Archive for June 9, 2009

DTV countdown: The antenna dilemma

DTV transition TV antenna tips DTV reception adjusting antennas digital TV broadcasts

On June 12, 2009, television broadcasts in the U.S. will switch from analog signals to digital. Ensuring that your television set will receive those digital broadcasts may require some adjustments to your television's antenna.
[ stock photo courtesy of: Agata Urbaniak ]

The DTV transition that culminates this Friday, June 12, is putting antennas back in the spotlight. But getting good reception with digital broadcasts can be a tricky business, and there's no one-size-fits-all solution. It depends on your location, the topography around your home, and the distance to the TV station's transmitting towers.

Getting the right antenna for your situation is the first step. (See our previous post, DTV Tips: Choosing and using an antenna for our advice and read the tips and comments from other readers.)

You'll also find very useful info at:

A set-top antenna is the simplest and cheapest solution and should be your first try.

If you're lucky, an indoor antenna will get you all the channels available in your area, with a clear, continuous picture and sound. But it's possible you'll encounter some glitches, because the UHF band is more directional than VHF and more sensitive to obstacles that lie between your antenna and the broadcast tower. About 20 percent of DTV adopters we surveyed said they had trouble with reception.

Here's a recap of our advice on adjusting your antenna.

Make small adjustments and give the tuner in the converter box or DTV a moment to "catch up" and detect the signal. Use the signal-strength meter on the converter box or DTV to see what position is best for a specific station. Moving the antenna even a few inches, or placing it higher up, can help.

Try physically relocating your indoor antenna around various parts of the room—preferably near a window facing the direction of your local TV transmitters. Get some long antenna cables and experiment. In some cities, most or all towers are in the same vicinity. In other areas, or if you live between cities, towers may lie in opposite directions, so you might have to adjust the antenna whenever you switch from one channel to another. Alternatively, you can get an omnidirectional antenna so you don't have to readjust the antenna every time you change channels.

When signals are hard to pull in, a set-top antenna with a built-in signal amplifier may provide better reception. This type of antenna can help if you have a 20-foot or longer cable connecting devices, because signals weaken with distance. It may also help if your particular setup calls for splitting the signal—to simultaneously feed two converter boxes or a TV and a VCR, for examples.

Rather than using a regular cable splitter, you might want to try a powered amplifier with multiple outputs, to avoid losing too much signal strength to each device. But keep in mind that you still have to adjust the antenna for optimal reception. You'll find additional tips from HDTV Tuner Info (http://www.HDTVTunerInfo.com), a web site started by an enthusiast.

There are cases in which an indoor antenna won't be enough. Then it's time for an outdoor model. Again, check the Web sites mentioned above for advice.

Share your experiences here as well. Your solution might work for someone else. —Eileen McCooey

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In the CR test labs: New LCD TVs

With our new, accelerated TV testing schedule, we’re continually testing new TVs. Listed below are the latest LCD models to arrive in our labs. All these sets, and perhaps a few more, will be included in our next full TV Ratings (available to subscribers), which should be posted in about two weeks.

Insignia

The Insignia NS-L26Q-10A, Best Buy’s house brand, is a low-priced 26-inch 720p (1366×768) set. Several Insignia models have done very well in our last Ratings, offering a lot for the money and earning them a Best Buy designation.

LG Electronics
LG's 47LH55 is a high-priced 47-inch 1080p model. It’s notable for being the first series to use LG’s “240Hz TruMotion” technology, which combines a 120Hz refresh rate with a scanning backlight to achieve a 240Hz effect to help reduce motion blur.

Panasonic
Some Panansonic LCDs have had very wide, plasma-like viewing angles. We're currently testing the TC-L26X1, a 26-inch 720p X1-series set that features an external iPod dock that allows it to be controlled via the TV’s remote.

Sanyo
Sanyo’s DP32649 is a low-cost 720p set sold at Walmart. This model has a USB port and slide-show capability, more features than we’ve seen on earlier models.

Sony
Part of Sony’s step-up XBR series, the pricey 52-inch Bravia KDL-52XBR9 is a 1080p model with 240Hz Motionflow technology. Unlike the 240Hz sets from LG and Toshiba, however, this TV actually quadruples the frame rate to reduce motion blur.

Toshiba
Toshiba’s Regza 55ZV650U is a 55-inch 1080p model with the company’s ClearScan 240Hz technology. Like the LG model, it uses a 120Hz refresh rate in combination with a scanning backlight to achieve a 240Hz effect to reduce motion blur.

RCA
The RCA L32HD31R is a low-priced 720p set sold at Walmart. The RCA brand is now controlled by TTE, a subsidiary of Chinese electronics manufacturer TCL.

Vizio
We have two Vizio LCD sets in our labs. The VO320E is a low-cost 720p set available at Walmart and Target. The VO370M is a step-up 37-inch 1080p model. Both are billed as “eco” sets, as Vizio claims they exceed Energy Star 3.0 guidelines by at least 15 percent.

Westinghouse Digital
The Westinghouse SK-26H630S is a 26-inch 720p (1366×768) model. The company says it has an advanced calibration menu for making adjustments.

Keep checking back here for information about the new plasma TVs we have in our labs, and to see the latest TV Ratings when they’re posted. —James K. Willcox

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Inside Consumer Reports: The life of a secret shopper

mystery shopper consumer reports secret shopper how we test shopping retail electronics buying gadgets

Consumer Reports' secret shoppers buy all the products—from digital cameras to washing machines to cars—from typical retail outlets to ensure that what we test and rate are the same products available to the average consumer.
[ stock photo courtesy of: Paige Foster ]

Pay close attention to the guy outside your local electronics store—average height, average build, easy to dismiss. Yet there’s more here than meets the eye. You might be looking at a Consumer Reports secret shopper.

