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Digital Television (DTV) Converter Box Review & Where to Buy
Untangling the choices in DTV converter boxes, here is a short and sweet cheat sheet

By: Bruce Bahlmann - Contributing Author (your feedback is important to us!)

Created: March 28, 2008

NOTE: For more information about over-the-air antennas, check out our article: "Are Over the Air Antennas Now Obsolete?"

The winners and losers of the race to supply, build, and sell Coupon Elegible Converter Boxes (CECB) or also known as NTIA certified Digital Television Converter Boxes, or DTV Converter Boxes, or Digital TV Converter Boxes are upon us. With February 17, 2009 conversation date set in stone, the Converter Box Coupon Program started, retail outlets for consumer goods are beginning to finally stock meaningful quantities of DTV converter boxes. This article is a summary of the chips (tuners and ASIC) used in the construction of these boxes, the leading manufacturers of these boxes, and finally which boxes are initially being stocked by retailers as well as reviews of earlier adopters of these boxes.

Some of the early winners of the DTV Converter Box parts supply are LG and Sanyo (See Table 1.0). LG has not only the most used ASIC but also manufactures the two of the three leading DTV Converter Boxes. Sanyo's UBA00AL tuner is the dominate tuner (most design wins) among retail stocked DTV Converter Boxes easily beating out Microtune and Thomson which thus far have shown very little progress in terms of being actually stocked in retail shelves to sell to consumers. The green areas represent DTV Converter Boxes receiving the most positive feedback thus far from early adopters or have experienced materially significant retail distribution by way of a national retailer.

DTV Tuner ASIC Power Use [on] Power Use [sleep] Notes
Artec T3A-PRO Sanyo UBA00AL LGDT1111D      
Channel Master CM7000 Thomson DTT76850 STx7707nuc & STv0373     Circuitboard from Deltacom Electronics
Daewoo DAC-100/200/300 Thomson DTT76850 LGDT1111D      
Digital Stream DTX9900 Sanyo UBA00AL LGDT1111D 6.8W 0.67W  
EchoStar (SlingMedia) TR-40 (DTVPal) Microtune MT2131 Auvitek AU8515      
Insignia LSX300-4DM LG TDVG-H051F or
Sanyo UBA00AL
LGDT1111D      
Insignia NS-DXA1 LG TDVG-H051F or
Sanyo UBA00AL
LGDT1111D      
Magnavox TB100MW9 Sanyo UB010AF R8A66973FP      
MaxMedia MMDTVB03 Thomson DTT76850 TI TVP9007      
MicroGEM MG2000   Zoran ZR39740      
Philco TB100HH9 Sanyo (UBA00AL)? 208 pin chip?      
RCA DTA800B Thomson DTT76850 Broadcom BCM3543 6.1W 0.7W  
RCA DTA800A Thomson DTT76850 SupraHD 640 6.1W 0.7W  
Sansonic FT-300A Microtune MT2131 Auvitek AU8515      
Tivax STB-T9   Zoran #?      
Zenith DTT 900 LG TDVG-H051F or
Sanyo UBA00AL
LGDT1111D      

Table 1.0 Breakdown of Tuner and ASIC chips among the leading DTV Converter Boxes (source AVS Forum)

With nearly 219 million televisions in the United States, a $50-60 DTV Converter Box can ring in some pretty meaningful revenues. However, its not likely that all 219 million televisions will need converter boxes. A good way to look at this is if you add up the number of current digital television subscribers (60.95 million), multiply that by the average number of televisions per household (2.1), and then subtract that from the 219 million you are left with about 91 million televisions that are most likely in need of a DTV Converter box between NOW and February 17, 2009. Selling ~90 million of anything regardless of whether you are ASIC, tuner, or DTV Converter Box manufacturer will be significant. A fair "guess" would be that 60% of these 90 million TVs go the converter route, 20-30% just upgrade the TV to a new (or used) digital TV, 5-7% subscribe to a TV programming package, and the remaining just dispose of the non-working TV. Since these are the "free TV" hold-outs, I do not suspect this population represents a significant opportunity for cable or satellite TV so the 5-7% number is likely on the high-side.

