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Portable TVs Also Victims Of Switch To Digital

Switch From Analog Signals Will Spell The End For Hand-Held Sets

By Wailin Wong

February 7, 2009

Miguel Duran's wife bought him a little Casio TV about two years ago. He usually keeps the battery-powered set in a drawer, except when he hops on the treadmill several times a week in the basement of his Elmwood Park home.

His trusty workout companion soon will be a remnant of the past, an overlooked victim of the switch from analog to digital TV signals. That hand-held gadget found in workshops and parking garage attendant booths, or dusted off for beach trips and Bears tailgating, is destined for obsolescence when U.S. broadcasters switch to digital, joining sets that receive free analog signals via antenna.

"It's a very nice TV," said Duran, 46. "It has a nice picture, and I was disappointed to hear about the switch from analog to digital."

This week, Congress approved a delay in the transition from Feb. 17 to June 12. Broadcasters can switch on the original deadline but have to notify the Federal Communications Commission and viewers by Monday, and regulators might not approve their request.

Many legislators and consumer advocacy groups had pushed for a postponement, contending that consumer education has been inadequate and noting that the government program to subsidize the purchase of digital converter boxes has run out of money. But members of Congress opposed to the delay argued that putting off the transition would confuse consumers.

According to Nielsen data released in late January, 5.7 percent of U.S. households, or more than 6.5 million homes, are unprepared for the switch.

Regardless, hand-held TVs' days remain numbered. Not even a converter box can extend their useful lives, because most portable sets aren't able to handle input from a digital tuner.

The Consumer Electronics Association no longer tracks sales figures for these sets. The last available data from the association were for 2006, when the industry group reported that about 8 million homes in the U.S. owned hand-held TVs, according to the Los Angeles Times.

"They've really died down in the last couple of years," said Jim Doman, a store manager at Abt Electronics in Glenview, which hasn't stocked hand-held analog TVs for years. Doman said few manufacturers produce the units.

Duran has tried to keep his hand-held TV from its inexorable march to oblivion. He contacted Casio to ask how he could keep using his TV but was told there was nothing he could do. So Duran plans to connect it to his portable DVD player to watch the occasional movie. He also could watch one of the other six TV sets in his house, all of which are ready for the digital transition because he has a DirecTV subscription.

Battery-powered digital TVs are available on the market, starting around $150, but the selection is limited because consumers have so many lighter and more practical options for watching videos on the go. Indeed, Nielsen released a report in January showing that 10.3 million mobile phone users in the U.S. watch video on their phones every month, a 14 percent increase from a year ago.

To keep watching TV on a portable set after the digital switch, the device needs an "antenna in" port, into which a converter box would be plugged. The converter box also would need access to a local power source.

One company, Iowa-based Winegard Co., sells a $14.99 battery pack that is compatible with its $62.99 converter box. But hauling around the extra equipment makes a hand-held TV not so portable anymore.

Mike Pendleton, 53, has kept his "little 6-inch job that runs on batteries" in his garage in case of power outages. Pendleton said it will join aging 12- and 19-inch analog sets in his Palos Heights home as backup video game monitors for his five children. If one of the other TVs breaks down, an old one will get called out of retirement "so no one hemorrhages" over the interruption, he said.

For Melissa Rothermel of Wheaton, her 6-year-old Sony radio was the one gadget keeping her from breaking a long-standing personal ban on TVs in the bedroom. That device, along with other clock radios that receive TV audio signals, also will fall victim to the digital switch.

She likes to fall asleep to a bit of noise but can't handle the flickering of a TV. Her compromise was the radio, which she tunes to the "WGN News at 9" every night. Then she listens to "Fresh Air" on NPR, which comes on at 10 p.m.

"It's just my routine," said Rothermel, 40. "I'm addicted to 'watching' the news at 9."

Rothermel's husband bought a 19-inch flat-panel TV, but she won't let him move it into the bedroom until the day the analog signals turn off. She's resigned to watching the 9 p.m. news on the set.

But even then, "I'm going to have a strict rule that it goes off right at 10," she said.

©2009, Chicago Tribune