Behind the newspaper he’s apparently studying, our man is steeling himself for a performance that will require quick thinking and steady nerves. He must spend thousands of dollars on unlikely purchases without raising suspicion or compromising his under-cover status. When his job is done and the glass doors close behind him, employees will find it difficult to recall his face. Success. He can return another day.

At least that might be how Tom Clancy would describe it.

The secret shopper I shadowed on a recent outing (let’s call him Mr. X) is more Average Joe than 007. But, he is still an agent with a number to his name—it’s printed on a credit card that’s reimbursed by Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports.

Granted, a piece of plastic isn’t as state-of-the-art as one of Q’s gizmos. But despite the workaday aspects of his job, a secret shopper needs a creative mind and a flair for adventure. Picture this: Our Mr. X goes into a store to buy five TVs. Big ones. The sales guy cocks an eyebrow. Five TVs? What for?

Our man has to think quickly before he’s “made.” He does—he pulls out a clever excuse so believable (which I won’t reprint here, because he uses it often) that the salesperson’s face turns from skeptical to amused and, ultimately, convinced. Mr. X will then cart the TVs back to our labs, where our testers run them through a gauntlet of tests.

Our secret shoppers in New York and 65 other cities nationwide buy products at retail—just as you do—to ensure we’re getting the real McCoy and not a souped-up version from the manufacturer. We pay retail prices too: Consumer Reports spends $250,000 per year on TVs alone.

So our shopper signs his name, pockets the receipt, and walks coolly out the front door. You can’t beat a confident, informed consumer. Eat your heart out, Mr. Bond. —Nick K. Mandle

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The Palm Pre: A First Look

Based on our early tests, the Palm Pre lives up to its promise as a viable competitor to the iPhone—even if Apple moved the goalposts today by announcing a new and faster model of their smartphone, and dropping the price of the older iPhone.

As we cover in our video First Look, the Pre, which costs $199 with rebates and a 2-year-contract from Sprint, uses its touchscreen in several of the same effective ways as the iPhone and some other touch smart phones. It also allows you to open multiple applications and move them around the screen, like playing cards on a table.

Attributes not covered in the video, but significant, include:

  • The ability to search within the phone and on the Web without retyping the search terms.
  • Bookmarks on the Web browser that go to home pages—for Facebook, Amazon.com, ESPN, MySpace, Sprint, and Palm—that are specially formatted for mobile devices; many look and function just like their iPhone counterparts.
  • A 3.0-megapixel camera that lacks a flash but does have an LED light to illuminate subjects in low light.
  • Some connection limitations. There's no Bluetooth data capability on the Pre, which makes it impossible to beam contacts and other data from another phone—even from Palms. And if already own a Palm device, you can't transfer data from it with a sync to your Pre, using your computer. However, Palm allows you to do a "one-time transfer" of data from selected desktop organizers like Palm and Outlook, via a Web link.
  • All data on your Pre gets backed up daily, and wirelessly, to a remote server.

We're continuing to test the Pre, and we'll add it soon to our Ratings of smart phones, available to subscribers. —Mike Gikas

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Apple’s speedier, feature-rich new iPhone 3GS

Apple iPhone 3G S WWDC

The new Apple iPhone 3G S. [Photo courtesy of Apple]

As widely rumored, Apple today announced a new version of the iPhone. The new iPhone 3G S, the company claims, has double the connection speed and maximum capacity of its predecessor, the iPhone 3G. That older model will stay on the market, with its price cut to $99, a new low for an iPhone.

Unveiled at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, the 3G S—“the S stands for speed”—will be available June 19 and will cost $199 in a 16GB version and $299 in a 32GB version—the largest iPhone capacities yet. Battery life was also boosted, to almost double the levels of the 3G; Apple claims the 3G S will run for up to 9 hours on the 3G network, up from 5 hours for the iPhone 3G.

The new phone will also add several features notably absent from iPhones until now: the ability to shoot video and to control the phone with your voice. There’s also the ability to edit videos for length and post them to YouTube and other sites.

The device also adds text-to-speech capability, a nicety featured on the Amazon Kindle, and a compass to enhance maps and GPS navigation.

GPS capabilities were also given an upgrade via a new iPhone App from Tom Tom, a leading manufacturer of GPS units (see our Ratings of GPS units, available to subscribers). Available sometime this summer for an undisclosed price, the new GPS application will, for the first time, allow iPhone owners to receive turn-by-turn directions.

That enhanced GPS capability was the highlight of announcements related to the new iPhone 3.0 operating system. The new OS will also allow you to download videos from iTunes directly to your iPhone. Other disclosures about iPhone 3.0, such as the ability to cut-and-paste text and enhancements to search, mostly echoed those announced earlier this year.

In addition to its video capability, the camera on the 3G S sports more advanced controls than previous iPhone cameras, including autofocus and auto white-balance. The camera also has macro capability to shoot subjects as close as four inches away. It also uses touchscreen capability to allow you to select the subject to focus on; you simply tap where the subject appears on the screen.

The 3G S measures about 4.5 inches by 2.4 inches by .48 inches—which is virtually identical to the older 3G. Weights are identical, at 4.8 ounces —Mike Gikas and Paul Reynolds

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