Coupon Details: There are 22.25 million coupons available to US households, and once used an additional 11.25 million coupons available for households that solely receive their TV broadcasts over-the-air using antenna. Each coupon is redeemable for $40 towards the cost of a certified DTV Converter Box and up to two coupons can be given to each US household (while supplies last).

TV Signals Post Cut Over: The current VHF 2-13 channel range still exists for DTV after Feb 17, 2009. The current UHF 14-69 channel range will be trimmed to UHF 14-51 for digital TV broadcasting after Feb 17, 2009. UHF channels 52-69 (698 to 806 MHz) will be sold to the highest bidders for emergency and next generation wireless communication use. UHF Channels 70-83 were already reallocated years ago to pagers, cell phones, public safety, etc. Many stations will revert back to using their previous VHF frequencies to broadcast their digital signals. Their UHF allocations are on loan (unless they chose to keep them and rather give up their VHF's post that date) so they could be simulcast with their analogs. Any unused VHF frequency left unused will be auctioned off.

As retail consumer electronics stores have begun to shelve these DTV Converter Boxes, the following table (Table 2.0) is a summary of the early feedback from various individuals who have purchased and tested out these boxes. Most interesting among Table 2.0 is that among the more than 60 DTV Converter Boxes certified by NTIA, only 7 have thus far stocked by retail stores and only 6 have indicated that they are capable of passing analog signals to the television set (analog pass through). Note: * next to prices below represent products that are only in the store.

DTV Where to Buy Reviews: Pros/Cons
Artec T3A-PRO National Retail:
  • NONE

Online/Phone Retail:

Pros:
  • RS232 interface for field firmware updates (geek feature)
  • Digital Close Caption (CC) controls

Cons:

  • No analog pass through
  • No S-Video
  • Only shows current program guide
Channel Master CM7000 National Retail:
  • Frys Electronics

Online/Phone Retail:

Pros:
  • S-Video interface
  • Digital Close Caption (CC) controls
  • Volume control

Cons:

  • No analog pass through
  • No manual input of channel (must rescan)
Digital Stream DTX9900

 

 

Other Models:

DSP7700P

National Retail:

Online/Phone Retail:

Other Models:

Pros:
  • Signal strength display
  • 8 hour guide
  • Digital Close Caption (CC) controls
  • Volume control
  • Universal remote

Cons:

  • Cuts off the bottom 10 lines of video
  • No analog pass through
  • Setup not so easy
  • Need additional composite cables (not included)
EchoStar (SlingMedia) TR-40 (DTVPal)
National Retail:
  • All 5,000 SlingMedia retailers

Online/Phone Retail:

Pros:
  • Signal strength display
  • VCR timer
  • Double conversion tuning
  • Best in class electronic program guide
  • Parental controls

Cons:

  • Not available until June 2008
Insignia NS-DXA1


 
National Retail:

Online/Phone Retail:

Pros:
  • Signal Level Button
  • Quick, easy setup
  • Pleasing to use
  • BIG button remote
  • Good tuner sensitivity
  • Digital Close Caption (CC) controls
  • Volume control

Cons:

  • 4-5 second image display delay on power up
  • No Analog pass through
  • No S-Video
  • No factory reset button
  • Does not support ReplayTV DVRs
Magnavox TB100MW9

 

 

 

New Model:

Magnavox TB100-HH9

National Retail:

Online/Phone Retail:

Pros:
  • Allows manual entry of RF channels
  • Signal level with NOW and PEAK readings
  • Display Modes: Letterbox, Full, Zoom
  • Good hold/retention of channels once locked in
  • Digital Close Caption (CC) controls

Cons:

  • Interference rejection problems
  • No analog pass through
  • Slow to locate and lock in signals
  • Some boxes arrive dead [won't power up]
  • RF output and composite video/stereo output cannot be used at the same time
MaxMedia MMDTVB03 National Retail:
  • NONE

Online/Phone Retail:

Pros:
  • Analog pass through
  • Smart antenna
  • S-Video port

Cons:

  • EPG not as good as Digital Stream's
MicroGEM MG2000 National Retail:
  • NONE

Online/Phone Retail:

Pros:
  • Digital Close Caption (CC) controls

Cons:

