A review of four set-top converter boxes: the Digital Stream DTX9950, the Zenith DTT901, the Magnavox TB100MW9 and the Insignia NS-DXA1-APT.
With a little more than six months left until the switch from analog to digital TV broadcasting, 22.7 million converter-box coupons have been requested.
Once you get your $40 coupon (which expires 90 days after it’s mailed), you’ll have to pick one of the dozens of coupon-eligible converter boxes. To help you choose, I reviewed four that you’ll likely encounter at major retailers: the Digital Stream DTX9950 ($60, RadioShack), the Zenith DTT901 ($60, Circuit City), the Magnavox TB100MW9 ($50, Wal-Mart), and the Insignia NS-DXA1-APT ($60, Best Buy).
Except for the brand name, the Zenith and Insignia converters are the same box.
Each of these boxes is easy to set up and use, but the more expensive ones — the Digital Stream and the Zenith/Insignia — are a better option if you can spare the extra $10.
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All four boxes work by connecting rabbit ears or another external antenna to the back of the box and then connecting the box to your television with either RCA cables (yellow, red, white) or a coaxial cable (RF cable). Each comes with a remote.
Although the switch won’t happen until Feb. 17, 2009, hooking up a converter box to your analog TV now may give you better over-the-air reception, more channel choices and some other neat features, like an on-screen program guide. And the boxes may be in limited supply the closer we get.
I tested the boxes with a 10-year-old Panasonic TV/VCR combo and with both an inexpensive RadioShack VHF/UHF indoor TV antenna and a more expensive RCA flat multidirectional antenna. There wasn’t a ton of difference in the reception I got on the boxes, and using the RCA cables generally provided a slightly clearer picture than using a coaxial cable.
Placing the equipment near the window, each box tuned between 30 and 36 digital channels., including the networks, several channels from the local PBS affiliate, Spanish channels, educational channels and religious channels. The one exception was the two channels from local NBC affiliate WESH (the regular feed and Weather Plus), which often broke up, or didn’t come in at all.
Richard Monn, WESH’s chief engineer, said the station’s transmission doesn’t penetrate buildings as well as the other local stations and he recommends consumers use an outdoor antenna to ensure they get reception. For help choosing the right antenna, visit antennaweb.org.
Watching TV through a converter box is similar to watching digital cable. As you change channels, a box showing the number and name of the channel appears on the screen and you can bring up a guide to give you details about what you are watching, such as the scheduled guests for a talk show or the plot of a sitcom. You can choose to stretch the picture to fit your conventional TV screen or to have a picture with black edges. Each digital channel can have “subchannels,” so the different feeds will show up as “2-1,” “2-2,” etc.
The Digital Stream and Zenith/Insignia are the best of the bunch. Both have analog pass-through, which means they can also display low-powered stations that are not required to switch from analog to digital broadcasting, such as religious or ethnic channels. You can program the remotes to serve as your TV remote, though the Zenith/Insignia will only turn the TV on and off while the Digital Stream controls more functions. I was only able to program the Zenith/Insignia to control my TV, even though the Digital Stream had codes for Panasonic TVs.
The Digital Stream is about half the size of the other converters, which might be reason enough to buy it, especially if you plan on moving it from room to room.
Regardless of the box you choose, you’ll have to make some adjustments if you use a VCR to tune and record channels. Because you’ll have to use the converter box as a tuner, you can’t set a recording to switch to a different digital channel at a specified time. You can press the record button to tape what you’re watching or set a timed recording only if the converter is on and tuned to the right channel.
Using most portable TVs in the brave new digital world won’t be the same either, because they’ll also need converter boxes and antennas.
All of the converter boxes have to be plugged in, which doesn’t do you much good when the power goes out.