Digital Converter Boxes

Back in February, I applied for coupons at the TV Converter Box Coupon Program website. Those coupons have arrived. In case you haven’t been paying attention, all TV stations in the United States are making the transition from analog to digital transmissions. The deadline is February 17, 2009, and after that date all stations (with the exception of some low-power stations) will switch to using digital transmissions only. Because older TV sets can’t receive digital signals, Congress established the converter box program. Every household is eligible to receive up to two $40 coupons for converter boxes to allow your analog televisions to receive digital channels.

We can only receive four analog TV channels where we live. Two come in fairly strong (NBC and PBS), one somewhat weaker (MyTV) , and one quite a bit weaker (CBS). My expectation is that only the digital transmitters for the two stronger stations will be receivable using a converter box, but I wouldn’t mind being surprised. That will probably mean that our number of viewable stations will drop to two after the digital transition.

In our area, there are three stores that sell eligible converter boxes:

  • Walmart sells the RCA DTA800 for $49.99 and the Magnavox TB100MW9 for $52.99.
  • Radio Shack sells the Zenith DTT900 for $59.99 and the RCA DTA800 for $59.99.
  • Best Buy sells the Insignia NS-DXA1 for $59.99.

The Insignia NS-DXA1 and the Zenith DTT900 are reported to be nearly identical (they are both manufactured by LG), so there are really only three choices for converter boxes around here.

According to reviews that I have read, all of these boxes provide good results. They all decode digital signals and send them to your TV using either RF output (channel 3 or 4) or A/V cables. All have remote controls, closed-captioning, and limited program guides. All will autoscan and automatically determine what channels are in your area.

Each converter box has its own advantages and disadvantages. The RCA DTA800 is the least expensive and seems to be easy to use. It is the only box that can be placed horizontally or vertically and it has a good remote control with large buttons. But the channels you can view are limited to the ones it can find with the autoscan. There is no way to manually add a channel. Every time you perform the autoscan, it erases the channels that it previously found. This makes sense in an area with strong signals, but I wanted to be able to adjust the antenna and test the strengths of other stations. I don’t think that the RCA DTA800 would work well in our low-signal area.

The Magnavox TB100MW9 is the second least expensive (but it apparently still sells for $49.99 at some Walmart stores). It also has the ability to autoscan channels, but it differs from the RCA in that you can manually add your own channels. You can also view an arbitrary channel not found in the scan and examine the signal strength indicator. I would like to be able to test signal strengths, so this sounds like a useful feature to me. Some people object to the fact that the case is plastic and has only tiny ventilation holes; they are afraid that excess heat will shorten the life of the unit. Some people also think that the remote control is rather small.

The Zenith DTT900/Insignia NS-DXA1 is the most expensive of these boxes. It has a metal case with plenty of ventilation holes, and it comes with an A/V cable. Like the Magnavox TB100MW9, you can manually add channels and view arbitrary channels. Unlike the TB100W9, the signal strength indicator displays before the channel is decoded, not after. This means that you can advance through the channels and see the strength of potential digital signals, even if the channel isn’t strong enough to fully decode. It can also perform additional autoscans without deleting the channels already found. This sounds as though it would be useful for adjusting the antenna for different positions and trying different channels.

Of course, the box that captured all the attention is the Echostar TR-40. It will have a program guide with up to seven days of program listings, the ability to search through those listings, and event timers that can change channels (useful for programmed recording). Perhaps best of all, it will only cost $39.95 (free with a coupon). It has one huge disadvantage: it won’t be available for purchase until June or probably July, not March as originally stated. Since the coupons have a 90-day limit, this means that the Echostar TR-40 will probably not be available until after our coupons expire on July 1. Given the delays, I wonder whether it will ever be available at all.

Depending on where you live, other types of converter boxes may be available. These seem to be three pretty decent choices, but I am leaning toward the Insignia NS-DXA1 due to its extra tuning features.

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