  • No analog pass through
Philco TB100HH9 National Retail:
  • Etronics
  • Meijer

Online/Phone Retail:

Pros:
  • Analog pass through (but suffers from insertion loss)
  • Freeze frame option
  • Digital Close Caption (CC) controls

Cons:

  • Fair tuner sensitivity
  • Fair picture quality
RCA DTA800B National Retail:
  • Walmart

Online/Phone Retail:

Pros:
  • Smart Antenna (but defeated by no manual channel input)
  • Digital Close Caption (CC) controls
  • Works with various ReplayTV DVR 4500, 5080, 3030 using respective codes (0566, 7911, 5392)
  • Best in class remote control

Cons:

  • Tuner sensitivity is suspect
  • No analog pass through
  • No manual input of channel (must rescan)
  • Poor hold/retention of channels once locked in
  • No composite cable included
RCA DTA800A National Retail:
  • Walmart

Online/Phone Retail:

Pros:
  • Best in class remote control

Cons:

  • Tuner sensitivity is suspect
  • No analog pass through
  • No manual input of channel (must rescan)
  • Poor hold/retention of channels once locked in
  • No composite cable included
Sansonic FT-300A National Retail:
  • NONE

Online/Phone Retail:

Pros:
  • TBD

Cons:

  • No analog pass through
Tivax STB-T9 National Retail:
  • NONE

Online/Phone Retail:

Pros:
  • Smart antenna
  • Digital Close Caption (CC) controls

Cons:

  • No analog pass through
Zenith DTT 900 National Retail:

Online/Phone Retail:

Pros: (note its a replica of the Insignia)
  • Quick, easy setup
  • Pleasing to use
  • BIG button remote
  • Good tuner sensitivity
  • Digital Close Caption (CC) controls
  • Volume control

Cons:

  • 4-5 second image display delay on power up
  • No Analog pass through
  • No S-Video
  • No factory reset button
  • Very small remote control buttons
  • Poor audio quality
Other DTV Converters
Not specifically covered

Online/Phone Retail:

Table 2.0 Breakdown of DTV Converter Boxes by Review (pros/cons) and Where To Buy (source AVS Forum)

Many DTV Converter Boxes offer perhaps unusable features such as "Smart Antenna" or "Advanced Guide". Smart antenna provides an integrated rotor for supported antennas and automatically adjusts the antenna to an optimal location based on signal strength. Advanced guide allows users to see up to 7 days of programming. However evident from early feedback while these features do work they may not work or be supported in the area where the customer lives. For example, a smart antenna may have limited applicability if the consumer lives in a valley and advanced guide is dependent on broadcasters who thus far only send 48 hours of shows, so those DTV boxes with 7 day advance guide features can seldom be used to their fullest.

What remains unclear is how many different models will retail stores stock? Walmart and Radio Shack are in the early minority by stocking two different models: Walmart stocking (RCA and Magnavox) and Radio Shack stocking (Digital Stream and Zenith). Interestingly, both have one highly rated model and one not so highly rated. Other retail store such as Best Buy, Circuit City, HHGregg, and Sears only stock one model but its a highly rated model.

In another poll conducted on the TiVo website of only 40 people (so take that with a grain of salt), the three most popular DTV Converter Boxes were: Echostar TR-40 (41.67%), Zenith DTT900 (36.11%), followed by a tie between DigitalStream and Magnavox.

NOTE: For more information about over-the-air antennas, check out our article: "Are Over the Air Antennas Now Obsolete?"

Feedback:

Socialview.org:

Thanks for the review of digital-to-analog converter boxes. It was an excellent start on a tough topic. In fact, there is so little out there, that I was surprised to see your site listed somewhat down on the search engine listing.

However, I wonder about the other units that are on the government list. Also, I wondered why there isn't a listing with those that do have pass-thru rather than those that don't. Analog pass-thru is a big plus and should have always been listed as a "Pro" item. In fact, I would just list all of those first, and the ones without last.

Thanks again.

Author's Repsonse:

Thanks for the feedback...

I looked at it more from an "investment prospective"... parts suppliers (mainly chips), and whose products are on retail shelves. You are correct that there are many more products out there that have been certified which were not detailed in this piece; only very few of those are even being actively sold to consumers or have nailed up distribution relationships with retail stores.

