As the digital transition gets closer and media coverage increases, the important thing to remember is that if you get your TV from cable or satellite now, you don't need to do anything. If you do rely on analog over-the-air TV, the next important thing is to not panic--you don't need a new TV. Almost any analog TV can receive the new digital stations if connected to a DTV converter box, which should cost no more than $20 if you sign up one of the government's $40 coupons. (For more information, see our Quick Guide to the DTV transition).
The Magnavox TB100MW9 is one of the DTV converter boxes you can buy with a $40 coupon, and it's one of the more visible options because it's being carried at Wal-Mart. In our tests, it was a competent performer, with good video quality and reception that was in line with other boxes we've tested. On the other hand, we found its remote to be difficult to use and its EPG (electronic programming guide) was less-informative than the ones found on most other DTV boxes. While the TB100MW9 handles the basics well with good reception and video quality, there's no reason not to spend your $40 coupon on a box with a better remote or more features, such as the Zenith DTT901, the RCA DTA800, or the Dish Network TR-40 CRA.
The TB100MW9 sports a basic "black box" design, with the faceplate featuring a stripe of glossy black plastic in the middle. There's a single indicator light in the center of the stripe that glows green when it's on and orange when it's off. There are no other buttons whatsoever on the front panel--not even a power button. There is a main power switch on the side of the unit, but it won't actually turn the unit on, it just gives you the ability to turn the unit on with the remote. That means you can't really use the TV100MW9 at all if the remote goes missing--a real flaw.
We'll admit to being sticklers about good remote design, but the TB100MW9's clicker is bad by almost any measure. There's a directional pad in the center, but it breaks the standard convention of including the "OK" button in the middle and instead places it off to the side, which caused us to hit the wrong button several times. The other keys are all tiny and similarly-sized, including even the important channel up/down buttons. It's also missing a button to toggle between different aspect ratios--you have to jump into the setup menu to do this. We were also disappointed to note that the remote can't control a TV, so you'll need to fumble with two remotes. That might seem like a lot of complaining over a remote, but if this is the main way you watch TV, it's something you'll use all the time. If an easy-to-use remote is a big priority, make sure you check out the competing RCA DTA800.
The Magnavox does technically include an EPG, but it's one of the most basic we've seen. Pressing the EPG button, the TV100MW9's remote brings up current information about the program playing, and pressing "right" on the directional pad will show information about programs coming on in the future. This design is pretty limited, as it doesn't give you enough information on a single screen--you have to scroll to see the next 2 hours of programming on NBC (for example) or what's on a variety of stations at 8 p.m. We definitely prefer the Dish Network TR-40 CRA's EPG, which shows much more program information at once, or even the somewhat limited "What's Next" screen on the RCA DTA800, to what Magnavox offers.
The TB100MW9 has three main settings for aspect ratio: letterbox, zoom, and full. On a standard 4:3 analog TV, letterbox "windowboxes" 4:3 content (puts black bars on all four sides) and properly letterboxes wide-screen 16:9 content (puts black bars above and below the image). Zoom displays 4:3 programming with no black bars and in the correct aspect ratio, and displays the wide-screen programs without distorting the image, but the left and the right sides are cut off. In full mode, 4:3 programs have black bars on the left and the right and have the wrong aspect ratio, while wide-screen programs are shown in full, but the aspect ratio is incorrect (it's squished in from the left and sides). If you have a wide-screen TV, full mode will show 16:9 programs in the correct aspect ratio. Of course, as mentioned before, the ability to change aspect ratios is hampered quite a bit by the fact that you have to dig through the setup menu to do so, rather press than a dedicated button on the remote, like most DTV converter boxes have.
Connectivity is basic on the TB100MW9. 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 "ANT OUT" and is an audio/video output. This means you can send analog video and audio from the TB100MW9 to your TV by connecting a coaxial cable. In addition to the F connectors, the TB100MW9 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 the composite video output for improved video quality; unfortunately, Magnavox stingily only includes an RF cable in the box.
While the TV100MW9 certainly has enough features to get your analog TV tuning into digital stations, it is missing some extras seen on other boxes. The TB100MW9 lacks analog pass-through, which means the box won't pass standard analog TV signals to your TV--not a huge issue for most buyers, since the majority of those analog signals will be turned off in 2009. We've also seen boxes with ports for S-Video, which can improve video quality substantially as long as your TV has a matching input, and Smart Antenna, which enables compatibility with specialized antennas that can move to face different directions.
Reception, overall, was on par with what we've seen from competing boxes. From our Manhattan location, the TB100MW9 pulled in 24 stations clearly, which is consistent with what we've seen from other top-performing DTV boxes. Of course, every location is different, and you can use tools such as Antenna Web and TV Fool to determine how strong the signal should be in your area. 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.
Video quality overall was above average, looking much better than the GE 22730 and just slightly softer than the Zenith DTT901. We took at look CBS' eye logo, and it was mostly smooth and round, although we could see slight chunkiness along the outer edges. With both the TB100MW9 and the DTT901 connected, we flipped between the two boxes while watching a documentary on PBS, and the image quality was very similar, with us seeing just a tad more detail on the DTT901. If you're looking for absolutely pristine image quality, check out either the DTT901 or the Apex DT250, which has a high-quality S-Video output.