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.
Analog pass-through 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, and 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.
Connectivity is excellent on the DT250. 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 is an antenna input and should be connected to the antenna using a coaxial cable. The other F connector says "TV OUT" and is an audio/video output. This means you can send analog video and audio from the DT250 to your TV by connecting a coaxial cable. In addition to the F connectors, the DT250 has a composite video output along with stereo RCA analog outputs--the standard yellow, red, and white outputs. The DT250 is also one of the few DTV converter boxes that includes an S-Video connector, which offers superior quality to the standard yellow connection. If your TV has an S-Video input, you should use that for the best video quality, followed by the yellow composite cable, or the lowest-quality RF output as a last resort.
The DT250 also includes a Smart Antenna port that can be used with compatible Smart Antennas. The idea behind Smart Antennas is fairly simple: digital stations are often broadcast from different locations, so setting your antenna in one direction might be optimal for one station but not for another. A Smart Antenna automatically moves the antenna so that it's in the optimal position for a particular station. We didn't have a Smart Antenna on hand to test this feature, but the idea is a good one, and it's nice to have the ability to add one at a later time. Our only hesitance is that the Smart Antennas we've seen on the market recently are rather expensive, which makes us think it probably won't be worth the extra cash.
Reception was a significant step below the other DTV boxes we've tested. We set up the DT250 in our Manhattan office and were able to pull in 20 stations, while most other boxes we had on hand pulled in around 24 to 25. That wouldn't be so bad if it just missed an obscure station, but one of the stations the DT250 was NBC--a major network. Also remember that, as with all DTV converter boxes, you'll only be able to tune into the free stations broadcast over the air--that means no Comedy Central, CNN, and so on. While every location is different, if you're based in an area far from DTV transmitting towers, you may want to consider another box. (Resources like AntennaWeb and TV Fool can help determine how far you are from DTV signals.)
While reception was disappointing, video quality was very good for a DTV converter box. First, we looked at programs using the composite connection, and the image quality was comparable with our image quality king, the Zenith DTT901. One of our favorite tests (even before CBS bought CNET) is to observe the round CBS logo, which looked smooth and jaggy-less on the DT250. And native HD programs like World News with Charles Gibson looked particularly good--much better than you could expect with standard analog TV signals. In addition, we were also able to look at programming using the S-Video output, and as you'd expect, it looked even a little better, with slightly richer colors and fewer jaggies. Overall, those concerned with image quality will be pleased by the DT250's performance.