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.
• 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.