The analog-to-digital transition is coming February 17, which means owners of analog TVs will need to pony up for a DTV converter box if they want to continue getting their free over-the-air TV. Luckily, the box shouldn't cost too much, as anyone affected can apply for a $40 DTV converter box coupon from the U.S. government. Read our Quick Guide to the DTV transition for the full details.
You might be tempted to think all DTV converter boxes are the same, but there are actually significant differences between them. If you're looking at the spec sheet, the Apex DT250 is a definite cut above most of its competitors, offering rare features like an S-Video output, analog pass-through, and a "Smart Antenna" port, for use with compatible, self-adjusting antennas. And once we set it up, the DT250 impressed us with its video quality, especially using the S-Video output. On the other hand, we were underwhelmed by its lackluster electronic program guide (EPG) and we also found it worrying that it pulled in fewer stations than other boxes we reviewed. The Apex DT250 has a lot to offer in terms of features and image quality, but you'll need to be in an area with a strong DTV signal to take advantage of them.
We've seen a few DTV converter boxes try to add some design flourishes, but the DT250 fits squarely into the "black box" category. It looks like a small cable box, and on the front there's only a single power button--which means you can't control the box if the remote goes missing. The power button has a red glow when it's off and a green glow when it's on. The Apex box has a strictly utilitarian design that you'll probably want to hide in your entertainment cabinet.
We weren't fans of the included remote control. There's a centrally located directional pad--which is nice--but it's also designed to double as both channel and volume control. What makes that even more confusing is the pair of button rockers toward the bottom, which we intuitively expected to be the channel and volume rockers. In addition, the buttons are a little on the small side and there isn't much button differentiation. Aside from button placement, we were disappointed to find that the remote can't be programmed to also control a TV, so you'll have to fumble with two remotes to get things working. If you're looking for an easy-to-use remote with large buttons that can control a TV, perhaps for a senior citizen, check out the RCA DTA800 instead.
Setup wasn't that difficult, but the setup menus employed less friendly hand-holding than some other converter boxes we've tested. For example, the Apex displayed the initial setup options in a grid, instead of asking simple sentence-based questions like "Do you have a wide-screen or standard TV?" The initial automatic channel scan also seemed slower than most other DTV boxes we've reviewed--but at least a channel scan isn't something you have to perform frequently.
The Apex DT250 does include an EPG, which is a good thing, but it's very basic. If you press the guide button, four blue rectangles will appear at the top of the screen, three of them telling you the current and next two shows on the channel you're watching, and the large rectangle below giving information about the show. That's better than nothing, but the Dish Network TR-40 CRA shows much more program information at once, and we even prefer the somewhat limited "What's Next" screen on the RCA DTA800 to Apex's arrangement.
Aspect ratio is handled decently on the DT250. First, make sure your box is set correctly for your TV--either 4:3 for a standard analog set, or 16:9 for a wide-screen TV. On analog TVs, wide-screen programs can be displayed in letterbox format (black bars on the top and bottom of the image), zoomed (full screen, but it chops off the left and right parts of the image), or fill mode (no black bars or chopped off image, but the aspect ratio is distorted.) On wide-screen TVs, we were happy to see that we could get the full picture from true wide-screen programs. The only time we couldn't get our preferred viewing mode was on stations that broadcast a letterboxed image in a 4:3 window. The zoom feature zooms in a little too far, so parts of the image get cut off. It's far from a deal-breaker, though, and hopefully stations will do a better job of broadcasting without letterboxing as the DTV transition gets closer.