Earlier this year I purchased a 42-inch plasma with an HD tuner. With this I was able to receive HD broadcasts for stations available on the "basic extended" tier from my cable provider. When my cable provider recently re-priced their services and offered a "digital starter" plan for the same monthly rate as my current service, I switched to their digital offer because certain programs that previously were available on my current tier were moved to the low-end digital tier.
Since the digital converter was installed for my new digital starter service, I no longer am able to receive the HD broadcasts from stations that are available on the digital starter tier. When I asked the cable provider about this, they said I would need an HD converter to receive those broadcasts rather than "free" digital converter they provided with my new service. Of course, the cable provider gladly will replace my free digital converter for an HD converter... for an additional $6.50 monthly rental fee.
My question is: Can HD converters be purchased at retail stores that are compatible with and can be used instead of renting the HD converters the cable company wants to provide? If so, what recommendations, and pros and cons, can you make for the case to purchase a non-cable company specific HD converter versus renting the cable company specific HD converter?
Thanks for your advice!
I assume you have already tried plugging your TV into the raw cable feed to see what channels you can still receive, yes? You may stll be able to get some of your cable channels in HD, including the local networks, though the channel numbers may not match up with what you see on the cable box, and certain channels that you are entitled to in your package may be scrambled or otherwise unavailable.
To answer to your question, cable providers are, by law, supposed to support the ownership of external set-top box hardware by the customer but in reality their support for this type of hardware is limited at best. Most cable companies don't give you the option to purchase your own box, and you normally cannot buy cable boxes in stores and get them to work with your local cable service. Also, be very wary of buying used cable boxes on eBay as these are frequently stolen or "non-returned" cable boxes that are bound to a specific cable service and will most likely not work with your own local provider.
The most popular of the current CableCARD-based 3rd party DVRs is definitely the TiVo DVR. TiVo can work with cable or over the air TV broadcasts. TiVo gets around the guide limitation by providing their own guide. But the TiVo guide and service require a monthly subscription fee or one-time lifetime subscription fee for the device (currently $14.95/month). So you're back to paying a monthly fee for the box or a pretty high up-front cost. TiVo has a great user interface though, and a huge fan base so it's worth looking into that if you want to stay with cable. They update models from time to time but you can usually find the latest one on Amazon:
The reality is, if you cannot tune in the channels you want via your TV's built-in TV tuner, and you don't want to pay the monthly TiVo fee, then your only real options are to lease the HD cable box or digital set-top box from your cable service, or dump cable entirely and put an antenna on your roof to get your HDTV channels for free.
UPDATE: Another option that came out recently is Sling TV. With Sling TV, you get a nice assortment of Pay TV channels (including ESPN and CNN) delivered over the internet for about $20/month.
Here are a couple of articles you might find useful:
Anyway, I hope this helps.