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.