In a world where cable and satellite companies are competing to get you to spend upward of $100 a month or more for TV programming, it may come as a shock that you can get crystal-clear digital TV for free. OK, not exactly free--you'll need a TV or monitor, a digital ATSC tuner, and an antenna--but there'll be no onerous monthly fee assessed by an oligarchical media conglomerate. It's a safe bet, though, that you already have a TV or two, and you may still even have that rooftop antenna lashed to the chimney. Just add an external digital tuner--such as the Humax HFA100 ($229 list)--and you're good to go.
ATSC tuners such as the HFA100 will appeal primarily to owners of HDTV-ready TVs who want to take advantage of high-def local broadcasts. Its price is low enough, however, to attract a few owners of analog sets who want to check out digital broadcasts but don't want to invest in an HDTV just yet.
That bargain price--similar boxes cost hundreds more just a couple of years ago--had us prepared to lower expectations, and the simple feature set is in line with the price. For example, there's no built-in DVR or upscaling DVD player (the latter is included on LG's more expensive LST-3510, for example) on board, although Humax has included the essentials. In addition to the ability to decode all 18 ATSC digital-broadcasting formats, the HFA100 can output video in high-definition (1080i or 720p), DVD-level EDTV (480p), or good old 480i. Simply put, that means it can receive any standard or HD digital broadcast and display it on any TV, from a brand-new 50-inch plasma to that 15-year-old Sylvania that's sitting in the corner of your garage.
Despite the HFA100's small confines (2.7 inches high by 12.25 inches wide by 9.5 inches deep), its back panel is packed with a full arsenal of jacks. HD video is available from component, VGA-style RGB, and HDMI outputs, while coaxial and optical ports deliver digital audio. Older TVs, meanwhile, can make use of the composite and S-Video connectors, as well as the twin analog audio outs. Significantly, the analog video and audio outs remain active no matter what HD output the resolution is set for-- component or RGB/HDMI. That means you can be watching Lost in 720p high-def resolution on your HD monitor while simultaneously recording it in standard definition on a VCR, a DVD recorder, or a TiVo. The HFA100 also features an RS-232C port, so it can be controlled from external devices (for advanced home-automation installs or switching channels during timer recordings, for instance).
The Humax is no harder to set up than a standard DVD player. In addition to making the requisite connections from the box to our TV and our A/V receiver, we screwed a small indoor antenna to the RF connector on the rear panel. The HFA100 offered a guided setup mode that walked us through a series of simple menus. The mode ends by quickly scanning the wireless spectrum for any and all digital TV channels in the area and adding them to the lineup.
Minutes afterward, we were up and running, flipping through a variety of digital programming from Seinfeld reruns to the NCAA basketball playoffs. We compared the sumptuous high-def picture of the game on CBS to the same program on our cable system's HD feed; the over-the-air picture delivered by the Humax was just as good, if not better, than the cable version. Moreover, the HFA100 finally lets us see what our favorite WB shows look like in HD, since our cable company has yet to add that channel to its line-up.
The HFA100 has another trick up its sleeve in the form of a rudimentary electronic programming guide (EPG). Yes, its level of detail varies from station to station (our ABC affiliate lists simply "DTV program" for every 30-minute block, for instance, while the CBS station includes titles and short episode synopses) and the guide extends only a few hours into the future--but for a freebie, it isn't half bad.
With its easy setup and near-universal TV compatibility, the HFA100 has a lot to offer, especially for DTV newcomers, but there are a few shortfalls that may irk enthusiasts. A rear-panel toggle switch limits HD output to the component outputs or the RGB/HDMI out, but not both simultaneously. And the resolution through those connections must be locked in through a button on the front panel, not the remote. Furthermore, there's no option to pass the native resolutions of each station (say, 720p for ABC and Fox, and 1080i for NBC and CBS). That means you're stuck relying on the HFA100's ability to process the video, rather than off-loading the duties to your HD monitor--even though the monitor probably has a better video processor.
The HFA100's technical quibbles aside, it's the limitations of over-the-air DTV and HDTV reception that may pose bigger obstacles. As with all broadcast receivers, the Humax is only as good as the antenna to which it's connected. We got impressive reception with a $7 indoor RadioShack aerial, but we were just a few miles from the broadcast towers atop the Empire State Building. Better antennas, rooftop models in particular, should yield improved results, but be sure to check AntennaWeb to determine which stations are theoretically available in your area. And remember that, even in the best-case scenario, you'll be limited to the old-line broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PAX, PBS, UPN, the WB, and the requisite smattering of independent and Spanish-language stations)--kiss HBO, Comedy Central, and MTV good-bye.
The Humax's main competition is Samsung's similarly priced SIR-T451, which does include a QAM tuner that the Humax lacks. QAM carries digital and HD channels over cable, but the Samsung can't access the scrambled digital channels available via your cable company's box--making it less useful on most cable systems. Even without QAM, the Humax HFA100 is an impressive little digital tuner that offers remarkable bang for the buck. If you're looking to add HD programming to a tunerless plasma display, a PC monitor, or even just an old bedroom TV, the Humax is a capable and easy-to-use way to do it.