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.