Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dish Network DTVPal

Average Joe’s Recommended Converter Box for the “Anything but Obsolete” TV crowd

In my previous post I identified the “anything but obsolete” group as those that wanted to keep their analog TV for a while longer without breaking the bank, and yet enjoy the new benefits of the DTV viewing experience. For these people I recommend the DTVPal converter box from Dish Network (yes, the satellite company).

Model: Dish Network DTVPal

Package includes: Instructions, converter box, DC power supply, remote and coax cable

Inputs: co-axial antenna

Outputs: standard definition via RCA (yellow / red / white) and co-axial

Pros: Best program guide and user interface I’ve ever seen on a converter box, good picture quality, sensitive tuner, easy to setup and add / edit channels.

Cons: Remote cannot control the TV power, with the digital conversion over in the US the box is end-of-life and can only be bought off aftermarket sources (not retail)

The “WOW” Factor

Having tested a few converter boxes, nothing knocked my socks off like the DTV Pal. Unsuspecting test subjects at the Average Joe household thought that I had a satellite receiver connected to the TV; nobody could believe that this was running off an antenna. The program guide, the antenna alignment tools, the features and snazzy graphics … if you’re looking for the wow factor, this is the converter box that delivers it.

The box itself is compact and discrete-looking with its black colour and only one green LED that lights up when in use. It does not look out-of place at all in a modern home theatre setup. The remote is ergonomic and looks high-end, its buttons are all a good size and are clearly labeled. There are no buttons or controls on the box.

The initial setup is one of the easiest I’ve seen on the market. An on-screen setup wizard guides you step by step through the installation process and lets you optimize your antenna placement before running a full scan, which is a very smart feature to have. Essentially you manually enter the channel RF numbers and use the signal strength to guide your antenna placement. For my test setup, I used one channel from the US and one local. Once your antenna is in the right spot, you go to the next step that runs a full scan; you sit back and watch as it identifies each channel it pulls in.Once the scan is done, it downloads the program guide with a progress screen similar to what the big boys on the satellite services have. I never had an OTA receiver box make me feel so classy. One note: if the box has been powered off for a while, the program guide will need to be re-downloaded with fresh information next time you start it up. The delay could be a bit annoying but this step can always be skipped. Besides that, the guide does update itself automatically every so often and if new channels are found they will be added automatically as well. You also have the option to perform re-scans without losing the previously scanned channels which is great for people that have signals coming from different directions and need to use antenna rotors or re-adjust indoor antennas.
As an extra bonus there is even an option manually punch in the RF frequency of a channel and see if the receiver can grab it, which is good for those hard to-reach channels that you just can’t seem to find in an automatic scan.

THIS is what a DTV guide should be!

Now the best part of it all – the program guide. By the way, Bell TV subscribers may find the user interface very familiar, and with good reason too as Bell essentially use re-branded Dish Network receivers. The program guide displays days of information (if available from the broadcaster) in a very easy to browse and user-friendly table. Not only do you get to see your entire programming selection at a glance, but options allow you to search the listing as well. Compare this to the program guide or “onscreen info” provided on the converter boxes in the big stores and you’ll see why this is easily its best in its class. It even beats out several newer satellite / cable boxes I’ve seen (yes Videotron, I’m talking to you: the 1990’s video game industry called, they want their graphics back). As a bonus, even the channel names can be manually edited in the guide to say whatever you want instead of the default DTV station callsign (i.e. "CTV-HD" instead of "WBRF-18")As if it couldn’t get any better, you can even search the guide for your program title and then set up auto-tuning to plan your night of TV watching and have the channels switch automatically. Once again, go ask those salespeople what do those other converter boxes have?

Ease of use:

The remote is well laid out which simply adds to the great user interface provided by the DTVPal. I absolutely love the “View TV” button which no matter where you are in the menu or guide automatically brings you right back to your show. The main program guide is one button away, and by using the left and right arrows you can access an on-screen minimalist version guide for browsing while watching your show.
Program info is also a button push away, and by default the antenna strength is shown when the main program banner appears which is an added bonus as it gives you a heads up to adjust your antenna if you see the bar a bit too low on the scale. In any case, at any point a warning message is automatically displayed if the level begins to drop to levels where degradation may occur, just like the big boys with satellite subscriptions have. Nice.Two small pet peeves concerning the remote: I would have loved to be able to control my TV power with this remote. The DTVPal remote is so ergonomic and sexy that I would have liked nothing more than to take my TV remote and archive it in a drawer in my TV stand. Oh well. The other thing is you may notice there are no dots or hyphens so keying in a DTV subchannel is a bit awkward: rather than dialling say 4-2 or 4.2, you need to tap in 0042 and the receiver will interpret it as 004-2. A small little inconvenience, but to honest with the guide being as good as it is I find myself changing channels mostly through the guide screen than anything.


When compared to other boxes and TV tuners, the DTVPal was found to have the same if not better reception than standard tuners or converter boxes. During certain bouts of bad weather, I found the receiver held onto signals of lower strength much better than my TV tuner. The picture quality is good although other boxes may have marginally better results as per the Consumer Reports chart but there are really no majorly detrimental issues with the picture quality.

It sounds awesome, so where do I buy one?

You have to remember one thing – analog TVs are a thing of the past so a converter box is essentially a one-off piece of technology for obsolete equipment. The bad news is that with the DTV transition being over in the US, the market has shrunk and the DTVPal is no longer available for retail sale.

The good news however is that all those analog TV owners that gobbled up these boxes in 2009 in the US are starting to replace their TVs and are putting their used DTVPal boxes up for sale. With the Canadian dollar essentially at par (if not better) than the American, buying a used DTVPal off eBay or a similar website is your best bet to get this awesome box at a seriously reduced price.

With shipping included, you should be able to find a used DTVPal in good condition for around $50 USD, which is reasonable given the prices of new but inferior converters. As with all online purchases, just remember Average Joe’s golden rules for buying online:

- For used items, make sure the photos in the listing are of the unit that will be mailed to you

- Do your research on the vendor – do they have good feedback, are easy to contact and seem reputable?

- Inquire on which payment service will give you a better conversion rate. Don’t be shy to call your credit card company or compare their rates online to PayPal.

- NEVER ship across the border in anything besides United States Postal Service or Canada Post. Services such as UPS or FedEx will incur you extra brokerage fees that are more than likely not included in the price and are 100% your responsibility to pay once it’s delivered.

- Clean your used item when you receive it, especially in this case the remote which has been manipulated by strangers. I suggest using Lysol Disinfectant Wipes.


Although you may be stuck with a standard definition TV for a while, the Dish Network DTVPal will let you enjoy those years with its awesome features. By far it is the only converter box out there that has that “wow” factor. If you want one: do your research, be patient and you’ll bag yourself a great deal buying a used unit in good condition online.