Our Adventures In DTV Land (or, how to join the digital TV revolution without spending a small fortune)

But that’s a pretty long title,

So also file this article under…

  • “How To Choose The Best Set-Top Converter Box”
  • “Digital To Analog DTV Converter Box Comparisons”
  • “Comparing DTV Converter Box Features”
  • “Which Is The Best Digital TV Tuner ?”
  • “HDTV Set-Top Converter Box Buyer’s Guide”
  • “Using Your $40 NTIA Set-Top Converter Box Coupons”

To borrow (and mangle) a catchy slogan from one of the cable TV networks…

I WANT MY DTV !

(as does the FCC, and this person, and this person, among others)

Routing By Rumor has recruited some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry to help us launch our “I Want My DTV” campaign…

Promo # 1

Promo # 2

Promo # 3

Promo # 4

But unfortunately, none of them followed the script, so we’re going to have to do the promos all over again. It’s impossible to get good help these days.

As we reported recently in There Is Nothing Wrong With Your Television Set, the cut-over to all-digital television broadcasting in the United States is quickly approaching. On February 17th, 2009, exactly six months from tomorrow, broadcasters will be turning off their analog television transmitters forever. If you wish to continue receiving over-the-air television programs, you will have to either add a digital tuner to your older television sets (in the form of a digital-to-analog set-top converter box), or replace your current sets with digital receivers.

Armed with the two $40.00 NTIA converter box coupons which the U.S. government graciously provided (using our tax money), we set out on a mission to find the best converter box available. By the way, we checked out some of the statistics published at www.ntiadtv.gov (the NTIA website for retailers participating in the coupon program), and we were surprised to learn that less than half of the converter box coupons they have issued under the program have actually been redeemed prior to their expiration date.

Based on extensive research we’ve done on the Web, it seems that all of the early versions of the available converter boxes suffer from problems of one kind or another. Some are hard of hearing, so to speak, and not able to receive signals on some of the more distant or weaker stations. Some models have problems with the audio they pass to your television, such as insufficient volume, even at maximum output. Since they are all basically just computers with an RF interface, the embedded software seems to be a big issue also. Some models reportedly crash, reboot spontaneously, or suffer from a variety of bugs. Apparently, none of the available models of converter boxes have any provision for firmware upgrades. If it’s broke, it’s broke forever. Can’t they at least provide a USB port, so people can download firmware updates from the Web onto their computers, and flash the converter box with updated software ? They say you should never buy Version 1.0 of anything. Apparently, this applies to DTV converter boxes also. Some sneaky software companies actually skip the v1.0 label when releasing new software packages, calling it v1.5, v2.0, etc., instead. Sort of like buildings that don’t have 13th floors… but then isn’t the 14th floor really the 13th floor? As a child, we thought that if an elevator in a high rise building or a skyscraper didn’t have a button for the 13th floor, the elevator just couldn’t stop on that floor, even though the 13th floor was actually there, just boarded up or otherwise inaccessible (maybe inhabited by monsters or something). There’s actually a very interesting Wikipedia article about this. Reading it left us, as they say, ROTFLMAO.

Where was I ? ….Oh yes, DTV converter boxes.

And then there is the issue of ease-of-use, the quality of the UI (that’s User Interface, for all you non-geeks), and the features that the converter boxes provide. The features vary considerably from brand to brand.

Our first stop was at Best Buy, a nationwide chain of consumer electronics and entertainment stores. Like many retailers, they advertise heavily and have large stores, but they seem to fall flat on their face when it comes to execution on the sales floor. Chalk this up to poor management, low paid employees, and probably just not having enough staff. While other people have said that they purchased either the Zenith DTT900 or DTT901 at Best Buy, they do not seem to sell it anymore. They do sell the same product under their “Insignia” label, but there were none on the sales floor. We spotted a stack of them way up, about 10 feet above our head, but had no way to reach them, and we couldn’t find anyone to help us. Here’s a guy on youtube doing an unboxing of the Insignia converter box. He’s behaving like such a jerk that we wanted to take away his new toy and send him to bed without supper.

