Digital Television (DTV) Converter Reviews
Most television stations in the US are now broadcasting their signals
in digital format. On February 17, 2009 existing broadcast stations
in the continental United States are scheduled to turn off their
analog signals, and older televisions that receive their signal off
the air will no longer function. Television stations in Hawaii turned
off their analog signals in January. There is legislation pending in
congress to allow stations to continue broadcasting their analog
signals until June 12, 2009. If passed, stations will still have the
option to end analog transmissions sooner than June 12.
Newer televisions with Digital Tuners will continue to work, as will televisions receiving their signal through Cable TV or satellite services, and similar setups. Older televisions receiving their signals through an atenna can receive the newer digital signals by using a Ditigal Television Converter box. The newer digital broadcasts provide a clearer picture as well as support for additional sub-channels with extra programming.
Many of the digital television converter boxes are designed to be inexpensive, costing roughly $60. Through 2009, each household in the US was eligible to receive two coupons each good for $40 off certain designated converter boxes (with some restrictions, and while supplies were available). These coupons were available while the program was in operation and at that time they could be requested from www.dtv2009.gov. With the coupon, the after coupon cost of the lower end box was approximately $20, or free for some of the $40 models that started to appear in late 2008.
Dish Network offered one of these $40 (plus $8.95 shipping) converter boxes, the TR40-CRA. Many providers of boxes had announced plans to offer boxes for $40, but they were slow to become available. Originally planned for spring 2008, it wasn't until summer 2008 that the first of these became available (as a repriced version of what had been a $60 box). It is my personal belief that those who had announced plans for the $40 boxes intentionally delayed bringing them to market because they were happy to take the extra $20 from consumers, and the early consumers that requested their coupons expecting the $40 boxes to be available faced the expiration of those coupons 90 days following their issue.
The table below provides a side-by-side comparison of several of the commonly available DTV converter boxes. Reviews are provided in the text following the table.
Digital Television Converter boxes can be purchased at many locations of Best Buy, Circuit City, Radio Shack, Walmart, as well as other providers, including drug stores like Rite Aid. If your request a Digital Television (DTV) coupon, it will come with a list of nearby locations where they may be purchased. I have found that at many times, these locations are out of stock of the boxes, but in most cases you can purchase the converter box with the coupon (plus pay the difference between the coupon amount and the cost of the converter), and have it either delivered to you by mail (in some cases), or have it shipped to the store where you can pick it up when it arrives.
I have tried three of these boxes. The first converter I purcahsed was the Digital Stream DTX9950 that was on sale at Radio Shack for apprdimately $60. I used one of my $40 coupons, plus a Radio Shak coupon that was good for $10 off a purchase of $40 or more, making my final cost for the box approximately $10 plus tax.
The DTX 9950 has a coaxial antenna input, a coaxial TV output that will generate an output signal on chanel 3 or 4, a composite (yellow) video connector, and right (red) and white (left) audio connectors. A short coaxial cable was included in the box. The yellow, red, and white RCA cables were not included, but thos connections are not necessary in the most common method of connecting to an existing television. The converter also came with a universal remote that controlls the converter, and which may be programmed to control many common televisions (TV on and off, and volume). This is the correct set of controls for the TV since you likely do not want to change the channel on the TV itself, but instead you will leave it set to chaneel 3 or 4, and use the channel control on the converter to select the channel you will view.
The DTX 9950 was easy to set up, even without the manual. It supports Analog pass through, meaning that when the unit is turned off, analog television signals are passed through to the television. This is important if you want to receive certain "low power" television stations that may still broadcast in analog, or if your "antenna" input may include ther signals such as channel 3 outputs from a VCR or DVD player. The DTV 9950 provides an available on-screen program guide that will show scheduled program information on a channel, as received over the air. Unfortunately, the format for this program guide is limited to just future program on the current channel - I was not able to figure out how to get it to list the current programming on all received channels on a single screen. Overall, this is my choice for converters, but you might prefer the TR-40CRA if the program guide is important to you.
The second box that I purchases was an Insignia NS-DXA1-APT, which I purcahsed for approximately $60 at Best Buy. This is the same box made by LG that is also sold as the Zenith DTT-901 at Circuit City. After the $40 DTV coupon and adding tax my net cost for the DTT901 was around $25. The purchased Insignia box has a coaxial antenna input, a coaxial TV output that will generate an output signal on chanel 3 or 4, a composite (yellow) video connector, and right (red) and white (left) audio connectors. A short coaxial cable was included in the box, and unlike the 9950, the Insignia box came with both the composite set of cables too - yellow, red, and white. There is also a NS-DXA1, without the analog pass through. If you choose this box, make sure you get the APT version.
