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Old TV? Use a Digital Converter Box

I love getting emails from readers with questions about how to watch TV without cable. Word is spreading that you can save thousands of dollars on a cable bill and still enjoy your favorite programs.

As I said in my Mohu Leaf Review, TV from an antenna is crystal clear. The picture quality is much better than cable, and most of the hit shows are available free over the air. However, the one question that keeps popping up is “how do I watch digital channels on an old tube TV?”

When broadcast TV signals in the US went digital in 2009 (2011 in Canada) laws were in place to ensure new TVs being manufactured were equipped with a digital tuner to receive the signals.

TVs made before that time were made with analog tuners. Those TVs will not work with a digital signal unless you have a digital TV converter box, also known as a DTV converter box.

What’s a DTV Converter Box?

A digital converter box is a device that connects to your existing analog TV and your antenna. It translates the digital signals being picked up by the antenna into an analog signal that can be received by your TV tuner.

Prices range from $30 –  $80 for a DTV converter box based on the quality of the brand. Many are available Online from Amazon.

Does my TV need a Digital Converter?

To answer this you need to know if the TV has a digital tuner (also called a digital receiver.) If it does, then you do not need a converter box for your TV. Otherwise, the TV tuner is analog and you either need to buy a digital TV or a DTV converter box to get free TV with an antenna.

The easiest method to figure out what type of tuner your TV has is to look in the owner’s manual. The specifications should let you know whether your TV is analog or digital.

However, if you are anything like me, you have no idea where that owner’s manual is. In that case grab the model number off the back of the TV and check the manufactures website. They should have specifications on older models letting you know if the TV is analog or digital.

Your TV may also have writing near the connectors on the back giving you a clue to the type of tuner. If you see words referencing “NTSC” or “analog” then the tuner is likely not digital. If it were, you would see words like “ATSC”, “DTV”, or “Digital” on the back of the TV near the connectors.

Installing a DTV Converter Box

Of course, follow the installation instructions that come with the digital converter box. I’m sure you will find installation of a digital converter box is quite easy. Simply connect your antenna to the “Input” on the converter box via coaxial cable.  It will usually be labeled with words like “Antenna In.”  Then connect the DTV converter output to the antenna input on your television.

If you do not have a coaxial connection on your antenna or TV, then you most likely have a “twin lead.” This issue can be solved by using a 300 to 75 ohm twin lead to coax adapter.

The converter box may have RCA connecters, in which case you can use the cables pictured below.

If you have a TV that doesn’t have any of the connections described in this article check out this reference on various TV connectors. Once you find the connection your TV has, you can likely find a converter to join it to a the connection required by your DTV converter.

My Recommendation

Considering the monthly cost of cable, upgrading your old tube TV with a DTV converter is a sensible decision. However, the price of new HDTVs has come down drastically. You can typically find one for the cost of 2 months of cable.

You don’t need a smart TV to cancel cable. Most new TVs typically have HDMI cables which will allow you to leverage TV streaming devices like Roku and Apple TV.  Combine these devices with your antenna and you will have little need for cable TV. So if you can afford the one-time cost, I’d go with a new TV.

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Categories: Guides
Dennis Restauro :Dennis is the founder of Grounded Reason. He also hosts the Grounded Reason Podcast. Follow him on Twitter: Follow Dennis on Twitter

View Comments (24)

  • hello, please help me out. i am looking for a free converter box for my tv with no cable or digital. the one i have is not working properly. i cannot afford to purchase one due to the fact i am disabled and on a set budget. a physical address or phone number/email addy would be appreciated for free new converter box. thank you for your time and effort on this matter.


    jimmy remington

    • Sorry Jimmy, I don't think they offer the free converter box anymore.

      • If you have a local Goodwill or Other Thrift Store in your area you can find DTV Converter Boxes for $2.99 to $4.99. Not free but damn close.

  • My two "free" converter boxes are now costing me $1.99 per month each according to my latest Comcast bill. Anyone know if this is just a billing error or is it the long arms of Comcast reaching out again for more of my money?

