Monday, September 19, 2011

RCA Digital TV Converter

Average Joe’s Recommended Converter Box for the “Hanging in There” TV User

The “Hanging in There” TV group is mainly for people that have no plans in upgrading their analog TV sets anytime soon and don’t really put much importance on new DTV features. This group also includes the elderly that just want something simple and effective to continue enjoying TV the way they’ve always had. For these people I recommend the RCA Digital TV Converter.

Model: RCA DTA800B1
Package includes: Instructions, converter box, remote and coax cable
Inputs: co-axial antenna, smart antenna port
Outputs: standard definition via RCA (yellow / red / white) and co-axial
Pros: Remote is simple, universal with the TV and user friendly with its large buttons and writing, box is compact and can be set up in multiple positions for a best fit, can be bought from most major retailers
Cons: Program guide is essentially non-existent and other DTV features are fairly limited so don’t expect any razzle-dazzle from this model

It Gets the Job Done

When evaluating this converter box and discovering its straight-forward ease of use, I definitely had the elderly in mind. I’m sure some of you out there may have been acting as “digital transition experts” to an elderly parent, friend or neighbour these past few weeks. I myself have had my own family members to assist and I found the RCA converter box the perfect fit for an elderly family member who probably will watch his analog TV until he hits the retirement home.


The box is compact and has a typical black plastic finish you’d find on a DVD or Blu-Ray player. One feature I found advantageous is that unlike other converter boxes, it has two large channel up and down buttons on the front as well as an on/off button. A green indicator LED lets you know when it is working.An extra bonus is that the box can be placed lying flat, or a small “foot” can be swivelled out to place it upright. This last feature is particularly useful if you want to install the box to the left or right of the TV instead of taking up valuable shelf space in a TV unit (prime real estate for all those other electronics).The remote is excellent in its simplicity and layout. The buttons are large and the numbers clearly written in large type. On top of that, it controls the TV power, inputs and volume via a code listed in the instruction manual so there is no need to keep the TV remote lying around. The remote buttons are also coloured such that it is easy to see which buttons control TV features (grey) and which control the converter box features (white).


The initial setup isn’t complicated but it’s not as easy as some of the other models available. Then again the setup is basically done once and then forgotten. The good news is the tools are there and easy enough to use to help you point the antenna and to scan for channels.Also, the all-important option to re-scan to add channels without losing the existing channels saved is also present, meaning people with antenna rotators or indoor antennas that need tuning for different channels will be happy.What’s interesting is that this box also has a smart antenna feature. After doing a bit of my own research (no thanks to the salespeople at the stores carrying these boxes), it appears that certain so-called “smart” antennas are able to electronically tune themselves to have optimized reception without needing physical adjustement. Essentially, a true smart antenna is able to internally and electronically adjust itself for different channels without the need to be moved physically, and the way the box communicates what orientation is needed for which channel is via this smart antenna port (kind of looks like an Ethernet port). While this is an interesting concept as it means saying good-bye to fidgeting and moving an antenna when channels are changed, it appears the market for these antennas is not very strong. An indoor and outdoor version of a smart antenna existed but neither are available for retail anymore, which is shame. Nonetheless, the feature still exists as a bonus should you ever find a used one for resale and want to try it out.

Guide and Program Info

The guide on the RCA converter is fairly weak, so it definitely should not be one of the major features you are looking for should you decide to buy this box. The so-called “guide” consists of a channel list showing all channels available by name and an on-screen pop-up of the program info about the current show (should it be available from your broadcaster). There are no browsing features available or indication of what the next program is.The standard on-screen display info shows the program title, channel, time and antenna strength (the latter always being a huge positive so you’ll know whether the antenna needs to be adjusted).

Ease of use

Once the setup is complete and if your expectations are in line, this converter box is easy to use. The key here is don’t look for the new razzle-dazzle DTV features – the box will basically give you a post-transition DTV experience that was pretty much like you had pre-transition. I also found it perfect for elderly people and here’s why:

First, the remote: You have no idea on how important a universal remote is to an elderly person, and neither did I. I had bought a different box for an elderly family member that didn’t completely replace the TV remote. The result was two remotes on the sofa and a lot of confusion. The family member would forget and enter the channels on his trusty old TV remote like he had been doing for years, only to pop his TV out of VIDEO mode and into a screen of blaring static. After many calls to “tech support” (i.e. me) I replaced the box with the RCA unit and hid the TV remote at the back of the drawer. All is well now.