Best Buy was also selling a converter box from Apex Digital, and had them where we could reach them, but we hadn’t heard of Apex or read any reviews, so we left Best Buy empty handed. Best Buy was selling both their Insignia/LG and the Apex converters for $60. Later research on the Web indicates that Apex and “Tivax” branded converter boxes might be the same unit or at least very similar. Some people are calling the Apex a Tivax clone. To us, Apex Digital sounds like a company with a troubled past, and at least one infamous product. We don’t know how their DTV converter box stacks up against the competition, but it seems to us like they might not be around too much longer.

Next, we stopped at a Radio Shack store, our electronics supplier of last resort. They didn’t have a single converter box on display. Rumors have circulated that Radio Shack is selling a converter box by “Digital Stream” (???), but we haven’t read any reviews on it. Then again, we’ve read reports that RS was selling Zenith/LG boxes also, but that was not the case in the store we visited. We didn’t waste any more time with Radio Shack.

There is a Circuit City store in our area, but as we’ve written previously, we feel that the best thing that Circuit City can do is bite the dust. We wouldn’t buy a converter box (or anything else) there, if they were giving them away for free. Well, maybe if they were free, but not otherwise. Reports from other consumers posted on the Web say that Circuit City is selling the Zenith DTT901 (to the less discriminating consumers who still shop there) for $60, or about 20% more than some retailers (see below). And what if you want to return or exchange it, and Circuit City goes belly up tomorrow ? (a definite possibility, considering their financial position) Didn’t think of that, did you ? (Benigan’s today, Circuit City tomorrow.)

Walmart’s website lists them as selling the Magnavox TB100MW9 and the RCA DTA800 converter boxes in-store only, each selling for around $50. The last time we visited a Wal-Mart store, they only had the Magnavox in stock.

We tried a few other local electronics stores, but they either did not sell converter boxes, had none on display, or their prices were not competitive. It’s amazing how many places don’t have stuff on the selling floor, but they’ll tell you that they might have one “in the back”. What is that, some new merchandising technique ? Morons. How hard would it be to have some underpaid employee move some stock to the empty shelf space on the selling floor, where it might have half a chance of being seen and purchased. We’ve never run a retail store, but we’re pretty sure we could do a better job than the management at most of these retail chains.

Quickly running out of local retailers where we thought we might find the Zenith DTT901, we decided to try the local retail disaster scene, K-Mart. How they have managed to (barely) stay in business is a complete mystery to us. Now, this is just our opinion, but we think they sell a lot of low quality stuff, and their prices are usually not competitive. We can’t think of a single compelling reason to shop at K-Mart (well, perhaps if you are desperately searching for a Zenith DTT901). On the other hand, if you enjoy long checkout lines, clueless (and very, very scarce) totally disinterested employees, drab, unappealing stores and lots of lower end products, you’re gonna love K-Mart. Do they even do their “blue light specials” anymore? We’ve never seen a K-Mart store that didn’t have long lines at the checkouts, where you’d find, at most, two or three cashiers, amid a sea of unmanned/closed registers. Fortunately, the laws of natural selection usually see to it that these types of animals become extinct. What’s taking K-Mart so long to achieve their rightful place in the graveyard of American retailers ? Even Wal-Mart and Target have more appealing stores, and know how to attract customers. This is getting way off-topic for this article, but just look at the television and print ads from Target. They’re so creative and interesting, compared to the boring circulars you might occasionally see from K-Mart. Maybe that’s why you will always find twenty times as many cars parked outside a Target store, as you would outside a K-Mart.

