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TV, VCR vs. Converter boxes.

Thursday, 19 February, 2009

Edited from a reply to my post about getting a coupon-eligible converter box for ATSC television.

Over the years, especially back when sending a signal from some kind of video appliance through an RF cable to a TV set was the only option, I attempted to communicate some of the fundamental ideas which make the thing work. This has never, not even once, been successful. I shall attempt again, but please know of my very poor record.

I hope these words just might help others with questions about connecting several devices to a television in light of the new converter boxes.

Radio-frequency wire transmission for such things as VCRs, SelectaVision discs, cable boxes, video-gaming systems and the first home computers operate under the assumption you have one device you want to look at on one television, and that’s it. The only other thing you would want to do with that television, in theory, is watch over-the-air programming. In practice you would turn to channel three or four and watch your gadget, then effortlessly tune all of your other channels normally.

This was acceptable as long as you lived in a town with no signal on both channels three and four, and used only one newfangled thingamajig on one TV. By the early 1990s this all changed with the ubiquitous VCR, a cable box and occasionally a video-gaming system all going into the same television set. The cable-VCR combo was most common and the solution was to plug the cable-TV signal into the VCR, then use the channel selector in the VCR exclusively; the TV tuned to one channel, either three or four, all the time. The solution to the converter box dilemma descends from this idea.

I remember getting panicked calls from friends and family at untoward hours of the night because the TV had somehow found its way a channel other than the channel four of my hometown (channel three was in use by a broadcast station) and “nothing worked”. This could not be explained over the phone, and sometimes required a round trip of several hours simply to switch the TV and not the VCR and not the cable box but only the television with a knob or display reading “5″ from channel five to four.

This is the primary reason RCA cables, the red, white and yellow wires used on DVD machines, are now the preferred method of connecting such devices. The twenty-first century promised to do away with all this, but here we are.

Assuming you have a VCR of the vintage that it uses only the RF cable to communicate:

  • Plug the converter box into the VCR as though it were the TV. That is, antenna to the converter box and the RF cable out to the VCR’s antenna connector.
  • Connect the VCR to the TV normally. That is the VCR’s RF-out cable to the television’s antenna input.
  • Both the television set and the VCR should be set to different channels; the TV stays on channel three and the VCR on channel four or vice versa.
  • Converter box output should be set to the channel received by the VCR.
  • The VCR output should be set to the channel received by the TV.

This precludes the possibility of setting the VCR to record successfully on any channel other than the channel to which the converter box is communicating. Remember, the VCR always records from its singular channel. The converter box must be turned on, of course. I know of no solution to this. I do not know of a modern device to which you may merely record TV with the relative ease, and absence of subscription services like ye olde VCR. Well, not anything you can just show up at a store and buy, anyway.

You may have devices which output or can receive signals with RCA cables. For both technical reasons I can’t remember right now, and ease of use this is the preferred method. These wires are for sale everywhere, Fry’s, Target, even H-E-B or Walgreens, if you are not the kind of person prone to storing the ones which come with your consumer electronics “just in case.”

Any device using RCA-in would be set to “Line” or sometimes “AV” (usually on the remote control) instead of a television channel. This does nothing to relieve the annoyance of having to make certain the converter box is tuned to the channel you want to record before you leave the house.

Finally, this does mean just to sit back and watch TV in the evening requires powering up three different machines.

  1. The TV, which does little but accept input from the VCR.
  2. The VCR which does little other than accept input from the converter box, which it can now reliably record.
  3. The converter box which is used to tune television channels, adjust the volume and so forth.

It is an inelegant solution, but it does work well. Except for having to make certain your converter box is tuned to the singular channel from which you wish to record something on the VCR while you are away.

I guess I should make a video about this, but I’ll have to find my VCR. I’m a bit fond of Hulu and You Tube for my TV fix these days.

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