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 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 GE 22730 DTV converter box is one of the boxes you can buy with the coupon, but you're probably better off going with a different model. Its video quality is substantially worse than the other boxes we've tested, and the lame remote may confuse DTV amateurs with how it interacts with the box. The GE also pulled in fewer channels than the other boxes we tested, and we encountered more interference on the channels we did pull in. One of the lone bright spots is that it includes an EPG with eight days of program data, but its usefulness it tempered somewhat by its clunky interface. If you really want an EPG with multiple days of data--and can't wait for the Echostar TR-40--the GE 22730 delivers on that count, but everyone else should go with one of the alternatives. If you don't need a DTV box right away, the best strategy might be to wait until more boxes hit the market.
The GE 22730 has a unique design. The top of the unit has a wavelike shape to distinguish it from the pack, but that will make it more difficult to stack anything on top of it. We didn't really like the look of the GE 22730--we preferred the utilitarian look of the Zenith DTT900--but it may be attractive to buyers who want something different than a standard gray box. The casing is made of dark gray plastic, with ventilation holes on the top. The front panel had two LEDs on front--a red always-on LED that indicates the unit is plugged in, and a green LED that lights up when the unit is on. Further to the right are channel buttons and a power button.
The included remote is a real disappointment. The important channel and volume buttons are tiny and inconspicuously located next to the directional pad. We much prefer the larger, rocker-style volume and channel buttons available on the Zenith DTT900 and the RCA DTA800. The rest of the GE remote control's keys are also small and similarly spaced, so it's nearly impossible to use the clicker by feel. It's also the only DTV box remote that isn't capable of controlling a TV, so you'll need to fumble with two remotes or use a universal remote. If you're looking for a DTV converter box with a great remote with extra-large buttons (great for seniors), check out the RCA DTA800.
If the remote's design wasn't bad enough, actually using it to change channels can be even more frustrating. If you just press "4" and then the OK button, you'd expect it to change to the channel 4. Instead, the GE tells you this is an invalid channel and doesn't change the channel at all. This might be technically correct--channel four is actually "4-1" with digital TV--but it's just annoying and confusing, especially for DTV amateurs. All the other DTV boxes we've tested handle this better--the RCA DTA800 simply goes right to 4-1, and the Zenith DTT900 has a great pop-up menu that lists all the digital stations that start with 4 (4-1, 4-2, 41-1, etc.). If simple operation is a major concern for you, avoid the GE 22730.
The GE 22730 is the only DTV box we've tested so far that features an EPG with several days worth of program data. There's a full week of program guide data, which the box receives from the over-the-air digital signals. While it's definitely nice to have an EPG with several days of data, we weren't huge fans of the layout. Unlike most EPGs, the GE's guide only shows one channel at a time--so you can see every show on NBC from 8:30-10:00, for example, but you can't see a bunch of choices from different channels for what's on at 8:30. The guide also felt unintuitive to use with the remote--when we pressed right on the directional pad, we thought we'd go to the next day, but instead that changed the channel. The guide data also takes a long time to load and doesn't save to the unit, so it needs to reload every time you navigate to a new section.
Aspect ratio is handled well on the GE 22730. This is an important feature because the GE 22730 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 GE 22730 has three options, which you can cycle through with the "Zoom" button on the remote.
• Letter: Keeps wide-screen programs in their original form, but adds black bars on both the top and bottom of the picture.
• Full: Doesn't remove any part of the picture, but distorts the aspect ratio, making people look tall and skinny.
• Center: Maintains the proper aspect ratio, but literally crops out of the extreme right and left sides of the picture on 4:3 TVs.
The GE 22730 also doesn't have a problem displaying a full wide-screen image if connected to a wide-screen TV when left in Full mode--which is a step-up over the RCA DTA800.
Connectivity options are standard. 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 for connecting the antenna using a coaxial cable. The other F connector says "To TV (RF)" and is a video output. This means you can send analog video and audio from the GE 22730 to your TV by connecting a coaxial cable. In addition to the F connectors, the GE 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 over the RF connection.
Besides the remote and the actual unit, there's not much else included in the box--just a single RF cable and couple of AA batteries for the remote. 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. Of course, you can pick up a cheap composite video cable for a few bucks, but it really should be included in the box.
While the GE includes all the critical features you'd want on a DTV converter box, there are some extras missing. Some of the DTV boxes--such as the RCA DTA800--include an option to use with a Smart Antenna, which is a special kind of antenna that supposedly is able to reposition itself to get the best reception. We haven't been able to test this functionality on any of the boxes yet, but the Smart Antennas we've seen are so expensive we find it hard to believe it's worth the money for connecting to such a bargain DTV box. Some users will note that the GE doesn't offer analog pass-through, meaning that it would still pass analog antenna signal to a TV. While this might be useful for analog signals broadcast this year, it's not that big of an omission since that feature will be essentially useless once the FCC shuts off analog signals in February 2009. Lastly, there are a few DTV boxes--such as the Channel Master CM-7000--that feature an S-Video output, which can provide better video quality than that composite video. This should only matter if you currently have a TV that has an S-Video input.
The video quality of the 22730 is pretty awful, even with our lowered standards for DTV converter boxes. We watched the Martha Stewart Show (hey, there's not much on during the day) and its picture was so degraded it looked like it was half-resolution of a normal 480i signal, or at least close. That means the picture was filled with jaggies--especially with onscreen text or the CBS logo--and plenty of detail was lost on the rest of the image. Switching over to the RCA DTA800, the video quality was much better, showing far fewer jaggies than the GE. We thought perhaps there was a problem with the composite video output, so we switched to RF, and the quality was even worse. While image quality certainly isn't that high of a priority on these boxes, anyone even somewhat concerned with how the picture looks should instead consider competing boxes like the RCA DTA800 and the Zenith DTT900.
Reception was also disappointing. We tested it in New York from Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn, and the GE consistently pulled in a few stations less than other DTV boxes we had on hand. Even in our Manhattan location, which is only about 10 blocks away from the Empire State Building (the main digital TV transmitter in New York), we noticed that NBC occasionally had some digital break-up. Considering our close proximity to ideal reception location, we're not confident that the 22730 would perform competently in locations that are more difficult to receive signals.