If you fear commitment, this is the HDTV source for you.

As HDTV broadens its horizons, the role of the standalone HDTV tuner has diminished but certainly not disappeared. Sure, this year, the FCC ordered TV manufacturers to begin incorporating internal ATSC tuners into new 36-inch-or-larger TVs that have an NTSC tuner, but what if you've built your home theater around a high-end projector or a flat panel with no internal tuners? Sure, the satellite and cable companies are offering more HDTV content by the minute and adding DVRs to their new HD set-top boxes, but that doesn't help the person who can't have a satellite dish, isn't getting much (if any) HDTV from their cable company, or doesn't want to pay a monthly fee to watch and record HDTV.

If you fit into any of the above categories, LG Electronics' new LST-3410A is worth a look. This attractive silver box contains an ATSC and an NTSC tuner to pull in over-the-air signals, a QAM tuner to decode unencrypted cable channels, and a 120-gigabyte hard drive. The TV Guide On Screen user interface unites them in a user-friendly package that both the novice and veteran will appreciate.

Making the Connection
Setting up the LST-3410A is a breeze. The owner's manual is logically laid out and thorough, but LG includes a Quick Setup Guide to make the process that much easier. Just connect the tuner to your HD display via the component, RGB, or DVI output, connect your indoor or outdoor antenna's RF cable to the Ant In RF input, and choose an audio connection to your TV or audio system.

If you want to pass standard-def digital or analog cable signals through the LST-3410A to utilize its DVR, you can use either the second RF input or one of the tuner's A/V input sets; LG recommends the latter if your cable box has A/V outputs. Not surprisingly, there's no component or DVI input to feed your HD cable box's signals through this box, but I was a bit surprised that the box doesn't at least offer an S-video input for slightly better signals from your cable box. However, many standard-def cable boxes don't give you anything better than composite anyhow, so it's not a critical omission.

After you power on the unit, you need to make sure it's configured to match your TV, which is a no-brainer, thanks to the clearly labeled front-panel buttons. Use the Display Format button to first select your video connection (DVI, component, etc.—only one output is active at a time) and then your desired resolution—in my case, 720p to match the Epson TW100 (LCD) and Sharp XV-Z12000 (DLP) projectors I used for this review. The large front-panel display always shows what resolution and output type you've selected, how much hard-disk space you've used, and other useful info. It's a vast improvement over early generation boxes that offered only a power light on the front panel.

Lastly, the onscreen interface walks you through a simple process to set up the TV Guide On Screen program guide and prompts you to run your first channel scan—a relatively quick endeavor, even when I included digital cable channels in the scan. After that, you're good to go, but you need to turn off the LST-3410A overnight to let it download the necessary program info. (After the initial download, you can leave it on all the time.)

The Tuners
The LST-3410A did a commendable job of tuning in and holding HDTV over-the-air signals, both with an inexpensive RCA indoor antenna in my apartment and with a rooftop antenna at our testing facility. It didn't find as many channels as a few tuners that have passed through our doors, but its performance was on par with most and better than some. At home, the initial scan didn't find the Fox and UPN DTV channels; at the studio, it didn't find ABC, UPN, and PBS. However, it did a reasonably good job of holding the signal once it found it—more so with the rooftop antenna than the indoor one, which isn't terribly powerful and often loses the signal when police helicopters circle my neighborhood (an all-too-frequent occurrence, I'm afraid—no, really, I'm afraid).

Adding channels is easy with the Channel Edit function: A numerical grid appears onscreen, and you select the channels you want. If you're uncertain where a channel falls in your local UHF/VHF band, go to www.antennaweb.org to get this info. For instance, in Los Angeles, Fox is on channel 11, but their DTV feed is on channel 65. Once you add the number, if the tuner can find a signal, it will label the DTV channel by its common local delineation (i.e., 11-1, not 65). I successfully added Fox but couldn't tune in UPN at home or our studio. I never got ABC or PBS at the studio, but I received strong signals for these channels at home, which likely means the problem was with the rooftop antenna's orientation. I recommend that you do your homework about signal locations before putting up a rooftop antenna.

The LST-3410A's 120-GB DVR doesn't have all the gee-whiz features you get with a TiVo or ReplayTV unit, but it also doesn't cost anything extra or tie up your phone line. It can record up to 12 hours of HDTV; with SDTV, you can choose between four picture-quality settings for up to 120 hours of recorded content.

The hard drive doesn't automatically back up programming the way TiVo does; you must hit the remote's TimeShift button to begin the backup process that allows you to pause, rewind, and fast-forward pseudo-live TV. Once you end a TimeShift session, the last 30 minutes of saved content will remain on the hard drive until you begin another TimeShift session.

The TV Guide On Screen program guide contains eight days of programming info and kindly lists SD and HD channels on the same grid, grouping the HD channels at the bottom of the lineup. The guide is easy to maneuver and customize. If you see a show you want to watch or record, just select it; the LST-3410A will figure out if it's an antenna or cable broadcast and take care of the rest.

You can access a recorded program by hitting the Program List button on the remote; in addition to providing a list of the recorded shows, this screen tells you how much room is left on the hard drive. Unlike its fee-based counterparts, the LST-3410A's DVR won't let you begin watching a program that's still recording or watch one recorded program while it records another; again, we're talking pretty basic functionality here.

But How Does It Look?
In terms of color and detail, HDTV content looked wonderful from both the DVI and component outputs with the projectors I used. It was difficult to conduct an A/B comparison because the two outputs aren't active at the same time, but the DVI signal appeared to be just a hair sharper. I also saw no discernible difference between a live HD broadcast and a recorded one. Overall, I was quite pleased.

Fun with FireWire
The LST-3410A features two four-pin FireWire ports, to which you can connect a D-VHS player or a few compatible camcorders. After I connected the LG box to the JVC-HM30000U and pressed the remote's 1394 button, I could watch and control the JVC's signals through the LST-3410A without having to switch any connections or find other remotes. The quality of D-VHS signals didn't appear to diminish when passed through the LST-3410A. The shuttle launch at the start of Digital Video Essentials looked absolutely stunning.

Through that FireWire connection, you can transfer content from a D-VHS tape to the LST-3410A's hard drive, provided that content is not copy-protected. I was able to transfer PBS HD demo footage from a D-VHS tape to the hard drive, but not a segment from the Digital Video Essentials tape. Perhaps the best feature of all, though, is the ability to archive HD recordings from the hard drive to D-VHS for permanent storage; not only is this a rare and much-desired ability in an HD device right now, but it couldn't be easier to do than it is with the LST-3410A.

Living Easy
"Easy" is the best word to describe the LST-3410A: It's easy to set up, easy to use, and easy to get used to. It's also the perfect HDTV source component for the person who hates monthly fees. For $1,299 and the price of a good antenna, you can enjoy over-the-air HDTV (and NTSC, for that matter) without paying a cable or satellite company, and you can experiment with a basic DVR. For those of us who are committed to paying too much for cable or satellite, the LST-3410A would make a great second tuner for recording one HDTV program while watching another.

HDTV tuners may not hold the place of prominence they once did, but the LST-3410A's performance and its DVR and FireWire perks make it a viable and valuable piece of the HD puzzle.

•Archive HD recordings via FireWire
•Highly intuitive for day-to-day use

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(800) 243-0000