Editors' note: This review is nearly identical to our review of the Dish Network DTVPal, as both products offer exactly the same functionality. However, since the TR-40 CRA costs less, CNET advises all buyers to go with the cheaper TR-40 CRA.
Back at CES 2008, Dish Network promised to deliver a DTV converter box--the TR-40-- that cost exactly $40, making it free to consumers who signed up for the government's DTV converter-box coupon. Since then a lot has happened. First, Dish changed the name to DTVPal and said the price would be $60, then the company claimed the DTVPal and the TR-40 were separate products, and then the TR-40 CRA was announced as exactly the same as the DTVPal--but with a $40 price tag. And now both the TR-40 CRA and the DTVPal--which are exactly the same product--are available on Dish Network's site, priced at $40 and $60, respectively. It's been a nightmare for consumers and journalists alike, and more than a few buyers of the DTVPal feel like they paid $20 too much.
All that aside, the bottom line is that Dish's $40 DTV converter box is finally on the market, and it's a good one. To us, the main draw is that the TR-40 CRA's EPG is much better than any other boxes we've reviewed. It gives several days of data in a familiar grid layout, with responsive controls and even the ability to search for a program. The other features of the TR-40 CRA 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 TR-40 CRA's excellent EPG make it our go-to pick for DTV converter boxes.
DTV converter boxes are fairly drab by nature, but the TR-40 CRA is one of the better-looking boxes we've seen. Its main attraction is its small footprint, measuring 1.3 inches high by 5.9 inches wide by 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 TR-40 CRA. Right off the bat, we were disappointed that it lacks the ability 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 TR-40 CRA 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 TR-40 CRA 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 TR-40 CRA 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 TR-40 CRA. This is an important feature because the TR-40 CRA 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.