The DTV transition has been pushed back several times already, but it looks as if over-the-air analog TV signals will officially be turned off 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. Luckily, the box shouldn't cost you too much, as anyone affected can apply for a $40 DTV converter box coupon from the U.S. government. Read our Quick Guide to the DTV transition for the full details.
The RCA DTA800 is a DTV converter box that can be purchased using this coupon, and it's one of the best we've tested so far. The remote's extralarge buttons are intuitively arranged (perfect for older users with poor eyesight), and its video quality and reception capabilities are solid as well. It's not perfect; there's no guided setup, which can make the setup process a bit tricky for digital TV amateurs. But with other extra features such as a basic (but useful) EPG and a Smart Antenna port, we were able to overlook the start-up speed bumps. As with other DTV converter boxes currently on the market, our current biggest hesitation is price. With a $60 list price, you'll have to pay $20 of your own money to take home the DTA800 (although we've seen it at Wal-Mart Stores for $50). With Echostar releasing the $40 TR-40 this summer--which is supposed to have a full EPG--the best bet might be to wait at least until a few more boxes are on the market.Design
The DTA800's design is bland, but that's the essentially the norm for these boxes. The casing is all plastic and dark gray, and it should fit in well with the look of a standard analog TV. The front faceplate features some glossy black plastic and a single LED that shines green when the unit is on and orange when it's off. There's a power button to the far right and channel up/down button a bit to the left--we especially liked the jumbo size of the front panel buttons. One nifty feature of the design is that the box can be placed vertically by swinging out a plastic "foot" on the side. It's not the most stable arrangement, but we appreciate the extra option.
The DTA800's included remote is excellent. The first thing you'll notice is that it features jumbo-size buttons, which makes it an excellent choice for senior citizens with less-than-perfect vision. Another great touch is that the remote is divided down the middle by color--the left-side buttons are gray and control the TV, while the right-side buttons are white and control the box. The separation makes it really easy to figure out what you're controlling, especially since it can get slightly confusing when using an external tuner box with a TV. Once you program it, the DTA800's remote can control your TV's volume, switch inputs, and mute, which is essentially all you need. If we had to nitpick, we would have liked to have seen a separate button that brings up the Channel List--which is the RCA's simple EPG--but it's only an extra button click away after you hit Menu, so it's not a big issue. It's hard to get excited about a remote, but the DTA800's is near perfect for the task.
We found the initial setup to be a tad tougher than we would have liked. For example, when we first turned on the box, there was no guided setup to ensure the correct settings are selected. The box also started on channel 0-0--a nonexistent channel--when first plugged in, which might give the impression that something malfunctioned (until the user tries another channel or reads the manual to find out about initial setup). Lastly, after the DTA800 ran a full channel scan, it immediately skipped to the program guide, which says "updating" in the upper-right-hand corner and displays a status bar. That's not so bad, but the message of updating and the growing status bar never go away, even after all the program data is loaded. We mistakenly left it up for a few minutes before we realized all the program data was indeed loaded, and that the DTA800 just continually loads new data. None of these issues are major headaches--and they really only occur the first time you set up the box--but we could see them tripping up some less tech-savvy users. The Zenith DTT900 is a better choice for ease of setup.
The DTA800 includes a simple EPG, which RCA calls the "Channel List." The channel list shows nine channels at a time and displays "What's on now" and "What's on next." Compared with the Zenith DTT900, this is excellent, as the DTT900 only displays one channel's worth of guide information at a time. Of course, we would love if the DTA800 enabled us to see program guide data for several days in the future--which is available on the GE 22730 and the Echostar TR-40--but for most people this will probably be good enough.
Aspect ratio control is handled competently for standard 4:3 analog TVs. There are two options in the menu, which allow you to either choose wide-screen mode--which keeps the correct aspect ratio, but adds black bars to the top and bottom of the screen--or full-screen mode, which keeps the correct aspect ratio and doesn't have black bars, but crops out the extreme left and right sides of the image. A minor concern is that the DTA800 doesn't have any options to work with true wide-screen TVs, like the Zenith DTT800 has. Lack of wide-screen TV support isn't an issue for the majority of buyers, who will be using this box with a standard 4:3 analog TV.