The cable and satellite companies don't want you to know this, but you can get free HDTV with surround-sound audio with just a regular old antenna and tuner. That might sound like a late-night infomercial scam, but it's the truth. Samsung's SIR-T451 is one of the more popular tuners on the market that people are using to get their free HD fix. And while you do need an HD tuner, the same antenna you used to pull in analog over-the-air stations is all you need to pull in the digital signals--so if you still have an outdoor antenna on your roof, you're halfway there.
The SIR-T451 will appeal to anyone who wants a fairly affordable way to pull in digital TV programming, which includes all over-the-air HD broadcasts. It'll deliver a high-def image to any HDTV or HD monitor, and even to most PC monitors. In addition, owners of analog TVs can use the SIR-T451 to view any of the digital channels at DVD-quality standard-definition resolution. At worst, picking up a digital tuner will offer antenna-only TV viewers preemptive protection against the impending analog cutoff that's scheduled to happen in 2009. The design of the Samsung SIR-T451 certainly won't induce the gear lust that Apple products do, but it's fine for a utilitarian product like this. The simple, all-silver faceplate has an LED display to the right of its power button, and further to the right are a few buttons plus a directional pad for navigating the interface when the remote goes missing. The remote itself is simple but has all the functionality you'll need. If you want advanced features such as macros or backlighting, you'll need to pick up a universal remote.
The onscreen menus are broken down into Guide, Preferences, Channel, and Setup categories, all of which we found easy enough to navigate. Guide, predictably gives you options for customizing the onscreen electronic program guide (EPG), as well as a Remind function, which will let you know when certain programs are coming on. The Preferences menu contains options such as closed captioning and parental controls, which can be tuned to restrict certain ratings such as TV-MA, or just specific subject material, such as violence. The Channel menu lets you add or delete channels to the EPG and test signal strength. Setup is used to configure your screen format--standard or wide-screen--and other initial settings. The Samsung SIR-T451's EPG is equipped to pick up on the program information included in the digital signals. As long as you're getting consistent reception, the program data should filter in and allow you to, for instance, browse through the evening's prime-time schedule. The only hangup is that it's completely dependent on the network to include the program information, and some are better than others. For example, our digital ABC station listed only DTV program for each program--not very helpful. One gripe about the EPG is that, if for some reason you're not getting program data for a certain station, you won't be able to just click enter on the EPG and tune into the channel. We ran into this problem and were able to get around it by tuning into an adjacent station and using the channel up/down buttons on the remote, but it was an annoyance.
The SIR-T451's jack pack is pretty comprehensive. While it's missing HDMI, it does offer a DVI output with HDCP, so it should work with HDMI components, as long as you have an adapter. You'll also find component-video outputs and an RGB output. The latter is identical to the VGA connector on PC video cards, and it effectively can be used to turn any computer monitor into a TV. Composite and S-Video outputs allow the T451 to display the digital programming on any old analog TV. Rounding out the back panel is a stereo analog output and two digital audio outputs (one optical, one coaxial), plus an RF out in case you want to pass the antenna's reception on to a second device. Pretty much the only connection that's missing is FireWire.
As should be expected of any ATSC tuner, the SIR-T451 can output in 1080i, 720p, 480p, or 480i resolutions via its DVI, RGB, and component outputs. To set the desired output resolution, there's a selector button on the back of the unit--which means you pretty much have to set it at one resolution. We would have preferred the ability to change the resolution using the remote, but for most people, this probably isn't a big deal--you'll lock into the resolution that's the most compatible with your monitor. Also note that if you decide to change resolutions, the system will automatically reboot itself. Similarly, there's a selector in the back of the unit to choose between outputting through the component-video output, or the DVI and RGB output. Again, being able to choose this with the remote would be nice, but most people will just use one connector and forget all about it.