Review: Digital TV and DigitalSTREAM DTX9900

You’ve probably seen the public service announcements on TV about analog broadcasts ending in 2009. It’s true; with very few exceptions, traditional broadcast television will no longer use an analog signal after February of next year. This means, of course, that if your television is still of the analog variety, it won’t be able to pick up an over-the-air signal. Televisions with digital tuners built-in really only started showing up in the last year or so, so even if your TV is two or three years old, it is still likely to be analog and subject to obsolescence. Remember, though, that this only applies to over-the-air reception. If you have cable or satellite TV, you should not have any issues.

The good news is that there is an option to extend the life of an analog television. You can purchase, for a relatively low price, a digital converter box. This works kind of like a cable box for over-the-air television. The digital converter box connects to your antenna, receives the digital broadcast signal, then converts it into something your analog TV can recognize. Any analog channels you were able to receive clearly with an antenna you should be able to pick up with a digital converter box. Unlike analog TV, where a weaker signal simply produced a picture with degraded quality, with digital TV, a weaker signal disappear completely. The picture will either be there or it won’t. If your current antenna reception is sketchy, you’ll want to upgrade to a better antenna, possibly with an amplified signal, to make digital reception work for you.

Once you are set up with a digital converter box, you will notice some distinct advantages to digital TV. The picture is very sharp and clear. Information about the current program – like the title and rating – are easily accessible. The upcoming schedule for each channel is also just a button-push away. Even better, you will probably now receive more channels.

Digital broadcasting allows TV stations to broadcast multiple channels on their frequency. You will find that many of your local channels (if not all) will now come with designations like 10-1 and 10-2, or 21-1, 21-2, 21-3, and 21-4. The “-1” channel is usually the same as the analog channel you are used to, but the subsequent channels will offer different programming. When I installed our digital converter boxes, we found that we could now pick up five additional channels. Our local NBC affiliate offers a second channel that is like a local “weather channel.” We can get the forecast anytime we want, instantly. Our local ABC affiliate offers a second channel with programming from the CW network. Our local PBS affiliate gets the prize, though, with three extra channels, each offering additional programming, including extra children’s shows not available on their analog signal.

There are a number of digital converter boxes available, with prices starting around $50. Most of the major television brands have a model, with some lesser-known brands also making an entrance. Be sure to compare the features on the different boxes; there are some significant differences that may or may not have an impact on your particular installation situation. There is also a coupon program offered by the US Department of Commerce that can lower your costs; more on that later.

DIGITALSTREAM DTX9900 REVIEW

At our house, I installed two DigitalSTREAM DTX9900 converter boxes. At first, I had passed on even looking at the details of the DigitalSTREAM box because the brand was one I was not familiar with. However, after looking at the features (or lack thereof) of the lower-priced, name-brand receiver available at our local Really-Big-International-Discount-Retailer, I decided to take a second look at some of the other receivers out there. I found that the DTX9900 offered the features I was looking for, had favorable customer reviews, and still had a competitive price (around $60).

THE KEY FEATURES

1. The DTX9900 offers a universal remote to control your TV. This is important in that is saves having to use two remotes to watch TV! Most “universal remotes” that are on the market right now do not have codes for digital converter boxes, and most converter boxes come with remotes that only operate the box. DigitalSTREAM made a smart move by including TV power, input, and volume controls that can be programmed for just about any TV on the market. This convenience alone is worth the extra $10 over the entry-level models out there.

2. Zoom control is vital with digital television. The aspect ratio on digital broadcasts can change from one program to the next, with some programs broadcasting in widescreen (16:9), some in traditional (4:3), and some in something somewhere in between. The DTX9900 offers a zoom control on the remote that lets you quickly toggle through the various modes so you can make the picture fit your screen.

EASE OF SETUP, EASE OF USE

The DTX9900 is quick and easy to setup. You can connect it to your TV via RCA cables (those yellow, red, and white connections most TVs have), or you can connect it with a coax cable. This should work an all but the oldest TVs out there. If your TV connects to the antenna with screws, you’ll need to pick up an adapter to convert the coax signal. These are inexpensive and available in the electronics departments of most discount stores. One downside to the DigitalSTREAM unit is that it does not offer a S-video or component connection. This isn’t the end of the world, but it would be nice to take advantage of the superior picture quality the digital broadcasts offer.

Once connected, you power on the unit and it scans for local channels. If reception is an issue, this unit offers an on-screen signal strenth meter for each channel to help you adjust your antenna to an optimal position. You do need to be able to pick up some signal, however, to use this feature. If you can’t pick up any signal, the unit will not tune to a channel, thereby preventing your from using the signal strength meter.

Using the box is not much different from using any other TV or cable-box experience. Channel surfing, volume controls, menu navigation, etc., all operate in familiar and easy to understand ways. Like most recent TVs, the DTX9900 includes parental controls, allowing you to restrict programming based on ratings and content. In a house with young children like mine, this is a nice feature. Closed captioning is also included.

DRAWBACKS

Aside from the already mentioned lack of S-Video and/or component outputs, the only other downside to the DTX9900 is the manufacturer; I’ve never heard of DigitalSTREAM before, so I have no idea how reputable the company is or how long I can expect this unit to last. It seems well built and it works well, so that’s a good sign. I purchased my units at a local RadioShack; they were the only brand being carried by that retailer locally. My experience with RadioShack, as far as quality goes, has always been a positive one. The retailer also offered an extended warranty, which I declined.

TV CONVERTER BOX COUPON PROGRAM

To defray the cost of converting analog users over to digital, the US Department of Commerce is offering coupons to consumers. Each coupon is worth $40, and each household can receive up to two coupons. This brought my cost down to $20 plus tax for each converter box, which was much more manageable to my budget that $60 per box. For more information on the coupon program, visit dtv2009.gov.


Ben Martin likes to think he’s a cool, tech-saavy dad. He’s not, but he likes to think he is. Ben also serves as editor of THE FATHER LIFE.

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