My official US Government DTV $40 coupons came in the mail today, and I wasted no time getting out to grab my DTV converter box. Here are some hints for those who are also still in the age of rabbit ears.

Finding the converter boxes wasn't difficult. I first visited Circuit City, which had two Zenith DTT900 models with a price of $59.99. I had planned on using my first coupon on the first box I found to pseudo-randomly test out what John Q. Public might experience, but there was no way I was spending over $20 for a converter box.

Circuit City had an interesting 8.5x11 inch paper beside the Zenith boxes explaining how coupons worked. One particularly devious point to notice is that you can't trade a box back in once you've purchased it. For instance, there's a model being sold online for $53 that claims to have the Picture-in-Picture feature. If you used your coupon on the Zenith and later learned of the PiP model, you can't trade the Zenith back in. If you return your box, it turns out the government gets its $40 back and, in this particular case, you get your $19.99 plus tax on $59.99 back in your pocket. This is pretty clearly not a fair proposition.

Wal-Mart had about twenty to forty Magnavox TB100MW9 models for sale that I could see, priced for $49.99, underneath its flatscreen televisions with an LCD display counting down the number of days before you could no longer receive analog TV broadcasts. I tried to purchase one with the DTV coupon, but the lady in electronics had no idea what to do and shuttled me to the registers up front. A twenty-five minute wait and one "CSM" -- which means Customer Service Manager in Wal-Mart-ese -- later, we finally figured out through trial and error that the DTV coupon should be rung up as a credit card for the amount of $40. I wouldn't even present the card to the cashier if you're buying from Wal-Mart. Just let them know you're using two forms of payment, the first being a credit card - NOT a debit card - with a $40 balance.

When I got back home, it took a little thinking to figure out the best way to hook up the TB100MW9. The DTV conversion is really going to obsolete a lot more of your hardware than is immediately obvious. I assume that my all-in-one remote, for instance, knows nothing of the converter box's remote. I'll try the Magnavox TV codes at some point, though I'm worried that I'll still have to switch to my TV to change volume. Secondly, if you have a VCR, you're not going to be able to record DTV broadcasts using the automatic timer. If you're grabbing shows every weekday and/or weekend, you're toast unless you buy a VCR with a DTV tuner, and in that case you'd no longer have nearly as pressing a need for your conversion box. It'd still be nice to have the converter, as you could watch a DTV broadcast as you taped another, much as your VCR's analog tuner works with your analog TV's. But enough of fringe combinations... remember that your current VCR's timer is toast come February of 2009, and it won't be timer recording DTV by channel, ever.

This Magnavox converter also has the annoying problem of not letting the antennae's signal pass-through. That is, after I plug my rabbit ears into the TB100MW9, I can no longer receive an analog signal with my television on the other end. The converter stops the antennae's signal whether the converter is in use or not, meaning all my television's built-in tuner will get is snow if the converter is installed in-line, which is the method suggested by the instructions.

For the next year, at least, I believe a much smarter setup is to keep the rabbit ears attached to my VCR, routing my VCR into my TV's "video in" ports, and then have my VCR's antennae out coaxial cable route to the converter box. My VCR doesn't "eat" the antennae's signal the way the TB100MW9 does, so the rabbit ears can still do double duty, providing the analog signal to my VCR and the digital signal to the converter, this way. I can tape an analog broadcast on my VCR using the automatic timer and watch DTV at the same time, if need be, at least for the next year minus some change. The only drawback is that the VCR can't, without some more wiring, tape the crystal-clear DTV reception I'm getting, nor the bonus channels I get from our educational/public TV channel and the bonus CW network channel NBC is running. Obviously after the DTV switch, you'll be able to route your converter box through your VCR and time when you tape on channel 3 or 4 - your converter box will be outputting to one or the other according to your choice, so your VCR will "see" whatever DTV channel you're watching on analog 3 or 4 - but not select which channel you tape. To make matters worse, the TB100MW9 is set up by default to turn itself off after 4 hours of no use. This saves energy, but makes it difficult to tape The News Hour every evening while you're away.

So I'm in the market for a remote and will soon be in the market for a new recording device with an automatic timer. I'm also waiting about a half-second when I flip for the new signal to be read before a picture hits the screen instead of benefiting from analog's instant feedback, killing the notorious channel surfing efficiency of guys like me by about 15%. I'm trading that for a much clearer picture (this new clarity really can't be overstated), three additional channels, and the ability to, at least for me, watch every channel I'd watched before without moving the rabbit ears at all. I'm also out about $13 after tax. That's non-trivial, I think. I'm not exactly destitute, but even I balked at laying down $24 for the privilege of watching DTV. Honestly, I bet it costs less than $24 to make one of these things, but that's just a hunch. Let's see what happens once the coupon program's over. And even at $13, I can't imagine what I'd be thinking if I was impoverished. Buying a new VCR, much less something like TiVo with what I believe is a monthly charge, is a hefty charge that doesn't exactly float my boat either. I also noticed a number of VCR/DVD combos that didn't tape, not even VHS, at the Wal-Mart, which struck me as particularly strange.

The TB100MW9 can do letterbox, zoom, or squeeze translations of the new DTV aspect ratio. That's a nice feature to have. Yet HD broadcasts are slightly cut off on the edges on my Zenith set. I think I also noticed some text blurring when it was down-sampled to 480i. The overall great picture isn't without its shortcomings.

I think that's about all I've got. Use your coupon as a credit card if you're at Wal-Mart, get ready to add yet another remote to your collection (the TB100MW9's buttons are incredibly small and elderly unfriendly to boot), prepare to long for the days when your VCR still worked as it was intended, and enjoy the picture and new channels. I'll rant about how this coupon program turns out to be something of a subsidy and free advertisement for Wal-Mart, Circuit City, Best Buy, and Radio Shack later.