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RCA DTA800B1 review: RCA DTA800B1


Matthew Moskovciak
Matthew Moskovciak Senior Associate Editor / Reviews - Home theater
Covering home audio and video, Matthew Moskovciak helps CNET readers find the best sights and sounds for their home theaters. E-mail Matthew or follow him on Twitter @cnetmoskovciak.
7 min read

The DTV transition has been pushed back before, but the recent tests in Wilmington, N.C., make it clear over-the-air analog TV signals really will be turned off on February 17, 2009. That means analog TV owners 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 Good

Solid video quality and reception; excellent remote, especially for those with poor eyesight; easy-to-use basic electronic program guide; works with Smart Antennas, analog pass-through.

The Bad

Composite video cable not included; doesn't work well with wide-screen TVs.

The Bottom Line

Good reception, respectable video quality, and a basic EPG make the RCA DTA800 an excellent DTV converter box, and its included remote is the best we've seen.

The RCA DTA800B1 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 control's extra large buttons are intuitively arranged (perfect for older users with poor eyesight), and its video quality and reception capabilities are solid as well. It also has several extra features that go beyond just digital TV reception, such a basic (but useful) EPG, and a Smart Antenna port, and analog pass-through capabilities. We had some minor issues with the initial setup and we would have liked more aspect ratio options for wide-screen TVs, but those are mostly quibbles. While the Dish Network TR-40 CRA has a better EPG and the Zenith DTT901 has better reception and video quality, overall the DTA800B1 is one of the most well-rounded boxes we've tested, and its simple remote is the best we've seen.

The DTA800B1's design is bland, but that's the essentially the norm for these boxes. The casing is all plastic and dark gray, and it should fit in well with the look of a standard analog TV. The front faceplate features some glossy black plastic and a single LED that shines green when the unit is on and orange when it's off. There's a power button to the far right and channel up/down button a bit to the left--we especially liked the jumbo size of the front panel buttons. One nifty feature of the design is that the box can be placed vertically by swinging out a plastic "foot" on the side. It's not the most stable arrangement, but we appreciate the extra option.

The DTA800 has the option of being placed vertically, unlike other DTV converter boxes we've seen.

The DTA800B1'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 people 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 DTA800B1'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 DTA800B1's is near perfect for the task.

RCA has tweaked the initial setup on the DTA800B1 compared with its predecessor, the DTA800. When you fire up the box for the first time, you get a few setup menus asking you to set your language and to run a channel scan. After the scan, things get a little confusing, as it immediately skips 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 DTA800B1 just continually loads new data. It's not a deal breaker, but we found the Zenith DTT901 a little simpler to setup.

The DTA800B1 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 DTT901, this is excellent, as the DTT901 only displays one channel's worth of guide information at a time. Of course, we would love if the DTA800B1 enabled us to see program guide data for several days in the future--which is available on the EchoStar TR-40 CRA--but for most people this will probably be good enough.

The EPG is basic, but since this isn't a DVR, it's probably good enough.

Another change from the DTA800 is that the DTA800B1 has more flexible in its capability to add channels after an initial channel scan. For instance, if you do a scan with your antenna pointed in a certain direction, but know you can get additional channels if you move your antenna a little to the right, you can do a scan in both directions and keep all the channels. Simply go to the channel scan section and select "scan add," then run a channel scan with the antenna in the new position. Having personally had this exact problem before, we can see how this functionality is useful.

Aspect ratio control is handled competently for standard 4:3 analog TVs, but not for wide-screen TVs. There are two options in the menu, which let you 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. The DTA800B1 doesn't have any options to work with true wide-screen TVs, like the Zenith DTT901 has, but it isn't an issue for the majority of buyers, who will be using this box with a standard 4:3 analog TV.

Connectivity is slightly above average on the DTA800B1. There are two RF-style F connectors, which are the connectors 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 DTA800B1 to your TV by connecting a coaxial cable. In addition to the F connectors, the DTA800B1 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 DTA800B1 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 capability to add one later. 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.

There's no composite-video cable included in the box, so you might need to buy an extra cable.

Unlike its predecessor, the DTA800B1 has analog pass-through functionality. 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.

Video quality on the RCA DTA800B1 is good, although a tad below the Zenith DTT901. 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 DTT901. The difference between the DTA800B1 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 DTA800B1, coming in just behind the Zenith DTT901 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 DTT901, 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.

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