Tag Archives: Circuit City Stores

Circuit City Finally Bites The Dust

The news shouldn’t surprise anybody, certainly not readers of this blog.

Richmond, Virginia based Circuit City stores announced today their intention to close their 567 remaining stores and liquidate their inventory.  We predicted that they wouldn’t last much past the end of the 2008 Christmas season.

That means another 34,000 American workers joining the unemployment line.

See our previous posts…

Circuit City Stores Files For Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection

One Foot In The Grave At Circuit City

Philip Schoonover Learns That What Goes Around Comes Around

– Routing By Rumor

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Bloomberg Hits The Nail On The Head Regarding Economic Stimulus Plan

NYC mayor Michael R. Bloomberg

NYC mayor Michael R. Bloomberg

There was a piece on the radio this morning which discussed New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg‘s comments about any future economic stimulus plans. Unfortunately, our searches for his comments have come up empty, but we’re guessing that he made these remarks yesterday. If we’ve misquoted Mr. Bloomberg, our apologies. We are going on our recollection of what we heard on the radio this morning.

Mr. Bloomberg (his middle name is “Rubens” – how many of you knew that?) said that the first round of economic stimulus checks the government mailed out amounted to a program that allowed Americans to go buy Chinese-made widescreen TVs at Circuit City. We couldn’t agree more. In fact, if you’ve followed RoutingByRumor, you know that we have said that the first round of economic stimulus checks amounted to little more than a subsidy for Middle East Oil producing countries, big oil and China, Inc. (You can rest assured that no matter how low the price of oil goes, no matter how much demand drops, that ExxonMobil will continue to post record profits in the quarters and years ahead.)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Mr. Bloomberg said that any future economic stimulus program should fund infrastructure projects, which would be similar to what the United States undertook to help lift the country out of The Great Depression. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt‘s Works Progress Administration (WPA) created almost eight million jobs between 1935 and 1943. Just as importantly, this New Deal agency built highways, bridges, schools and other public works projects across America that still serve our nation today. New York City has more than it’s share of crumbling infrastructure, and like other American cities, would benefit greatly from a modern-day WPA.

Mr. Bloomberg has been critical of the Federal government’s economic stimulus plan in the past. In fact, he’s been against it all along. Last February, he said the then-proposed first round of economic stimulus checks were “like giving a drink to an alcoholic”.

Athough not in relation to the current debate on future economic stimulus spending, Mr. Bloomberg appeared before lawmakers on Capitol Hill this past June, in his capacity as co-chair of Building America’s Future.   He gave this testimony about the need to invest in infrastructure projects.

At a time when there’s more layoffs in the news every day, and the scope of those job cuts are getting wider and wider (today’s news brought word of Citibank planning 10,000 job cuts worldwide), we desperately need a government program that will give American families more than fleeting relief. We need a program that will keep the economic stimulus money the government spends here at home, instead of it being an indirect subsidy for China, which doesn’t benefit American families one bit. Walmart is doing very well, thanks to American families desperate to stretch their income. There is no need to provide Americans with stimulus checks they can take to Walmart, to buy more Chinese made goods. We’ve read that something on the order of 80% of the goods on the shelves at Walmart are made in China.

There’s slim chance that outgoing President George W. Bush will try to implement a program that will put Americans to work while also rebuilding America’s infrastructure. Our hope is that President-elect Barack Obama will seize the opportunity to lift America out of hard times by proposing a program styled on Roosevelt’s WPA. If Washington is going to spend billions of more dollars in an attempt to prevent an economic collapse, doesn’t it make sense to spend it on projects that will benefit America for generations to come, while keeping our money here at home ?

– Routing By Rumor

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Circuit City Stores Files For Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection

This morning, Circuit City filed a bankruptcy petition (see bloomberg.com article), In Re Circuit City Stores Inc., 08-35653, with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. If you’ve been following this blog, you won’t be surprised by today’s filing. Circuit City has had one foot in the grave for a while now (see our article from last week). See additional coverage of this story by Forbes, The Associated Press, The New York Times, Barron’s and Reuters.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that last Friday, up to 800 employees at Circuit City’s corporate headquarters (more than a third of the workers there) received pink slips.

Circuit City owes well over half a billion dollars to suppliers including Hewlett-Packard, Samsung, Sony, Zenith, Toshiba, Garmin and Nikon. With bankruptcy looming, more and more vendors have refused to extend credit to Circuit City. With today’s filing, we’re pretty sure their ability to obtain terms from vendors is now pretty much non-existent. It probably also ensures that the New York Stock Exchange will de-list Circuit City, as they have already warned, if their share price doesn’t make a sustained recovery to above $1.00 a share. In early trading today, Circuit City shares have lost more than 90% of their value, falling from a lofty $0.12 per share when the market opened, and now sitting at an embarrassing two pennies a share (but that’s at least twice as much as we think its worth, so you could say its overvalued).