To our astonishment, this retailing giant from hell actually had three, count ’em three, brands of DTV converter boxes for sale. They had a Magnavox unit for $50, they had the Zenith DTT901 we were looking for, priced at $50 (Circuit City reportedly prices it 20% higher), and they had Dish Network’s DTVpal for $60, but we had never heard of the DTVpal. This blogger says that the DTVpal is really a renamed Echostar TR-40 (read more about Echostar / Dish Network. For youtube addicts, here’s uber geek MegaZone’s blog, where he has posted a great series of detailed videos showing a Dish Network DTVpal being hooked up, and in operation (or click here to go directly to them). Here’s another contributor’s DTVpal video review on youtube. In any case, with three brands in stock and on display at K-Mart, we figured that we had hit the DTV converter box jackpot. And who would have thought… in K-Mart no less. It’s almost enough to make us change our opinion of K-Mart. On second thought, naah, they still suck (see below about K-Mart’s usual long lines at the checkout).

While standing there in the aisle at K-Mart, we opened one of the DTVpal boxes and took a closer look. As we perused the owner’s manual, we were surprised to find some features that we hadn’t seen in other converter boxes. Chief among it’s impressive features is a much better Electronic Program Guide (EPG) than other converter boxes offer. Other DTV converter boxes we’ve looked at only show programming info for the current and the next programs on each channel, or in some cases, the current program on each channel only. By contrast, the DTVpal lets you scroll through program listings for the next week or more, depending on how much PSIP data each station broadcasts. We’ve learned that when you turn the DTVpal off, it only LOOKS like it’s off. The sneaky DTVpal is actually as busy as a bee, scanning all available channels for the PSIP programming data they transmit at regular intervals. Therefore, it’s a good idea to turn it off (it’s inactivity timer will eventually do this automatically) when you’re not watching TV, so it can update it’s EPG. It’s sort of like REM sleep for your DTVpal. We even liked the “TiVoish” DTVpal mascot/logo on the carton… sort of a cross between a TV and a doggie (we’re partial to doggies). Maybe the implication is that the DTVpal can fetch your favorite program listings for you.

The DTVpal is a very small, kind of ugly and cheap looking all plastic unit with a “wall wart” type power supply connected to a very cheesy looking power cord which could probably double as dental floss in an emergency (please remember to unplug the unit before flossing). The connector at the end of the power cord isn’t military grade stuff, either. It’s a fragile looking, uniquely shaped molded plug that doesn’t resemble any power connector we’ve ever seen before. The power supply’s rated output is 5 Volts DC @ 2 Amps.

We didn’t initially realize that the DTVpal was from Dish Network. That’s because, quite curiously, their name is nowhere to be found on the outside of the box. It’s only after opening the box and looking at the instruction manual inside, that you see the name “Dish Network”. Another curious thing we noticed is that while the phrase “by Dish Network” is printed onto the plastic case of the DTVpal, the “by Dish Network” wording is missing in the photo of the unit on the carton, as if they doctored the photo of the DTVpal. This tells us one of two things… Either they were unsure of who was going to market it when they printed the boxes, or the generic box is being used for more than one branded version of the DTVpal. Who knows… maybe you’ll also see “DigiTek” or “Acme” brand DTVpals being sold at some point. If we decide to perform exploratory surgery on the DTVpal, we’ll try to determine who is actually building them for Dish.

Unfortunately, Dish Network has also cut corners on the accessories they provide. The DTVpal DOES NOT include the necessary RCA cable for audio and video hookup to your TV set (they do include a short coaxial cable with “F” connectors, but they provide no way of connecting the audio and composite video outputs of the DTVpal to your TV set). Why go through the trouble and expense of buying a DTV converter box if you are going to loose picture quality by viewing it via your TV’s analog tuner on RF channel 3 or 4 ? Dish Network should spend the few extra cents per unit it would cost them to include the necessary RCA cable. Of course, having a converter box with S-video or component video output would deliver even better video quality, but at least take advantage of the product’s composite video capability. Would you buy a Mercedes that came from the factory without tires, or a pair of shoes that was missing the laces ?

On the other hand, after reading the instruction manual, it became clear that Dish Network has put a lot more thought into the DTVpal’s features and user interface than other converter box manufacturers. Perhaps it’s their experience with set-top boxes for their paid satellite service that gives them the edge. In any case, what the DTVpal lacks in it’s cheaper construction and lack of cables is mitigated to a degree by the features provided in it’s software.

