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 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 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.
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.