  • Hi, I'm writing from Canada where all the channels have gone digital now. I am planning on cutting the cable and getting an antenna. My TV is from the stone age by the way. My question is this, if I get an antenna, do I still need to get a digital converter box? The antenna I want to get is the Antennas Direct Clearstream 4V TV model # C4-V-CJM-CN at Best Buy.

    I hope this question wasn't too stupid!


    • Yes you still need the converter to switch the signal back to analog for your TV.

  • I have a few questions. Let me begin by saying that I am technology illiterate. :o(

    I have an older model big screen that is analog. I am going to get rid of my cable because the bill has reached $200 a month and I can't justify spending that amount of money any more. I know that I need a converter box to get OTA channels. However, I am interested in streaming TV as well. I have considered Sling TV and the Roku3. Will I be able to connect the converter box to my Roku3? Is streaming TV even an option for me with my analog TV? Can I watch local channels and then switch to Sling when I get ready? Help!!

    • A Roku 1 has the red, yellow, white audio video component cables so those should word with an older television. You can use both Sling TV and an antenna with your TV. One will be on the antenna input, while the other is on the A/V input.

  • Thank you for all the detail you provide. It is easy to ready and not confusing like other sites I've read. After reading this, I wanted to be sure I am understanding this correctly. I have an old Sylvania Plasma without a tuner so it looks like I definitely need a DTV converter box. There isn't coax or HDMI connection so I will I be able to connect with component? I have always had basic cable but it has gotten so expensive for channels I don't even like. Thank you for helping me navigate "free" TV option.

    • If the digital turner supports a component connection and the TV does as well then there shouldn't be an issue for antenna TV. If you wanted to stream you would need to go with a first generation Roku. Its the one that supports component connections.

  • Your articles have been a tremndous help and I have already purchased the Rohu 4 and the Mohu Sky 60 and I am ready for install, or so I thought. I am trying to cut the cable and still receive local channels with a HD projection system. So how do I do that? What is the best component that would allow me to take advantage of everything and still maintain my high-end projector and screen?

    • It depends on your projectors inputs. If it allows HDMI you would just need a TV tuner with an HDMI out.

  • Hi: I have an older 17" Sony TV I use in my kitchen which supports both analog and digital technology: https://www.amazon.com/Sony-MFM-HT75W-Widescreen-Monitor-Silver/dp/B000791UWQ?_encoding=UTF8&*Version*=1&*entries*=0&deviceType=desktop. I want to stream with it but it doesn't have a USB port so I bought a Musou 1080P HDMI to RCA Composite AV Video Audio Converter. It worked for awhile with Chromecast and then with the new Firestick but now it won't work at all. It keeps going from blue screen to Amazon to blue screen to Firestick. I also tried it with our Roku and I got the following message "HDCP unathorized content disabled". I bought a new small 19" TV but I hated the sound....as the new TV have sound coming from the bottom and not the front like my old one. Is there anything I can do to use the old Sony TV?

    • For this to work you will need an "hdcp compliant digital converter". Unfortunately, I can't recommend one as I have never had to do this. Be aware that if you want to stream content, I would personally find a HD TV that suits you. Trying to maintain compatibility between legacy TVs and new streaming technology will be an ongoing headache in the future.

  • I have a Panasonic plasma TV. We purchased it around 2001--perhaps a few months earlier. We have cut cable. I purchased an Amplified TV Antenna. It is hooked up and we can get quite a few local channels but 2 of them are pretty scrambled most of the time, despite moving the antenna around the room. Some times of the day are better. After reading your article, I wonder if I need a DTV converter box??? I do see in the connecting antenna (to watch TV) it does mention the word Digital TV stands include digital high def television. Does this mean the TV is digital??? Would I need the converter box??? Not a techie just reading labels on the back of the TV and in the operating instruction manual. Do I need a roof antenna???

    • You would need to check with the manufacture to be sure. As for an antenna. Check out this article on OTA TV. It should answer your questions. If not, you can ask in the comments on that page.

  • I have a older TV and I have a converter box and an antenna I can I still get sling TV with that

    • You can if you have a device that supports Sling TV and connects to your TV.

  • I have a TV that's proximately 14 years old hooked up converter box and antenna and still can't get no channels any suggestions thank you

  • I have a TV that's proximately 14 years old hooked up converter box and antenna and still can't get no channels any suggestions thank you