The FCC has pushed back the DTV transition several times already, but it looks as if over-the-air analog TV signals will actually end on February 17, 2009. That means owners of analog TV will need to pony up for a DTV converter box if they want to continue getting their free over-the-air TV (read our Quick Guide to the DTV transition to find out if you'll be affected). Luckily, it shouldn't cost you too much, as anyone affected can apply for a $40 DTV converter box coupon from the U.S. government.
The Dish Network DTVPal is one of the boxes that shoppers can buy with the coupon, and we've been heavily anticipating its release since it was announced at CES 2008. Since then, however, there's been a lot of confusion. The converter box was first announced as the EchoStar TR-40 with a $40 price tag, then it was renamed to the Dish Network DTVPal, and now the latest news is that the Dish Network DTVPal and the EchoStar TR-40 are actually different products--yikes. The final story is that the Dish Network DTVPal is slated to be available at DTVPal.com on June 19, with an MSRP between $40 and $60. The TR-40 will come out at a later date at a price to be determined. If we had to guess, based on Dish Network CEO Charlie Ergen's "Charlie Chat," the DTVPal will cost about $60 and the TR-40 will cost $40.
Getting to the actual device, there's a lot to like about the DTVPal. To us, the main draw is that the DTVPal's EPG is much better than any other box's we've reviewed. It gives several days of data in a familiar grid layout, with responsive controls and even the capability to search for a program. The rest of the features of the DTVPal are basically average; its reception and video quality are solid, but not standout. Our biggest concern is that the somewhat overcomplicated (and underfeatured) remote control just can't compete with the RCA DTA800's excellent clicker, and if you're picking a box for a senior citizen or certified nontechie, we'd lean heavily toward the DTA800. However, for everyone else, the DTVPal's excellent EPG make it our go-to pick for DTV converter boxes.
DTV converter boxes are fairly drab by nature, but the DTVPal is one of the better looking boxes we've seen. Its main attraction is its small footprint, coming in 1.3 inches high, 5.9 inches wide, and 4.2 inches deep. It has a rectangular shape with rounded corners, and the case sinks a bit in the middle, giving it a subtle wavelike appearance. There are no buttons on the front, which means you can only control the box using a remote. On the center of the unit is a single green light indicating that it's on, and the light turns off when the unit is off. The light is actually pretty bright, and unfortunately you can't disable it in the setup menu.
The included remote is one of the weak points of the DTVPal. Right off the bat, we were disappointed that it lacks the capability to control a TV, which is an important feature since these boxes will often be used in scenarios where an expensive universal remote doesn't make economic sense. We also weren't fans of the remote layout. There's no dedicated button-rocker for changing channels; channel changing is instead handled by the centrally located directional pad. There is a dedicated volume control, but it has an unorthodox horizontal alignment. Beyond that, the buttons aren't well differentiated (especially the buttons that surround the directional pad), and the fact that the page up/down buttons do double-duty controlling aspect ratio and closed-captioning can be confusing. Tech enthusiasts will certainly enjoy being able to access many functions directly from the remote, but overall we much preferred the simple remote design of the RCA DTA800.
The real gem of the DTVPal is its full electronic programming guide. Its layout and the amount of data it can display are superior to the other boxes we've reviewed. You can see four channels at a time, and it displays an hour and a half at a time, which we found reasonable given the limitations of a standard-definition display. How much guide data you actually get, and how good that guide data actually is, depends on the program data provided by the stations. Some stations provide only about a day's worth of data, while other go out several days. There's also a big disparity with the descriptions of the programs, with many programs showing only "No information available" and others giving a brief summary. We're expecting broadcasters to continually improve guide data as the digital transition gets closer, but don't expect complete information like what's available on a TiVo or cable DVR.
The other great thing about the guide is how responsive it is. Flipping through hours of data is a breeze and we never felt like the box had to load a new screen. Sure, it's nothing like the silky smooth response of the PS3, but it's a big step over the other boxes we've reviewed. The only addition that would have been nice is a picture-in-picture view of what's playing on the channel it's currently tuned to, but we can understand why Dish decided to conserve screen space.
The DTVPal also includes a program search function, which Dish Network calls Event Search. It's accessible via the main menu, and it lets you search for programs using an onscreen keyboard. For example, if you're interested in knowing when all of the permutations of the CSI franchise are airing, you can simply search for "CSI" and it will tell you all the channel, date, and time information for programs with CSI in the title. You can choose to search title data, description data, or both. It's not flawless, as we noticed that the DTVPal tended not to update program guide data unless we actually accessed that channel, but it's still a useful feature once you know its limitations.
Aspect ratio is handled well on the DTVPal. This is an important feature because the DTVPal will most commonly be used with older, analog TVs with a standard 4:3 aspect ratio, but an increasing amount of digital TV is presented in wide screen (16:9). The DTT900 has three options, which you can cycle through with the "Picture Format" button on the remote.