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A Canadian’s Guide to Digital TV: Here and South of the Border

written by: •edited by: Tricia Goss•updated: 5/27/2009

Sleeping with an elephant is never easy, and our American friends are rolling over to Digital broadcasting of over the air television. Canada won’t be switching for a couple years, but setting up to get Canadian analog and US Digital channels isn’t hard.

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    US Channels, then Canadian Channels, Go Digital

    Anyone that gets TV channels from the US has noticed the incessant warnings that action must be taken to preserve their TV’s from going blank. The reason is that US stations are switching to broadcasting Digital signals, and analog broadcasts end on June 12, 2009.

    Canadian channels have until August 31, 2011, an extra two years and change, to stop broadcasting in analog, so you don’t need to do anything to keep getting Canadian channels until then.

    Many of you have already noticed a problem. Living on the CBC may be fine during the playoffs, but it is going to be a long time before they roll around again. Even Peter Mansbridges’ family probably doesn’t want to see that much of him.

    If you live close enough to the border to get US channels, you might very well have to do something if you want to keep watching them. Even if you are up north and don’t get TV from the States, you may as well find out what you have to do between now and August 2011. Just keep in mind that you can wait until it’s easier to find a converter box, or you might buy a new TV or switch to pay service by then.

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    Digital TV Change Is Only for Over the Air Broadcasting

    The only people to be affected, on either side of the border, are those who use over the air, free, TV signals. If you have rabbit ears, a loop, bowtie, or outdoor antenna, these receive over the air signals that will be affected, first in the States, then here.

    If you pay for your TV signal, either through cable or through satellite, you have nothing to fear (other then the bills). You already own or rent whatever it is you need get and decode the signal. These changes brought in by the FCC and CRTC only affect over the air broadcasting: they won’t change how you watch TV.

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    Do I Have to Buy Anything to Get Digital TV?

    It depends on if your TV has a digital tuner in it. Your odds are a lot better the newer, bigger, and fancier the TVs you own are. Some will be labeled (Integrated Digital Tuner, DTV Ready, ATSC Tuner, or similar nomenclature) but any manual will have this information. If you can’t find your manual, check the manufacturer’s website or get in touch with their customer service. If your TV supports only NTSC, that means analog, and you are out of luck.

    If you are thinking of doing it anyway, buying a new TV (most of which have digital tuners by now) or switching to cable or satellite will solve the problem. If you are happy with your current setup and want to keep watching free over the air TV channels, either US ones now, or Canadian ones later, the cheapest answer is a digital to analog converter box.

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    Can I get Analog and Digital Channels at the Same Time?

    That is going to be important if you are buying the converter box so that you can still get US channels that go digital, and also want to watch Canadian channels until they switch to digital. Find a converter box with a feature called “Analog Passthrough" and you will be just fine.

    It allows you to still get Analog signals with the converter box hooked up. If you get a box without this feature, you will have to use splitters and extra cables to switch from Digital to analog and back. The feature doesn’t add much, if anything, to the converter's price, and using extra cables and switches instead degrades the strength of your TV signal.

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    On the next page we recommend a couple good converter box options and tell you where you can buy them in Canada.

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    We answer where you can find a converter box in Canada so you can keep watching US channels and be ready for Canada's switch to Digital broadcasting of over the air television in 2011. We recommend a couple good units for sale in Canada, including the cheapest in Canada with analog passthrough, a feature you will need to watch Digital channels from the US and analog channels from Canada on the same TV until Canada switches. You can use a box purchased from the US as long as it is marked BETS-7. We also have instructions for hooking up your converter box.
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    Buying a Digital Converter Box in Canada

    Here is the hard part. In the States, people have a huge choice of converter boxes available, and they can even get coupons from the government to help offset their cost. The $40 USD coupons cover almost the entire price of a basic converter box. Not only do we not get coupons (at least not yet, though I’m not holding my breath), but there are very few boxes to choose from.

    If you want to grab one while you are in the States or order one from there, it has to be marked or permanently labeled "Standard Television Receiving Apparatus — Appareil de réception télévision ordinaire, Canada BETS-7 / NTMR-7". If it’s not labeled it might not work, but more importantly, you aren’t allowed to import them. Si l'appareil n'apporte pas l'étiquette, il ne... oh, sorry, I got carried away. I end up saying things in both official languages for a few hours after I get off a VIA train also.

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    The Best Deals on Digital Converter Boxes in Canada

    The good news is I poked around and ferreted out the best deals. Start by skipping the Best Buy and Future Shop. To begin with, they have only one or two converter boxes to choose from, and they somehow came up with a price of eighty dollars! And that is without analog pass-through! Canada Computers luckily has two units with analog passthrough at prices that are more realistic. I have had positive experiences with them before, and can recommend them as a reliable source with good prices and selection for Canadians buying computer or electronic products that don't want to deal with shipping from the States. They also have retail outlets from Ottawa to London, concentrated in and around Toronto.

    NCIX.ca is also a good online source of computer products shipping from Canada, but with retail in lower BC. Both of the units I am recommending are at Canada Computers, but NCIX deserved mention as an online computer store I like and would buy from again. Shipping within Canada is cheap (often free) and avoids customs delays, and you are supporting Canadian business by buying from either NCIX or Canada Computers. Note that not every online retailer with a .ca URL is located in or shipping from Canada. I'm looking at you Newegg.

    This converter from Sunkey is the cheapest you’ll find in Canada with analog passthrough, at $66 Canadian, obviously. Still probably more than you want to pay, you’ll have to decide if you should instead put it towards a new TV with a built in tuner, or start using it to pay cable or TV bills.

    If cable and satellite aren’t your thing and you have a nice TV you like that has an S-Video input, you’ll probably want to get this box from Digiwave. It’s almost eighty bucks, but unlike the Future Shop or Best Buy offerings at that price, the DTV3000 has not just analog passthrough, but is pretty well loaded. You get S-Video for the best picture you can get in analog and convenience features like favorite channel memory.

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    More Info on Hooking Up and Using a Digital Converter

    Though writing about technology for everyone from Bathurst to Bolivar to Bombay and back is a blast, it was great to address something to a local (if you can call the biggest country on earth that) audience of neighbours. You know what you need to buy (hopefully nothing) and where to buy it to get through our change to Digital TV, and hang on to US channels in the mean time if you live near the border. I prepared a guide on installing and using a digital converter box for Americans, which, except for talk about coupons, is perfectly valid for a box you are using in Canada.

    Luckily, with no change in Canada for a couple years, you shouldn’t miss any of what could be a really exciting Original 6 Cup Final. Enjoy!