Monday, 19 May 2008

CECB mini-review: RCA DTA800B

Mom and I went to Wal-Mart today to pick up two digital converter boxes (specificlly coupon-eligible converter boxes, “CECBs”) as emergency backup for Comcast’s frequently-incompetent cable service in Memphis. It took about 15 minutes for the assorted checkout staff figured out how to ring up the converters and use the government coupons for them, but eventually we escaped with two RCA DTA800B converters.

I found the box relatively easy to use and hook up. The boxes included quick start guides in English and Spanish and full user manuals in both languages, as well as a programmable remote control (with batteries) and a short push-on coax (F-type) cable for attaching the box to a TV over the “antenna” TV input.

Both boxes worked moderately well in southeast Memphis with a rather lame RCA unpowered indoor VHF/UHF antenna I picked up a while back, which is no Silver Sensor but a bit more compact to haul around, less likely to attract quizzical stares from airport security, and better than nothing at all. Neither box was able to scan WMC‘s rather weak digital signal (authorized at 394 kW but clearly not transmitting at anything close to that power) and there’s no manual tuning option. I’d imagine if I’d brought a decent directional antenna like the Silver Sensor I’d have gotten WMC and a more stable signal on some of the other channels.

So, overall, I have no real complaints about the boxes themselves, except for the lack of a manual tuning feature available on other converters, and the SmartAntenna feature will be nice for folks with hard-to-tune channels in multiple directions when you can actually buy one again. I’ll probably examine some of the other CECB models before settling on one, however, particularly now that it appears that the reported Zenith DTT900 audio problem is fixed in newer boxes.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

CECB mini-review: LG/Zenith DTT900

To continue the CECB mini-review series, I picked up an LG/Zenith DTT900 at Circuit City in Southaven this evening with one of my two digital converter box coupons (and $24ish of my hard-earned money at Sam’s Town’s blackjack tables).

With essentially the same setup and conditions (same television and el-cheapo VHF/UHF indoor antenna) as the RCA DTA800B tested before, the initial channel scan found the same 17 channels/sub-channels. However, the Zenith’s ability to manually add channels meant that I was able to add WMC-DT/NBC 5 (RF channel 52) and with some fiddling get a reasonably stable signal, something I was unable to accomplish with the RCA—this isn’t that surprising, since the Zenith is based on LG’s ATSC digital tuner chipset, which is known for its superior reception capabilities over most other silicon. In addition, other channels (WHBQ-DT/Fox 13, WPTY-DT/ABC 24, and WLMT-DT/CW 30) that were less-than-stable with the RCA were rock-solid with the Zenith. Bear in mind that WMC is running on a different frequency (and lower on its tower) than it will after the transition is complete in nine months, so indoor antennas in Shelby County at least should cope better with WMC when it is back on VHF channel 5.

The built-in guide is a little weaker than that included on the RCA model; the Zenith’s only shows program data for one channel at a time. The Zenith, however, has more functionality accessible from the remote control, including a “favorite channels” feature that would be useful for the compulsive surfer who isn’t interested in switching past the news and weather loops on 3–2 and 5–3 when doing the Letterman/Leno (or Conan/Craig) shuffle, and a sleep button. I also thought the Zenith’s menus were a little more polished and better organized.

On the antenna front, the Zenith, unlike the RCA, does not provide an attachment for digitally-steered “SmartAntennas,” which may be a consideration if you already have one of these (they are apparently uncommon at present) or have hard-to-tune channels in multiple directions which might benefit from this high-tech solution. The Zenith’s better signal-handling may reduce the need for a fancy antenna, however; either way, you should probably check out TVFool’s antenna aiming guide or the somewhat less-friendly CEA/NAB-sponsored AntennaWeb website to determine what sort of antenna solution is going to be necessary for you before spending money on one.

The only real problem I encountered in testing was that the “zoom” setting seemed to behave oddly; at first, letting it decide on its own seemed to work OK on some channels, but then I ended up with some bizarre “squeezed” pictures on several HD channels. Expect to manually fiddle with the zoom setting when channels switch between showing native 16:9 and pillarboxed 4:3 programs. Those who use closed captioning will also find that it seems to forget the CC setting when you switch channels, although I think there’s a menu option to leave closed captioning on all the time.

Finally, caveat emptor: many manufacturing runs of this converter, and its near twin sold by Best Buy under its Insignia house brand, apparently have an audio problem that certain TVs seem to be more susceptible to than others. The converter I purchased had a manufacturing date of April 2008, which has been reported to be the run in which this problem was fixed, and I observed no audio problems during my testing (on an admittedly low-end CRT stereo television/VCR over RCA cables).

Overall, I’d assess the LG/Zenith DTT900 as a better option for those who are planning to use the converter on a regular basis; however, if you’re simply buying a converter to serve as a “lifeline” when cable or satellite television is disrupted, or if you would like to take advantage of the SmartAntenna connectivity on that unit, the RCA model is probably adequate for most needs and seems to retail for about $10 less.