What would it possibly take to create more hysteria than the conversion to digital television? Killer bees inside your jeans?
Help! Here's the bottom line: In five months, analog televisions used with an antenna for over-the-air reception will turn into a useless pile of transistors without a quick-fix converter box.
One of these little boxes, like the Zenith DTT901 digital TV tuner I've been auditioning, will ensure a trusted analog TV remains a functional member of the family after Feb. 17. That's when analog waveforms fall from the sky, replaced by packets of digital bits. Cable and satellite subscribers won't notice the difference. It's only the 30 million sets that use an antenna exclusively for programming - and the 40 million that sometimes use one - that will need a converter box.
The federal government, which created this crisis after auctioning off the country's analog airwaves to telecommunications companies for $19 billion this year, has offered every household a lifeline. It's handing out $40 coupons at dtv2009.gov (or by calling 888-388-2009) for a set-top box that converts the digital signals into an analog feed.
The DTT901 costs $60 at Wal-Mart and Circuit City, so anyone who brings a government-issued coupon to the retailer ends up paying $20. Some boxes might produce a better picture than others, but most likely will be used with older, smaller analog sets with little detectable difference. It's the features, degree of setup difficulty and a comfortable, functional remote that will matter most.
For the DTT901, Zenith includes all necessary wiring and a remote that, though laid out logically and easy to use, might have too-small buttons too closely packed together.
Check the back of your TV before connecting a converter box. Some older sets have only a single RF connection for audio and video. If your set has an alternative - a single composite video connection, often colored yellow, and stereo audio connections (white for left channel, red for right channel) - use it. After connecting a basic rabbit-ears antenna to the box and running the auto-tuning function from the DTT901's menu, my television showed 17 available channels, including four from the local CBS affiliate, the other major networks (ABC, NBC and Fox), the CW and some Spanish programming.
If, for some reason, a DTT901 is unavailable, Best Buy sells the same box under its own brand as the Insignia NS-DXA1-APT.
Contact Gadgets columnist Kevin Hunt at email@example.com.