An ATSC tuner or HDTV tuner is a device that receives digital or high-definition signals transmitted from television stations in countries that support ATSC standards. The device is usually integrated into a television set, VCR, DVR, and set-top box. Still, there are also external and portable types of ATSC tuners that you can plug-in to your mobile devices or PCs so you can watch TV programs from your smartphones, tablets, or computers.
Since 2009, ATSC tuners have been prevalent in most tuner-integrated devices when the United States decided to fully shift from the analog NTSC standard to the digital ATSC. ATSC tuner-equipped devices can receive over-the-air (OTA) broadcast signals from TV stations for free.
How ATSC Tuners Work
The ATSC tuner’s main task is demodulation, where the signals received from television networks are converted to quality images and sounds which are then viewable on your displays. Aside from this, ATSC tuners have a string of other functions such as demultiplexing, decompression, analogue-to-digital conversion, error corrections, media reformatting, and AV synchronization.
Demultiplexing, technically Transport Stream Demultiplexing, is the combination and transmission of multiple data signals from one antenna source to create on-air broadcasts. An ATSC tuner decodes the signal after reception and puts it on view on your displays.
Before digital signals are transmitted over the air, they are first compressed into small data packets. Once an ATSC tuner receives these data packets, it decompresses the signal back to its original state.
Analog to Digital Conversion (ADC)
Despite it being designed for digital signals, an ATSC tuner can still receive analog signals. The tuner then converts the analog signal to its digital form so it can be viewed on digital displays.
At times, signals, especially those of poor quality, can get lost during transmission, resulting in missing or unreadable data packets. The error correction feature of ATSC tuners allows it to repair or fill damaged or missing data so the image can be viewed seamlessly.
Different TV sets format their pictures differently. For instance, standard TVs use the Interlaced format, while digital TV uses a progressive scan picture. ATSC tuners reformat the images according to the technology that a TV set is using.
It is also the ATSC tuner’s job to ensure that the audio and video are always in sync when an image is projected on the screen, or it would be awkward and annoying to watch if either of them lags behind the other.
ATSC has so far released two standards – ATSC 1.0 and ATSC 3.0. What happened to version 2.0? ATSC 2.0 was created and included new features like interactive content and video on demand. Still, it was never released since the 4K resolution became popular right after ATSC 2.0, which didn’t include 4K features, was finalized. The Committee decided to skip version 2.0 and instead started working on version 3.0, which integrated some of the ATSC 2.0 features.
The ATSC standard made its debut in 1996 with ATSC 1.0, but it only came into full swing in 2009 after the US made the switch to digital signal transmission. ATSC 1.0’s features may no longer stand out today as they previously did, but at the time of its introduction, it was considered an outstanding development in the digital world. ATSC 1.0 caps out at 1080i and uses H.262 MPEG-2 codec. It supported Dolby AC-3, an audio format limited to 5.1 channel surround. ATSC 3.0 has been out since 2017, but it didn’t completely wipe out ATSC 1.0. In fact, the first version is still over-the-air since TV stations that made the switch to the new ATSC standard are still required to broadcast ATSC 1.0 for five more years.
ATSC 3.0 or NextGen TV is the new standard released by the committee. ATSC 3.0 is basically an upgrade of the first version in all aspects plus more. ATSC 3.0’s IP-based delivery is revolutionary, merging Internet content and services with over-the-air broadcast signals. The most significant upgrade of ATSC 3.0 is perhaps the better picture quality supporting higher picture resolutions like 4K UHD and 4K HDR, a wide color gamut, and a high frame rate (HFR). In addition, it uses the more efficient H.265 HEVC codec for decompressing signals. ATSC 3.0’s enhanced audio ensures quality sound with Dolby AC-4 and support for Dolby Atmos.
Moreover, ATSC 3.0 allows broadcasting video on your mobile devices. Another feature of ATSC 3.0 is geotargeting, which allows for advanced emergency alerts on areas where these are necessary. With the mergence of Internet and OTA broadcasting, ATSC 3.0 can also provide Internet access to areas where broadband Internet is unavailable.
ATSC has tons of impressive updates, but here’s one caveat – ATSC 3.0 is not backwards compatible with ATSC 1.0 devices. If you haven’t upgraded your TV just yet, you would need an external converter to use ATSC 3.0 signals.
TV manufacturers like LG, Samsung, and Sony have already rolled out different models with built-in ATSC 3.0 tuners, and it’s expected that Android devices from these manufacturers will already include ATSC 3.0 tuners as well. Portable ATSC 3.0 tuners are also already out in the market, and it’s only a matter of time before the majority of US households are ATSC 3.0-ready.
ATSC tuners have never been as versatile as they are today. Aside from being built-in to TVs, VCRs, and set-top boxes, they are also integrated into mobile devices. Portable tuners are also available, allowing viewing of programs anywhere, anytime. With the feature-rich and more advanced ATSC 3.0, ATSC 3.0 tuners can give you more than just a TV.