The DTV transition has been pushed back several times already, but it looks as if over-the-air analog TV signals will officially be turned off 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. Luckily, the box shouldn't cost you 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.
The RCA DTA800 is a DTV converter box that can be purchased using this coupon, and it's one of the best we've tested so far. The remote's extralarge buttons are intuitively arranged (perfect for older users with poor eyesight), and its video quality and reception capabilities are solid as well. It's not perfect; there's no guided setup, which can make the setup process a bit tricky for digital TV amateurs. But with other extra features such as a basic (but useful) EPG and a Smart Antenna port, we were able to overlook the start-up speed bumps. As with other DTV converter boxes currently on the market, our current biggest hesitation is price. With a $60 list price, you'll have to pay $20 of your own money to take home the DTA800 (although we've seen it at Wal-Mart Stores for $50). With Echostar releasing the $40 TR-40 this summer--which is supposed to have a full EPG--the best bet might be to wait at least until a few more boxes are on the market.
The DTA800's included remote is excellent. The first thing you'll notice is that it features jumbo-size buttons, which makes it an excellent choice for senior citizens with less-than-perfect vision. Another great touch is that the remote is divided down the middle by color--the left-side buttons are gray and control the TV, while the right-side buttons are white and control the box. The separation makes it really easy to figure out what you're controlling, especially since it can get slightly confusing when using an external tuner box with a TV. Once you program it, the DTA800's remote can control your TV's volume, switch inputs, and mute, which is essentially all you need. If we had to nitpick, we would have liked to have seen a separate button that brings up the Channel List--which is the RCA's simple EPG--but it's only an extra button click away after you hit Menu, so it's not a big issue. It's hard to get excited about a remote, but the DTA800's is near perfect for the task.
We found the initial setup to be a tad tougher than we would have liked. For example, when we first turned on the box, there was no guided setup to ensure the correct settings are selected. The box also started on channel 0-0--a nonexistent channel--when first plugged in, which might give the impression that something malfunctioned (until the user tries another channel or reads the manual to find out about initial setup). Lastly, after the DTA800 ran a full channel scan, it immediately skipped to the program guide, which says "updating" in the upper-right-hand corner and displays a status bar. That's not so bad, but the message of updating and the growing status bar never go away, even after all the program data is loaded. We mistakenly left it up for a few minutes before we realized all the program data was indeed loaded, and that the DTA800 just continually loads new data. None of these issues are major headaches--and they really only occur the first time you set up the box--but we could see them tripping up some less tech-savvy users. The Zenith DTT900 is a better choice for ease of setup.
The DTA800 includes a simple EPG, which RCA calls the "Channel List." The channel list shows nine channels at a time and displays "What's on now" and "What's on next." Compared with the Zenith DTT900, this is excellent, as the DTT900 only displays one channel's worth of guide information at a time. Of course, we would love if the DTA800 enabled us to see program guide data for several days in the future--which is available on the GE 22730 and the Echostar TR-40--but for most people this will probably be good enough.
Aspect ratio control is handled competently for standard 4:3 analog TVs. There are two options in the menu, which allow you to either choose wide-screen mode--which keeps the correct aspect ratio, but adds black bars to the top and bottom of the screen--or full-screen mode, which keeps the correct aspect ratio and doesn't have black bars, but crops out the extreme left and right sides of the image. A minor concern is that the DTA800 doesn't have any options to work with true wide-screen TVs, like the Zenith DTT800 has. Lack of wide-screen TV support isn't an issue for the majority of buyers, who will be using this box with a standard 4:3 analog TV.
Connectivity is standard on the DTA800. 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 "Output to TV" and is a video output. This means you can send analog video and audio from the DTA800 to your TV by connecting a coaxial cable. In addition to the F connectors, the DTA800 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.
The DTA800 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 suboptimal 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.
Besides the remote and the actual unit, there's not much else included in the box. There's a single RF cable and 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 DTA800 has a few extras--such as a Smart Antenna port and an EPG--there are a few missing features available on other DTV boxes. For example, 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 composite video. Some users will also note that the DTA800 doesn't offer analog pass-through, meaning that it would still pass analog antenna signal to a TV. While this might be useful while analog signals are still being broadcast this year, it's not that big of an omission since that feature will be essentially useless once analog signals are shut off completely in February 2009.
Video quality on the RCA DTA800 is good, although a tad below the Zenith DTT900. When we put these boxes head-to-head using composite video, the difference was slight, but we saw slightly fewer jaggies and a bit more detail with the DTT900. The difference between the DTA800 and GE 22730 was greater however, as the GE 22730's image has considerably more image distortions that might be noticeable to even noncritical viewers. Of course, the differences in video quality between boxes will be less noticeable on analog TVs when you're sitting far away, so it may not be a concern for some users.
Reception quality was also solid on the DTA800, coming in just behind the Zenith DTT900 in our tests. We used three testing locations--Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn--and in each case it tuned in about a station or two less than the DTT900, and a station or two more than the GE 22730. Of course, reception varies widely depending on your location, and you can use tools such as AntennaWeb or TV Fool to help determine what channels you can expect to get. Also remember that you'll only be able to tune into the free stations broadcast over the air--that means no Comedy Central, CNN, and so on. From our Manhattan location, we were able to tune into the major networks (CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC), plus PBS, The CW, My 9, plus some religious and Spanish channels.