The Insignia NS-DXA1-APT came with a universal remote that controlls the converter, and which may be programmed to control many common televisions (TV on and off only, not volume as was the case with the 9950, but you can adjust the value fed to the TV from the converter, using the remote). The features of the Insignia box are similar to that of the DTX 9950. It also provides an available on-screen program guide that shows scheduled program information on a channel, as received over the air. Like the 9950, the page view for the guide shows only info on the current channel.
Best Buy also carries the Apex DT250 Digital Delivision Converter box for around $60. I have not purchased this box, but compared it with the Insignia NS-DXA1-APT when I was shopping for my box. The main difference between the Apex and the Insignia box is that the Insignia box has channel buttons on the front allowing its use if you might have misplaced your remote control. The Apex, on the otherhand, has an S-video connector in addition to its composite and coax outputs. The Insignia box did not have an S-video connector. I have seen several poor reviews for the Apex DT250, including several that reported their boxes ran very hot, as well as reported limitations on the ability to add channels not found in the initial channel scan. I chose to avoid this box.
In November I ordered and installed the Dish TR40-CRA and found it to be a nice box. The TR-40CRA is identical to the DTV Pal also available from Dish Network, but the DTVPal costs $20 more. There is also a version called the DTVPal Plus available for $70 which is said to have a better tuner, which might be needed if you live in a weak signal area. The tuner on the TR-40 CRA is quite good. The main strenght of the TR-40CRA is its program guide that displays multiple channels and time slots at once, unlike the guides on many of the other boxes. In fact, the style of the program guide is identical to that in DISH Networks satelite boxes. The TR-40CRA also supports event timers, meaning you can program it to change channels at designate times, something that is important if you are using it with a VCR or DVD writer.
The main disadvantage of the TR-40CRA is that its remote control is not a universal remote, meaning that you can not program it to turn on your television. According to the manual, you can program other universal remote to control the TR-40CRA, so that you can use a single remote - but that leave you with a less intuitive layout for controlling the TR40. The TR40 remote does control the volume in the signal sent to the television, so the other remote is only needed to turn on and off the television. Anyway, in my opinion, if you live in an area with a reasonably stong television signal, and if you want a useful program guide on your box, and if you can live with a second remote, then go with the TR40-CRA.
There are a number of boxes that have started to appear at stores like Riteaid, CVS, and supermarkets. The Zinwell ZAT-970A was selling for $40 at our local Albertsons supermarket and I considered purchasing one. After looking at reviews I decided not to do so as the reviews I found ranked it in the second tier for picture quality / reception. However, the reviews also noted that it is one of the few inexpensive boxes that supported program timers that allow you to program the unit to change chanels at set timers so that you can record different stations on a VCR. In my opinion, if you need this capability, you will be better off getting the TR40-CRA.
The Access HD DTA1010D is available as one of two boxes carried by our local Riteaid (Rite Aid also carries the Craig and the Memorex boxes - though the Craig box was not available in our local store). I have not purchased this box, but the reviews that I found gave it good scores for image quality and ability to zoom, but indicated that the strength of its remote control insufficient when used from the other side of a room.
The second box available at our local Rite-Aid is the Memorex MVCB1000. I have not used this box, but it has gotten weak reviews elsewhere. Given the number of other boxes with strong reviews available for a similar price, I chose not to get this box. Among the limitations I have seen in other reviews include possible loss of programming (stored stations) when the unit is unplugged.
The Craig CVD506 is available from some Rite-Aid stores, and locally I have found it offered at CVS. Again, I have seen mixed reviews for this box, though I have not used this converter myself. One of the limitations that was mentioned in other reviews I have seen is that it was not possible to manually add stations that did not appear during the initial channel scan. This can be annoying if one is trying to bring in stations with weak signals. As for the Memorex box, I feel there are enough other really strong boxes out there, that I chose not to purchase one of the boxes.
I have seen decent reviews of the Philco TB100HH9, available from Buy.com and other sources. The main issues highlighted in these reviews was that downconverted HD programs often showed jaged edges on the picture. There were no buttons on the box itself, meaning you needed the remote, which is included. The sensitivity was in line with other boxes. The program guide, like many of the other boxes, only displayed information for the current channel.