Editors' note: The DTT901 is nearly identical to the Zenith DTT900, except the DTT901 adds the ability to pass analog signals to a TV and has slightly better sound. Otherwise, the reviews are virtually identical.
The FCC has pushed back the DTV transition several times already, but it looks as if it will shut off over-the-air analog TV signals on February 17, 2009. That 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 (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 Zenith DTT901 is one of the DTV boxes that shoppers can buy with the coupon, and it's worth giving a serious look. On arguably the most important features--reception and video quality--the DTT901 performs strongly, outperforming the other boxes we've looked at so far. We did have some nitpicks: the remote is too small, audio quality is subpar, and we would have liked a full-scale EPG (onscreen electronic program guide). However, these caveats are for the most part overshadowed the DTT901's other strengths; it is a good choice for your government-subsidized coupon. The RCA DTA800 has a better remote--which is excellent for seniors with poor eyesight--and the Dish Network DTVPal has more features, but if video quality and reception are your top priorities, the DTT901 will serve you well.
The Zenith DTT901's design is simple, but we liked it. The main chassis is made of black metal, accented by a plastic faceplate that has the popular glossy black look to it. The metal body makes it feel more like a more expensive item, especially considering that most other DTV boxes are made of plastic. In the center of the faceplate is a small LED light that glows blue when the device is on and red when it's off. To the right of the light are channel up and down buttons, and further right is the power button. Overall, the DTT901 is one of the more attractive boxes available.
The first thing you'll notice about the DTT901's included remote control is that it's small. That's unfortunate, because we actually liked the button layout on the remote, but it's not a good option for older buyers with less-than-perfect eyesight. (If you're looking for a DTV box with large remote buttons, check out the RCA DTA800.) If you can get past the small size, it's actually pretty good, with individual button rockers for volume and channel up/down, and a large directional pad up top. We liked the inclusion of a variety of buttons, such as a handy signal strength checker, the zoom button, and closed-captioning. We also liked how the remote handled digital substations--if you hit 4 on the remote, a menu pops up on the screen allowing you to choose which channel (4.1, 4.2, 4.4, 41.1, etc) you'd like to watch. Also note that it is capable of controlling a TV, although that capability is limited to turning it on and off.
The DTT901 includes a very basic program. Hitting the guide button brings up the "Simple Guide," which shows what's currently on a channel and what will be on next. The EPGs on more advanced products such as TiVo or even standard digital cable boxes usually show more information, such as program data for several hours in the future for several channels at a time. It's definitely better than nothing--which may be what many buyers of this box are used to--but there's definitely room for improvement.
Aspect ratio is handled well on the DTT901. This is an important feature because the DTT901 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 DTT901 has four options, which you can cycle through with the "Zoom" button on the remote.
Set by program: Presumably sets the aspect ratio as the content maker requests.
Letterbox: Keeps wide-screen programs in their original form, but adds black bars on both the top and bottom of the picture.
Cropped: Maintains the proper aspect ratio, but literally crops out of the extreme right and left sides of the picture.
Squeeze: Doesn't remove any part of the picture, but distorts the aspect ratio, making people look tall and skinny.
The DTT901 also doesn't have a problem displaying a full wide-screen image if connected to a wide-screen TV--which is a step-up over the RCA DTA800.