Second, the remote layout: The remote is uncluttered, there are no new features to cause confusion and the buttons are large and easy to read - great for people with less-than perfect eyesight. Also, closed captioning is just one button away making it easy for people with hearing problems to switch it on and off.

Third, the channel control and power buttons are on the converter box. There have been several times when the aforementioned family member has forgot where the remote is only to find it between the sofa cushions a few hours later. There have also been times when the batteries have died and he’s had to wait for his weekly visit from “tech support” to change them. Believe it or not, many boxes on the market do not have any buttons on them meaning if you can’t use the remote, you’re out of luck. Having the button on the box at least lends a lifeline to a remote-less TV viewer as they are at least able to manually power it on and change channels.

As for the other DTV features that are blatantly missing (the biggest being the guide), I found these features of not much interest to my elderly family member. He was used to the good ol’ days of analog TV and to this day the paper copy of the weekly TV Guide never leaves the side table in the TV room. So I guess no biggie there?


According to Consumer Reports, the RCA converter box classifies as one of the “better” boxes for picture quality (remember, best = DVD quality on an analog TV). Our in-house testing determined the same: picture edges were sharp and there was minimal blur during fast-moving sequences.

The tuner sensitivity was good as well; compared to other DTV built-in tuners and converter boxes there were no unusual drop-outs or less-than-robust pixilation during bad weather. It was always able to capture the same channels when tested from the same antenna setup at equal or better strength.
Easy to Purchase
One of the best things about this box is that it is very easy to purchase in Canada. It is carried by two major chains: Canadian Tire and Sears. Both are reputable stores with good return policies should you realize this is not the right fit for your TV needs.

Although prices have fluctuated around the digital transition date, Sears always seemed to have a slight edge over Canadian Tire. It retails for just under $60, and there have been no major sales to date on this item. I do give a slight edge to Sears as you can easily order it online and have it shipped to one of Sears’ many pick-up locations to save you a drive into town. Also, if you are a Sears card member you can use your promotion benefits or coupons on this item to save a bit.


This box is your easiest bet and will give you a TV that will pretty much have the same functionality as pre-transition. Don’t expect all the new DTV bells and whistles as the other boxes have, but look forward to something that is easy to purchase, simple to use and the perfect converter box for an elderly person suddenly stuck in the digital TV age.

Friday, September 16, 2011

OTA Program Guide Trumps Bell TV

Pay TV subscribers are furious over Bell turning their program guide into a billboard

Remember those “free internet” companies in the late 90’s and early 2000s that provided free dial-up internet in exchange for having a cheesy ad banner appear on your computer while you were surfing? Kind of annoying, but nonetheless a small inconvenience for having a free service. Well earlier this week Bell TV went one step further and pulled the same stunt - but this time to their paying customers - by turning a line in their program guide into a rotating billboard for pay-per-view movies. The advertisement remains until it is manually cleared by the user via the remote.

Average Joe completely understands the outrage of Bell TV subscribers to having this annoying feature imposed on them. Could this be yet another reason to turn away from the satellite and cable mega-corporations and switch to the pristine program guides available from free over-the-air digital television?

Ask a Bell TV subscriber how they like their new on-screen program guide – they recently lost their last line in the program guide to a rotating banner ad for pay-per-view movies (above). Your Average Joe recommends to consumers to explore the uncluttered program guides offered by Over-The-Air DTV receivers instead which are free from unsolicited software updates to add advertisements from the big telemedia companies (below).

As a paying customer, do you think your provider has the right to flood you with unsolicited advertisements via your on-screen program guide? Send your comments to Average Joe now via my email address in my profile!

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.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Welcome to the DTV Era

Happy Digital Transition Day Everyone!

The day has arrived! Across the country analog transmitters are being turned off and new digital TV stations are going to full strength. Important: Be sure to run a new channel scan on your TV / receiver / converter box as many of the DTV stations have changed VF bands, increased their power or just came online.

Also, why not show the naysayers that the DTV transition was worth it and people did notice: take a few moments to write an email to your local digital TV stations and media outlets like the major newspapers to say how thrilled you are as an OTA viewer with their new, sharp digital images and what it has done to your TV experience. Remember, this transition was quite consuming on them in terms of manpower and expenses - be sure to make people know that it was worth it.

Once again, happy digital transition day everyone from YOUR Average Joe.