What the digital TV switchover means for people on the road

By now, most of you have probably seen the commercials warning about the upcoming digital TV switchover planned to take place on February 17th 2009.

Of course, I’m not going to waste your time explaining how to get ready for the transition at home, but I do want to take a minute to help those of you who depend on TV when they are on the road.

There are a couple of scenarios where travelers carry a gadget capable of receiving TV on the road, one involves those little 2″ LCD TV’s, the other is PC hardware for receiving and watching TV on your portable computer.
If you have been a happy user of a portable LCD TV, then the bad news is that you are pretty much out of options. All of these units are analogue only, which means no digital reception. So far, nobody has come forward with a digital unit, though that might change when companies announce their 2009 lineup at the CES in Vegas this week.

If you absolutely must get your TV fix, then you could consider this 7″ Haier unit ($129) or this $150 7″ Axion LCD TV.

Of course, neither unit is as portable as what you are probably used to, but both feature an integrated digital (ATSC) tuner. Portable TV’s in this price range usually come with a small digital/HDTV antenna, but depending on your location, you may not be able to pick up the signal, not to mention you’ll look like an idiot trying to position the antenna in the airport departure lounge.

For users of a computer based TV receiver things can be a little trickier.

Sites like Amazon are still selling PC TV tuners that are not compatible with the upcoming digital transition, so when you shop for a tuner, you’ll need to keep an eye open for units that won’t become close to useless after February 17th.

The magic words you are looking for are “ATSC”, “Digital TV” or “Digital Terrestrial”. More advanced tuners may even include support for “QAM”, which is the digital system used by cable companies.

Some PC TV receivers can be upgraded with digital support, while others simply lack the hardware to receive the broadcasts. If in doubt, check the support site of the device manufacturer.

There are of course alternatives to receiving TV over the air with a tuner. My personal favorite is the Slingbox, which lets you “stream” the signal from your home TV signal over the Internet to your laptop, desktop or mobile phone.

Alternatively, some mobile phone operators offer their own “mobile TV” service, usually starting at $10/month. Both options require a connection to the Internet, and can be fairly data intensive.