We decided to buy both a Zenith DTT901( build date of June, 2008 ) and a Dish Network DTVpal (firmware version 102) at K-Mart, using our $40 NTIA coupons (as we suspected, you swipe them like credit cards, and they show up on the receipt as $40 gift cards). K-Mart, like other retailers who accept the NTIA “coupons”, states on their receipts that they will only allow you to exchange converter boxes purchased with the government coupon for another converter box. No cash refunds of Uncle Sam’s $40 subsidies. That is as it should be. BTW, we’ve seen recent comments from other DTVpal owners that Dish ( as of August, 2008 ) is already up to firmware version 105 on the “TR-40 CRA” DTVpal clones that it has just started to ship. It sounds like people that have DTVpals with firmware version 100 or 101 have had some serious problems with them. It seems likely to us that Dish Network will have to do some sort of recall or replacement of these early-production units, both to satisfy their customers, and to avoid problems with the NTIA, which, after all, paid most of the cost of many of these units, via their converter box coupon program. It’s too bad that Dish does not identify the production date or firmware version of these units on the outside of the carton (unless it’s coded into the box’s serial number label). It would allow buyers to know if they’re buying a problem or not. We think that at least knowing what serial numbers have problematic software installed would be valuable information for prospective customers. Otherwise, it’s a crapshoot.

Surprisingly, the lines at the checkout were much shorter than we expected… we only had to wait in line for about a half hour. And K-Mart management probably wonders why everyone goes to Target or WalMart instead. It’s not rocket science.

The DTT901’s LG/Zenith warranty is much longer (sort of) than the DTVpal warranty. LG warrants the Zenith DTT901’s parts against defect for one year, but Dish Network only warrants the DTVpal’s parts for 90 days. Thats a four times longer parts warranty from Zenith ! (both units only offer a 90 day labor warranty). On the other hand, if the Zenith converter box blows up after six months, will they tell you that parts replacement is free, but the out-of-warranty labor charge comes to $50.00 ? (which is the price of a new unit) …We are very suspicious of any manufacturer that will only warranty labor for the first three months of a one year parts warranty, on a device in the price range of these devices. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that it will not make sense to pay for shipping and labor to have one of these converter boxes repaired by the manufacturer. It’s even doubtful that any manufacturer would waste their time trying to repair one of these units.

Our detailed comparison of the LG / Zenith DTT901 versus the Dish Network / Echostar DTVpal follows. We have marked our preferences with an asterisk.


CONSTRUCTION
The Zenith wins hands down. Superior quality construction in every
respect.  We were going to take some "autopsy" photos of the DTT901,
but Steve Vigneau has done a teardown of a Zenith DTT900 and posted
some incredible high-res photos of the unit, assembled and disassembled,
on his blog at nuxx.net.  They're better than anything we could have
shot with our decrepit HP digital camera.  After viewing them, you'll
understand why we're so crazy about the Zenith's great build quality.
Steve's level of detail is unbelievable.  He goes as far as taking
apart the metal cage that shields the RF section, and cataloging the
screws that hold the unit together.  He has surely voided the warranty,
something we like to do immediately upon purchasing any new electronic
devices, here at Routing By Rumor. 

 * Zenith DTT901:  All metal chassis, except for the plastic front panel
                  The Zenith also has power and channel up/down controls
                  on it's front panel, whereas the DTVpal has no controls
                  on the case and must be controlled exclusively from
                  the remote control.
  Dish   DTVpal:  Plastic Case, and a very distracting bright green LED,
                  which you can't turn off.  Try covering the LED with a
                  piece of electrical tape to solve the problem, but take
                  care to avoid covering the IR receiver, or your remote
                  control won't work.

HEAT GENERATION
The Zenith runs for hours with only the slightest temperature rise.
They have successfully addressed the heating issues in earlier
production units of the DTT901.  The unventilated, plastic cased
DTVpal runs too warm.

* Zenith DTT901:  The Zenith runs cool, even after hours of use.
  Dish   DTVpal:  Runs very warm, particularly the bottom side of
                  the case.  We are concerned that this might
                  shorten the life of the unit.

