Earlier in the spring we published a blog entry titled, "Don't buy a portable TV this year" highlighting the fact that the vast majority of portable TVs use analog tuners that won't pull in TV signals after the analog-to-digital TV transition February 17, 2009. At the time, our advice was based on the FCC's statement that, "it is not anticipated that battery-powered digital-to-analog converter boxes will be produced" and the fact that none were announced. Well, that's changed with the Winegard RCDT09A, which is the first DTV converter box we've seen that is capable of running on battery power, with the purchase of the additional battery pack.
Compatibility with the battery pack is the standout feature, but the RCDT09A is also fully functional as a standard DTV converter box. We liked its small design, but in terms of video quality and reception it was just about average. The RCDT09A also lacks any additional special features, such as an advanced EPG or a Smart Antenna port. Overall, the RCDT09A wouldn't be our first choice for a standard DTV converter box--the RCA DTA800B1 and the TR-40 CRA are better options--but it absolutely delivers as the first and currently only DTV converter box that will breathe some new life into analog portable TVs.
Compared with the standard "black box" DTV converter design, the exterior of the RCDT09A is one of our favorites so far. The unit itself is more compact than the majority of DTV converter boxes, coming in at 5.5 inches wide by 1.75 inches high by 6.5 inches deep. The front faceplate is silver, with a strip of black across the center. There are front panel controls for power, as well as for changing channels, which is nice because that means it will work even if the remote goes missing.
The included remote is decent. We loved that the large gray buttons for channel and volume are prominently placed in the middle of the clicker. We also liked the directional pad above, which is nicely designed and flanked by some useful controls such as menu and a signal-strength check. On the downside, the remote can't control your TV, which is a major annoyance because you'll have to fumble with two remotes. It also lacks a dedicated button for aspect ratio control, and would have like larger buttons overall--the number buttons especially are tiny, and anyone with less-than-perfect eyesight would be wise to check out the big-buttoned RCA DTA800B1 remote.
The major standout feature of the RCDT09A is that it can operate off battery power. The unit comes with a standard power adapter that plugs into the wall, but Winegard also sells the separate RC-BP9V battery pack (currently priced at $15), which can power the RCDT09A. This is the first solution we've seen that allows your old portable analog TV to receive the new DTV signals without AC power--especially useful during emergencies when the power goes out. The only caveat is that your portable TV must have either an RF or composite AV input, so you can connect the RCDT09A. The battery pack requires six D batteries, and according to Winegard, lasts up to 18 hours (we didn't test that claim for this review).
The RCDT09A technically has an EPG, but it's about as basic as they get. You can see program data for the show that's currently on, and if you hit right on the directional pad you can see the programs coming next. Overall, we much prefer EPGs that let us see many programs and channels at a time, like the EPG on the Dish Network TR-40 CRA or even the simpler EPG on the RCA DTA800B1.
Aspect ratio controls are acceptable for 4:3 TVs. Letterbox mode presets wide-screen programs in their original aspect ratio, but has black bars on the top and bottom of the image. Cropped mode also maintains the correct aspect ratio, but chops off the left and right sides of the image. Squeezed mode doesn't chop off any part of the screen, but the aspect ratio is distorted, with people's faces looking unnaturally skinny. There is also an "auto" mode, but we found that this mode often offered a window-boxed image--black bars on all four sides--so we generally preferred to leave it in letterbox or cropped mode. There is no way to set the box so that wide-screen programs are displayed correctly on wide-screen TVs, but that's not a big deal since most of these boxes will be used with older, sets with standard screen proportions. Our main frustration with aspect ratio on the RCDT09A was that we had to jump into the setup menu to change them--we definitely prefer a dedicated button on the remote.
Packaged with the unit is a single RF cable, some batteries for the remote, and the power adapter. That's pretty skimpy in our book, as we felt Winegard should have tossed in a standard AV composite cable as well. It's not a huge deal, since you can buy a set of composite cables pretty cheaply, but no included AV cable could mean another trip to the store and another place for DTV amateurs to get confused.
Connectivity is average on the RCDT09A. 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 "TV RF OUT" and is a video output. This means you can send analog video and audio from the RCDT09A to your TV by connecting a coaxial cable. In addition to the F connectors, the RCDT09A 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 RCDT09A also 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.
Reception was about average with the RCDT09A. It pulled in 24 stations from our Manhattan locations, which is on par with the majority of DTV converter boxes we've tested. The stations included all the major networks, plus PBS, The CW, MY9, plus some religious and Spanish channels. 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. Also, every locations is different, but you can use tools such as TV Fool and AntennaWeb to get a better idea of what channels you'll receive.
Image quality was also middling on the RCDT09A. We put the box head to head with our image quality champ, the Zenith DTT901 and the RCDT09A consistently looked softer. One of our favorite tests is observing the CBS eye logo, and we could saw some minor jaggies where it should have been rounded. We compared some actual program material as well, and while we noticed some minor differences on a local NBC newscast, we'd stress that they might not even be visible on an older analog TV.
Lastly, we had no problems running the RCDT09A off battery power. In our tests, it performed identically to when it was using standard power, pulling in the same amount of stations and responding to remote commands just as quickly.