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.
Full: Fills the screen on wide-screen programs, but distorts the aspect ratio on analog 4:3 TVs. However, this mode keeps wide-screen programs in the correct aspect ratio and fills the screen on wide-screen TVs.
Normal: Keeps wide-screen programs in their original aspect ratio, but adds black bars on both the top and bottom of the picture.
Zoom: Maintains the proper aspect ratio on 4:3 analog TVs, but crops out of the extreme right and left sides of the picture.
Connectivity is standard on the DTVPal. There are two RF-style F connectors, which are the connecters that have the screw threads on the outside and the small hole inside. One connector is an antenna input and is connected to the antenna using a coaxial cable. The other F connector says "TV Set out" and is a video output. This means you can send analog video and audio from the DTVPal to your TV by connecting a coaxial cable. In addition to the F connectors, the DTVPal has a composite video output along with stereo RCA analog outputs--the standard yellow, red, and white outputs. If your TV has the proper inputs, you should use this output as it offers superior audio and video quality compared with the RF connection.
Analog pass-through is another feature of the DTVPal, which means that you can set the box to pass the analog signal from the antenna through its RF output, to be tuned by a separate NTSC tuner. For most people, the usefulness of this feature is fairly limited, as after February 19, 2009, almost all analog transmitters will be turned off. Sure, there will be still be a few low-power location stations, or if you live close to the border with Mexico, you might be able to get some analog Mexican stations, but for the vast majority of people this feature just isn't that important. Still, it's a nice convenience for people who'd like to continue using analog stations until February 2009.
The DTVPal can also work in conjunction with a TV or DVD recorder that has TV Guide On Screen, or Guide Plus (also known as Gemstar). The instructions are in the manual, but basically you need to connect a G-Link cable from your TV Guide On Screen-capable device, set up the IR blaster in front of the DTV Pal, and set the DTVPal to TV Guide On Screen mode. We didn't have any TV Guide On Screen-capable devices on hand to test this, but it's a nice extra for those who use the service.
Besides the remote and the actual unit, there's not much else included in the box. There's the manual, a single RF cable, and a couple of AA batteries for the remote--that's it. That's pretty stingy, as we expect at least composite-video cable with stereo audio cables (the standard yellow, red, and white cables) to be included with these boxes. Overall, it's not a huge issue--you can pick up a cheap composite-video cable or better quality RF cable for a few bucks--but it really should be included in the box.
While the DTVPal has a pretty solid feature set, tech enthusiasts will notice a few features missing. There's no S-Video output, which can provide slightly better quality than composite. There's also no port to connect a Smart Antenna--which is an antenna that is able to automatically adjust itself to improve reception. Considering the high price of Smart Antennas we've seen so far, this isn't a big omission.
Reception was overall comparable to other boxes we've tested. From our Manhattan office, we were able to tune into all the major networks and rarely saw any breakups associated with a poor signal. We were also able to receive a whole host of additional channels, such as PBS (from multiple cities), The CW, My 9, plus some religious and Spanish channels. Remember, you'll only be able to tune into the free stations broadcast over the air--that means no Comedy Central, CNN, and so on. When we compared it directly with the Zenith DTT900, it came up a bit short on total channel count, but only by a few. Also remember that our testing environment is urban, and performance will vary greatly depending on local terrain.
Video quality was fairly good overall, but a notch below the best converter boxes we've tested. We compared it head-to-head with the Zenith DTT900 using the composite video input, and we found the DTVPal to be a tad softer, with more jaggies and other image imperfections. It was nearly as bad as the GE 22730, and more comparable to the image quality of the RCA DTA800. We noticed these differences on an HDTV--where the quality differences are more pronounced--so users of standard analog TVs will notice fewer differences.