POWER SUPPLY
The Zenith has a high quality internal power supply (yes, we
opened it up for a look-see), and a permanently attached AC cord,
which we thought should be a bit longer.

* Zenith DTT901:  A well designed internal power supply, with a
                  high quality, albeit somewhat short AC cord.
  Dish   DTVpal:  "Wall wart" style power supply, with a cheesy
                  looking, flimsy power cord and power connector.

RECEIVER SENSITIVITY
Both units performed very well.  We like the numeric (0 - 100) signal
strength reading on the DTVpal more than the "weak/strong" bargraph
on the Zenith, and we thought the DTVpal might have had the slightest
edge when it came to sensitivity.  On the other hand, in cases where
the signal was marginal, the Zenith made a valiant attempt to paint
images on the screen.  The DTVpal wouldn't even try, instead just
saying "No Service".  There were widely reported problems with audio
quality on early-production Zenith DTT901's, and the recommendations
we've seen say to avoid units that have a manufacture date earlier
than APRIL 2008 on the carton's UPC label.  Our DTT901 says JUNE 2008,
and we've found absolutely no issues with audio quality.

* Zenith DTT901: Very Good
* Dish   DTVpal: Very Good


REMOTE CONTROL
We greatly prefer the remote on the Dish Network DTVpal.  Neither remote
has backlit buttons.  There is an issue with the DTVpal's remote
interfering with the operation of other Dish Network equipment residing
in the same room, but they are apparently addressing this by supplying
a different remote control in later production units.

  Zenith DTT901:  Well laid out, but it's not contoured to your hand. Uses
                  one AAA cell.  The Zenith remote lets you turn your TV
                  on and off without having to pick up a second remote.
* Dish   DTVpal:  We really liked the contoured shape of the DTVpal's remote,
                  and while it is larger than the Zenith remote, it just
                  felt more comfortable in our hand.  While it's button
                  layout takes some getting used to, it becomes very
                  intuitive with a little use. We think it's dual infrared
                  LEDs and two AAA cells might perform better than Zenith's
                  remote.

ELECTRONIC PROGRAM GUIDE (EPG)
The DTVpal blows away the competition in this department.  It offers an
excellent guide that shows all programming for the next week or so for
all channels, limited only by how much data the broadcasters provide.

  Zenith DTT901:  Limited to current & next program on each channel.
* Dish   DTVpal:  Provides a program grid extending out a week or
                  more for all channels.

FIRMWARE ISSUES

Neither unit is field-upgradeable.  The DTVpal has had several well-
publicized software bugs that have prompted two or three new firmware
releases in it's short lifetime.  We have identified what is likely
an issue with firmware version 102, which affects the adding or
P-I-P viewing of some channels on the unit's "Add a channel" screen.
The only solution we've found is to reset the DTVpal, and let it
do it's channel search all over again. Despite these issues, we
still recommend the DTVpal over the competition, because of it's
superior on-screen information and it's fantastic EPG.  Let's hope
that Dish does right by their customers, and provides them with
hassle-free, postage-free advance replacements for their buggy
DTVpals upon request.  They also need to replace buggy firmware
regardless of whether the units are still within their 90-day
warranty period.  We hope they will decide to match Zenith's
one-year parts warranty, at least when it comes to upgrading
defective firmware.  Customers can always try to exchange their
defective units where they bought them, but the lack of any clear
external indication of the firmware version contained in the unit
makes it impossible to know what you have until you hook it up.
We would like to see all of these units have flashable firmware
that can be updated by the consumer when a new software version
is released. In the long run, this will be less costly for the
manufacturer than replacing the units, and it will increase
customer satisfaction.

  Zenith DTT901:  No apparent firmware issues, but it's features
                  just don't compare to the very slick DTVpal.
* Dish   DTVpal:  Superior features and a great program guide
                  give the DTVpal the edge, despite our concerns
                  about still somewhat buggy firmware.  For this
                  reason, we conditionally recommend the DTVpal.

