your VCR won't be useless after the digital switchover. You'll still be able to watch movies you've purchased or programs you've previously recorded.
You'll also be able to record the output from a digital set-top box. Most digital set-top boxes don't apply Macrovision protection to their composite video output, so you shouldn't encounter the strange fluctuations you see if you try to record a DVD to videotape. If you do encounter this problem, specialist electrical stores sell an "image stabiliser" that removes the Macrovision interference.
Your VCR will only record in 4:3, so your set-top box must be set to 4:3 Letterbox or 4:3 Pan and Scan video output. If you configure your set-top box for 16:9 widescreen, the VCR will probably squash the widescreen picture to fit your screen's 4:3, which looks terrible.
Of course, recording digital television with your VCR isn't as practical as upgrading to a digital recorder, as the VCR can't change the channel on the set-top box if you've scheduled a recording in advance. If you're not ready to upgrade your television yet, you can still upgrade to a digital recorder, which also offers fancy tricks such as pausing and rewinding live TV. You'll need to set the digital recorder's video output to 576i or PAL resolution, with a 4:3 aspect ratio.
If you can't connect the digital recorder directly to your television, run it through your old VCR. If your digital recorder has an HDMI output, you won't need to replace it when you eventually upgrade your television.
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Reach a resolution in the lounge room
The resolution refers to the number of dots, or pixels, that make up your television screen. The more pixels, the sharper the picture.
Analog televisions in Australia, with an aspect ratio of 4:3, use the PAL video format, which is comprised of 576 horizontal lines. The image is "interlaced", which means the television rapidly alternates between displaying every second horizontal line in the picture to create the illusion of an entire picture.
A new 16:9 widescreen television can display a widescreen 576 picture — wider than the old analog broadcasts but still only 576 horizontal lines. Widescreen standard-definition digital television broadcasts are in 576i, or interlaced. Any new widescreen television should also be able to handle 576p. The "p" is for "progressive", meaning it displays every line of the picture simultaneously rather than every second line alternately. Progressive pictures offer smoother playback than interlaced during fast-moving action such as sport. This is the resolution of most DVDs, so you should switch your DVD player's video output from PAL/576i to 576p if your television supports it.
While standard-definition television is broadcast in 576i, the high-definition channels use 576p, 720p or 1080i.
Blu-ray movies are in 1080p.
Most widescreen televisions labelled "HD" can only display up to 720p but will usually downscale a 1080i/p image to 720p (otherwise you can set your devices to do the downscaling). Widescreen televisions labelled "Full HD" can display an image of up to 1080i/p. If you've got a high-definition digital set-top box, it should be able to downscale the HD channels to 720p, 576p or 576i if required. Copy-protection features often mean Blu-ray players won't downscale Blu-ray movies via HDMI, although you might have more luck using component or composite connectors. Some Blu-ray players may still play DVDs at PAL/576i — these features vary between players.
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If you're looking to replace your DVD player but still own an old analog television, it's only worth considering a Blu-ray player if it can play DVDs at 576i via composite video. This way you won't need to upgrade your DVD player when you buy a high-definition television.
Most Blu-ray players and some DVD players can also upscale DVDs to 720p or 1080i/p.
Most digital set-top boxes, Blu-ray players and DVD players feature an HDMI output — the format that supports high-definition audio and video with one cable. If you're buying a new widescreen television, consider HDMI mandatory — preferably several HDMI inputs to cater for a DVD/Blu-ray player, digital TV recorder or set-top box and a games console. You might also come across several other video connectors.
Composite connections are the most common and handle 576i/p video. Composite splits the signal into one video cable (a yellow plug) and two audio cables (red and white). Component video splits the video into three cables and the audio into two. Many devices will support 1080i/p via HDMI but only 1080i via component. Other connectors you might encounter include SCART and S-Video.
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