Editors' note: We found the Zenith DTT900 and the Insignia NS-DXA1 have virtually identical design, features, and performance; therefore, their reviews are the same.
The FCC has pushed back the DTV transition several times already, but it looks as if it will shut off over-the-air analog TV signals 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 (read our Quick Guide to the DTV transition to find out if you'll be affected). Luckily, it shouldn't cost you too much, as anyone affected can apply for a $40 DTV converter box coupon from the U.S. government.
The Zenith DTT900 is one of the DTV boxes that shoppers can buy with the coupon, and it's worth a serious look. On arguably the most important features--reception and video quality--the DTT900 performs strongly, outperforming the other boxes we've looked at so far. We did have some nitpicks: the remote is too small, audio quality is subpar, and we would have liked a full-scale EPG (onscreen electronic program guide). However, these caveats are for the most part overshadowed the DTT900's other strengths and make it a good choice for your government-subsidized coupon. Our biggest hesitation is price--with a list price of $60, you'll have to kick in $20 of real money in addition to the coupon. That's compared with Echostar's upcoming DTV converter box, which--with its $40 retail price--will effectively be free. If you're itching to start watching digital over-the-air TV right away, the DTT900 is one of the better options currently available, but buyers would be wise to wait until more boxes are on the market.
The Zenith DTT900's design is simple, but we liked it. The main chassis is made of black metal, accented by a plastic faceplate that has the popular glossy black look to it. The metal body makes it feel more like a more expensive item, especially considering that most other DTV boxes are made of plastic. In the center of the faceplate is a small LED light that glows blue when the device is on and red when it's off. To the right of the light are channel up and down button, and further right is the power button. Overall, the DTT900 is one of the more attractive boxes available.
The first thing you'll notice about the DTT900's included remote control is that it's small. That's unfortunate, because we actually liked the button layout on the remote, but it's not a good option for older buyers with less-than-perfect eyesight. (If you're looking for a DTV box with large remote buttons, check out the RCA DTA800.) If you can get past the small size, it's actually pretty good, with individual button rockers for volume and channel up/down, and a large directional pad up top. We liked the inclusion of a variety of buttons, such as a handy signal strength checker, the zoom button, and closed-captioning. We also liked how the remote handled digital substations--if you hit 4 on the remote, a menu pops up on the screen allowing you to choose which channel (4.1, 4.2, 4.4, 41.1, etc) you'd like to watch. Also note that it is capable of controlling a TV, although that capability is limited to turning it on and off.
The DTT900 includes a very basic program. Hitting the guide button brings up the "Simple Guide," which shows what's currently on a channel and what will be on next. The EPGs on more advanced products such as TiVo or even standard digital cable boxes usually show more information, such as program data for several hours in the future for several channels at a time. It's definitely better than nothing--which may be what many buyers of this box are used to--but there's definitely room for improvement.
Aspect ratio is handled well on the DTT900. This is an important feature because the DTT900 will most commonly be used with older, analog TVs with a standard 4:3 aspect ratio, but an increasing amount of digital TV is presented in wide screen (16:9). The DTT900 has four options, which you can cycle through with the "Zoom" button on the remote.
• Set by program: Presumably sets the aspect ratio as the content maker requests.
• Letterbox: Keeps wide-screen programs in their original form, but adds black bars on both the top and bottom of the picture.
• Cropped: Maintains the proper aspect ratio, but literally crops out of the extreme right and left sides of the picture.
• Squeeze: Doesn't remove any part of the picture, but distorts the aspect ratio, making people look tall and skinny.
The DTT900 also doesn't have a problem displaying a full wide-screen image if connected to a wide-screen TV--which is a step up over the RCA DTA800.
The DTT900 has a basic set of connectivity options. 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 "To TV (RF)" and is a video output. This means you can send analog video and audio from the DTT900 to your TV by connecting a coaxial cable. In addition to the F connectors, the DTT900 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.
Mostly everything you need to get the DTT900 is including in the box. There are two cables--an RF cable and a composite video cable with stereo audio cables. We definitely appreciate the composite video cable, as both the RCA DTA800 and the GE 22730 stingily only include an RF cable. A single AAA battery for the remote is also included in the box.
While the DTT900 includes all the critical features you'd want on a DTV converter box, there are some extras missing. Some of the DTV boxes--such as the RCA DTA800--include an option to use with a Smart Antenna, which is a special kind of antenna that supposedly is able to reposition itself to get the best reception. We haven't been able to test this functionality on any of the boxes yet, but the Smart Antennas we've seen are so expensive we find it hard to believe it's worth the money for connecting to such a bargain DTV box. Some users will note that the DTT900 doesn't offer analog pass-through, meaning that it would still pass analog antenna signal to a TV. While this might be useful for analog signals broadcast this year, it's not that big of an omission since that feature will be essentially useless once the FCC shuts off analog signals in February 2009. Lastly, 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 that composite video. This should only matter if you currently have a TV that has an S-Video input.
Reception performance on the DTT900 was solid. We were able to tune into all of the major stations from our Manhattan location and we very rarely saw artifacts because of reception problems. We also tuned in from Queens, New York, and signal quality was just as good. Remember, 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. The channels you can actually receive depends on your location, and you can use tools such as AntennaWeb or TV Fool to help determine what channels you can expect to get.
In terms of video quality, we were pretty impressed with the Zenith DTT900. Switching back and forth between the GE 22730 and the Zenith DTT900 while watching The Price is Right we saw a substantial difference. The image from the GE 22730 was filled with jaggies and other image distortions while the DTT900 looks comparatively smooth and jaggy-free. This difference was apparent on all the other channels as we flipped around, indicating it was a difference in the boxes' overall video performance and not just on a particular program.
One minor issue we did run into was some strange audio behavior, with sibilant sounds like s's having a harsh sound, occasionally sounding washed out like an overcompressed MP3. Some sleuths over at AVS Forum have isolated the issue to the left channel being the main culprit. The issue is definitely noticeable for those who are sensitive to sound quality--and if you know it's there it's easy to hear--but we're guessing many people would never know anything is wrong with the sound. While it's definitely an issue--and those sensitive to audio quality should steer clear--we're guessing many people won't mind or notice.