11/11/2008 Update…

Well, that didn’t take long. The latest milestone on the devolution of Circuit City has occured. Circuit City shares have been delisted from the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), and are now trading on the Pink Sheets.  With all these pink slips and pink sheets, maybe pink is Circuit City’s new color.  Circuit City is now what is referred to as a “penny stock”. That light you see at the end of the tunnel just may be the oncoming Best Buy Express. Click here to get a quote on Circuit City shares (CCTYQ.PK)

Things have gone steadily downhill for Circuit City since they made the absolutely brilliant business decision in March of last year, to fire 3,400 of their most experienced employees. Consumerist.com has posted
this excellent timeline of Circuit City’s decline, titled “How Circuit City Came Undone”, which shows their declining stock price in relation to various events in their demise. The graph looks a lot like a ski slope. It’s the sort of thing they’ll probably use in business schools, when teaching a course in how to destroy a successful company.

Perhaps the saddest part of this modern day Greek tragedy is the fact that the executives who were the architects of this debacle earned millions of dollars for their role in the company’s failure. Perhaps the new scrutiny that the country’s economic meltdown is focusing on executive compensation will cause the directors of corporations to hold their executives responsible for the bad decisions they make. Here’s a suggestion… Instead of simply lavishing millions of dollars in company stock on executives, how about adding the condition that they won’t be vested unless there is a certain number of quarters of future growth. For instance, Mr. CEO, that five or ten million dollars worth of company stock won’t be yours unless the company makes money over the next two years. No more “take the money and run”. For too many corporate executives, it has been a game of “heads I win, tails I win”.

Given Circuit City’s history and reputation, the decrepit state of the U.S. economy, and the competition that exists in the consumer electronics space (especially from competitors Best Buy and Walmart), we think it’s a safe bet that Circuit City will never emerge from bankruptcy, and that’s, as Martha Stewart would say, “a good thing”. Last week, they announced the closing of many of their stores, and we wouldn’t bee surprised if more closings follow before the end of the year.

Coming at the beginning of the holiday shopping season, the closings and the bankruptcy filing might attract some bargain hunters, but let’s be honest… Who wants to make a major purchase from a retailer who may very well not be around, should you need to return an unwanted or defective purchase. It pretty much goes without saying that anything purchased at a going-out-of-business sale is sold as-is, no returns, no refunds. Caveat emptor.

We’re going to go out on a limb here, and make the following prediction; Circuit City’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy will become a Chapter 7 filing (liquidation) within six months, perhaps much sooner. Check back here to see how our prediction fares.

– Routing By Rumor

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One Foot In The Grave At Circuit City

With just three weeks to go before most of the nation’s retailers enter their busiest time of the year, Circuit City stores have announced their latest brilliant plan. They are closing 155 of their locations, spread across 28 states (Reuters and Associated Press, 11/03/2008). The going-out-of-business sales at these locations will reportedly start tomorrow, November 5th. This is the latest bit of bad news from the nation’s #2 electronics retailer, which has had mass layoffs, sales declines, and received a lot of negative publicity in the last few years (see our previous articles about Circuit City’s problems, here, here, here and here).  With the closing of these Circuit City locations, thousands more Circuit City employees will join the ranks of the unemployed.

This should be viewed as an emergency amputation, as opposed to a pruning. When you have a healthy core, but too much growth in the branches, you prune, to keep the rest healthy. When there is systemic disease that causes necrosis at the periphery, you amputate. Other large retailers that have been proactive in difficult times tend to close just a handful of their worst performing locations, and they’ll do it after their peak selling season. Retailers that make ill-timed cuts, and who do it with an ax instead of a scalpel, tend to suffer from poor management or a lack of management. They usually don’t act until it’s too late. We believe the current debridement occuring at Circuit City falls into this category.

The fact that Circuit City could not wait until after the holiday selling season to close these stores speaks volumes about just how bad things are at the Richmond, Virginia-based electronics retailer. Indeed, with a stock price that has traded as low as 17 cents a share in recent days, and notification last week from the New York Stock Exchange that their stock is subject to de-listing, things can’t get much worse. Some of their suppliers, fearing that Circuit City is on the verge of bankruptcy, are refusing to ship merchandise to Circuit City unless they are paid cash up front. Consumers, hard hit by the recession, and disgusted with Circuit City, are spending any money they may have, elsewhere. Even with the announced closings, some analysts are predicting that Circuit City will be forced to liquidate or file for bankruptcy by January.