WARRANTY
To be blunt, Dish Network needs to offer their customers a
better warranty.  Ideally, we would like to see all electronics
manufacturers offer a one year warranty on parts AND labor.

* Zenith DTT901: 1 year parts, 90 days labor.
  Dish   DTVpal: 90 days parts, 90 days labor.

OUR OVERALL RECOMMENDATION

We think that LG Electronics has built a superior product in
every respect from a physical standpoint (with the possible
exception of their remote control). However, they need to play
catch-up with Dish Network's DTVpal when it comes to the
features provided by their software.  Either unit will deliver
excellent picture and audio quality.  We paid slightly less
for the Zenith DTT901 than we did for the DTVpal, but your
mileage may vary regarding pricing.

We are somewhat concerned about the fact that the DTVpal does
not run as cool as the Zenith DTT901.  Heat is the enemy of
any electronic device, shortening it's lifespan and decreasing
it's reliability.  It would be nice to see Dish address the
heat issue, and move the power supply into the unit itself,
instead of using a "wall wart" power supply. And as we've
mentioned, Dish needs to cough up a few extra cents, and include
the necessary RCA cables with the DTVpal. 

All things considered, we think that the Dish Network DTVpal's
superior features make it our pick.  It's unfortunate that
its body isn't a match for it's mind.

Check out these cnet reviews of the DTVpal, and the Zenith DTT901, which also provide side-by-side comparisons to other popular DTV converter boxes.

A note to members of avsforum.com visiting this blog…

We joined avsforum (avsforum.com) recently to share our experience with the DTV converters mentioned in this article. Unfortunately the avsforum seems to suffer from at least two problems. There are a few disgruntled members over there that seem to have nothing better to do than post negative comments to just about every thread that other members start (and nobody seems to say anything to them about their inappropriate comments). Then there is the person (or persons) responsible for running that forum, who repeatedly delete postings for no apparent reason. Perhaps they’re on a power trip, perhaps they practice censorship of viewpoints that are not the same as theirs, or maybe they’re just in love with their delete key. God only knows.

We are a regular contributor to over a dozen technology forums on the Web, and we’ve never experienced these issues elsewhere. Fortunately, numerous venues exist on the Internet, from websites, to forums, to mailing lists and usenet newsgroups, so that persons seeking knowledge, or those wishing to share information, have many options available to them. Life is way too short to waste it dealing with nonsense of the sort that we’ve experienced over there.

Others have apparently drawn the same conclusion and have written about problems with avsforum (we did a search, and it didn’t take long to find other people who have had problems with avsforum). Here’s an article that complains of censorship by the people running avsforum, here’s one that details other problems over there that have prompted it to shut down some forum areas. There’s this fellow, who warns that some of what you read there is posted by individuals with hidden agendas, and then there’s this person, who does not mince words when he describes what he believes takes place over there.

As we said, life is too short to waste it at avsforum.com !

– Routing By Rumor

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Our Adventures In DTV Land (or, how to join the digital TV revolution without spending a small fortune)

  1. Kate Robey

    Thanks for the great info! I also found that these videos gave helpful advice on preparing for the digital TV transition.

  2. Don

    Radio Shack’s headquarters dropped the Zenith DTT900 like a hot potato after avsforum.com revealed the chirp in the left stereo channel. LG never admitted the chirp. Some Radio Shacks now have the better DTT901. I got my Zenith from Circuit City, as they had product when others didn’t. They surprised me when I turned in my “hostage”, by refunding the tax on the coupon. Read more at my blog, TheDonOfPages.

    I don’t think Circuit City is that bad, but I don’t ask for technical advice from them. Yes, retailers easily make space for their big widescreen TV’s and can’t seem to squeeze in the small granny boxes. That’s because they prefer to sell a customer a widescreen TV for $1800 instead of a granny box for $60. Look at the newspaper ads for TVs, and count the number of widescreens. Next, look for any clue of the existence of the granny boxes. QED. I’m currently recommending the DTT901, and won’t evaluate the available granny boxes again until after I’m done with the Election. Hopefully, by then we’ll find better choices.

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