Editors' note: The DTT901 is nearly identical to the Zenith DTT900, except the DTT901 adds the ability to pass analog signals to a TV and has slightly better sound. Otherwise, the reviews are virtually identical.
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 TVs 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 DTT901 is one of the DTV boxes that shoppers can buy with the coupon, and it's worth giving a serious look. On arguably the most important features--reception and video quality--the DTT901 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 DTT901's other strengths; it is a good choice for your government-subsidized coupon. The RCA DTA800 has a better remote--which is excellent for seniors with poor eyesight--and the Dish Network DTVPal has more features, but if video quality and reception are your top priorities, the DTT901 will serve you well.
The Zenith DTT901'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 buttons, and further right is the power button. Overall, the DTT901 is one of the more attractive boxes available.
The first thing you'll notice about the DTT901'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 DTT901 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 DTT901. This is an important feature because the DTT901 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 DTT901 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 DTT901 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 DTT901 also has what's called analog pass-through, which means that it's capable of letting an analog signal pass through its RF output, to your TV that has an analog NTSC tuner. While it's a nice addition to the feature set over its predecessor, the DTT900, its usefulness will be limited for most users, since after February 17, 2009 the vast majority of analog TV broadcasts will stop. There are, however, some low-power analog stations that will continue to use analog broadcasts, and some people may still be able to pick up some international analog TV broadcasts if they currently receive them.
The DTT901 has a basic set of connectivity options. 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, "To TV (RF)," and is a video output. This means you can send analog video and audio from the DTT901 to your TV by connecting a coaxial cable. In addition to the F connectors, the DTT901 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 DTT901 running is included 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 DTT901 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. There are also 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 DTT901 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, and some religious and Spanish channels. The channels you can actually receive depend 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 DTT901. Switching back and forth between the GE 22730 and the Zenith DTT901 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 DTT901 looked 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, such as sibilant noises, like s's, sounding harsh and, occasionally, washed out, like an overcompressed MP3. While this was very noticeable on the DTT900, the effect is considerably lessened on the DTT901. While it's still a minor issue--and those sensitive to audio quality should steer clear--we're guessing many people won't mind or notice.