As bleak as things are at Circuit City, you still hear people saying that they are exploring “strategic alternatives” (see Business Week, 11/03/2008). We will submit to you that when you’re on the verge of bankruptcy, sales have dried up, vendors are demanding cash, your stock price is measured in pennies rather than dollars, you’re forced to close hundreds of stores, and the nation is in the grip of a deepening recession, you don’t have any “strategic” alternatives. The choices seem to be declaring bankruptcy now, or trying to hang on a little longer and declaring bankruptcy a few months from now. If Circuit City is pinning their hopes for survival on having a banner Christmas season, they’re in for a terrible shock. Even relatively healthy retailers are bracing for a dismal end to a dismal year, and the U.S. economy doesn’t seem poised to roar back to life anytime soon.

Circuit City’s woes spell opportunity for it’s competitors. It appears that the nation’s largest electronics retailer, Best Buy, will likely snap up some of the locations being vacated by rival Circuit City.

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Philip Schoonover Learns That What Goes Around, Comes Around.

Philip Schoonover, former Circuit City CEO (photo on circuitcity.com)

Philip Schoonover, former Circuit City CEO (photo on circuitcity.com)

We’ve raked the management of Circuit City Stores over the coals in the past, because of the way they have treated their employees, and for what seems to us, to be some of the worst business decisions in the history of the World.

Circuit City Stores announced on Monday that board member James Marcum has replaced Philip Schoonover as CEO (see “Circuit City CEO Gets Unplugged“, Businessweek, September 22). They did not say whether Mr. Schoonover plans on reapplying for his former job in ten weeks, at a market-based salary.

As they say, “what goes around, comes around”.

It would be no surprise if the Board finally staged a mutiny (although published reports indicate that Mr. Schoonover tendered his resignation). The scooner Schoonover has been on the rocks since Circuit City announced in March, 2007 that they were firing 3400 employees immediately, because they earned too much. Those employees were told that they could reapply for their former jobs in ten weeks, at a market-based (meaning lower) salary, but there was no guarantee a job would be available for them. We do not know if any of those employees were stupid enough to reapply for employment at Circuit City, or if any that might have done so were eventually rehired. We’re sure those 3400 former Circuit City employees feel just awful for Mr. Schoonover.

Now, in addition to the strong headwinds that Circuit City is encountering because of the U.S. economic slump, and stiff competition from retailers such as Best Buy, they also have the benefit of consumer backlash towards a company that would treat their employees as poorly as they have. And it’s not just the mass layoff that we’ve just mentioned. Look at Circuit City’s wikipedia page, and read about some of the court cases they’ve been involved in, particularly regarding their employment practices.

It’s truly amazing that their ship, while listing heavily, is still afloat.

Circuit City has searched the seven seas looking for a suitor, but has been unsuccessful. Would YOU buy a company with as much bad karma or as much red ink as Circuit City ? But hey, there’s so much bailout money coming out of Washington these days, maybe they’ll tack a Circuit City rescue plan onto the $70 billion financial system bailout plan they’re debating right now.

To say that Mr. Marcum has his work cut out for him is an understatement. But then, perhaps his plan, assuming he has one, is not to rebuild the company. Mr. Marcum was elected to the Board in June, having been nominated by Circuit City shareholder Mark Wattles. Wattles has indicated in the past that he wants to find a buyer for Circuit City. It would certainly make sense to think that Mr. Marcum’s role will be that of caretaker, while they continue to look for a buyer.

We’ve mentioned previously that the best thing Circuit City could do to stem their losses is to liquidate the company. With dire predictions for this Christmas season for the nation’s retailers, as well as a bleak outlook for the economy in general, it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense for a company in the sad shape that Circuit City finds itself to drag things out any longer.

– Routing By Rumor

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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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Circuit City Stores Soon To Slip The Surly Bonds Of Earth

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds, – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless falls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor eer eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high, untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

– John Gillespie Magee, R.C.A.F

(circa 1941)

Now that we’ve set the mood, we regret to inform you that reports of Circuit City’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. They are still afloat, albeit pretty much dead-in-the-water. Even the rats have been seen abandoning ship. See our previous posts here and here, about the darling of the electronics retailing world.

Management at Circuit City is bailing water, but their ship is sinking. Amazingly, there are many people with a stake in Circuit City (such as the shareholders) who actually believe they can convince a potential suitor that the schooner Schoonover has some market value left (see “A (Fire) Sale For Circuit City?” – Business Week, June 24, 2008).

We think they should scuttle the ship.

Who in their right mind would pay a dime for Circuit City? In our opinion, the only value that remains is the inventory on their shelves. Circuit City is drowning in a sea of red ink (we couldn’t resist one final nautical reference). Same store sales were down 12% for the latest quarter, compared to a year ago, and they lost another $165 million. A liquidation sale would be the best and fastest solution to recoup at least some shareholder value.

We’re amazed Circuit City Stores haven’t had the opportunity yet, but they should be able to “touch the face of God” anytime now.

– Routing By Rumor

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