Analog pass through is a pretty important feature (least from now until the cut over) and it has even been a highly suggested feature by NTIA, but why few vendors chose to implement it remains a mystery. If you look at this from an investment perspective however, analog pass through is insignificant because from a buyer's perspective either the product is available for purchase or not. Since a majority of the currently available products don't support it, and it's only available on otherwise lower rated currently available options, this feature is not enough to overcome other shortcomings.

Louis R Briones

There is going to be a major problem with having this converter boxes, due to the fact that most of the Apartment Associations, and Home owner's Associations will not allow consumers like myself to have used with an "Over-The-Air" Rooftop Antenna claiming that these types of antennas are real Eyesore, which to me doesn't make since what so ever.

When trying to use a pair of rabbit ears, or a amplified Terk antenna, we come to find that these antennas of this type failed to faction within these type of buildings. Most of the folks that live in some kind of apartment dwelling are for sure going to be left out of the realm, for not having access to the television and radio airwaves. This something that the government does;'to think about.

Someone from the FCC should forced the Apartment Associations and others to install come kind of a "Rooftop" antenna, so in this way when these converter boxes are used, these receivers will faction properly.

Author's Response:

Thanks for the feedback.. Having rented recently, I'd agree with you... and this probably falls into UNSERVABLE areas.

One "better" option over Terk (which are notoriously terrible) is a Winegard antenna which has a powered high density HDTV antenna (SS-2000). While HDTV quality might seem like overkill, the sensitive to receive HD would certainly help your ability to operate a standard def digital tuner such as a DTV Converter Box through walls, etc. Note you don't have a lot of options, so this might be your

You can purchase the Square Shooter from any of the following:

From: Donna Koone
Sent: Sunday, April 13, 2008 6:23 PM

We have two analog televisions that are not connected to our cable supplier and thus need Digital Converters. I purchased an RCA converter box and after installing one I get the message - no signal, unable to tune to this channel. Both of these televisions have indoor antennas, but they are UHF/VHF/HDTV compatible. What is my next option? (We live in a rural area)

All of the information that I have read and heard on the television newscasts indicates that all you have to do is buy a converter box, hook it up, and you will be ready for the switch over. However, things are not working that easily for me since the converter box is not receiving a signal. It would be much simpler to just replace the analog sets, but financially that is not an option at this time.

Also, we currently receive local channels on our television sets that are connected to our cable supplier, but we

also have an analog antenna that we switch over to during inclement weather if our cable reception is unable to transmit (during heavy rain, etc.). After the digital switch over takes place next year, what option will we have available if our cable reception is unavailable?

Author's Response:

Traditional indoor antennas just are not going to pull in the signal you require to get past the annoying “no signal” issue you are reporting. Rabbit ears worked well for very small screen analog TVs as they required very little signal to display an acceptable signal. In the case of digital, you need to invest in either a quality indoor “powered” antenna (suggest Winegard SS-2000 ~ $70), or get a decent house antenna such as a Winegard HD7082P which runs about $90 – both prices are through a discounter but retail for either would be around $100 or more.

It would have been nice if the FCC would have forced stations to all go to UHF as you could have bought a single quality UHF antenna to pull all of them in. However, since over the air stations can now spread across both VHF and UHF you really need a pretty big antenna to do a decent job across all available spectrum where over the air stations could reside. If you paid less than $100 (retail) for your antenna, I would not be surprised you aren’t getting enough signal.

Also, keep in mind your DTV’s tuner may also be the problem. It has yet to be reported that the RCA had a better than average tuner (meaning average or worst would require MORE signal to obtain an acceptable picture). I’m waiting to see how the Microtune tuners perform as no real test results have come in from them (available from Sansonic and EchoStar), but in the mean time your best bet is either buy a better than average house antenna or return your DTV Converter for one with a more sensitive tuner. Hope this helps?

Gene Leclerc
Sent: Sunday, April 13, 2008 8:35 PM

I think there is a federal law regarding rooftop antennas and they CANNOT be banned. I notice someone mentioned the following:

"most of the Apartment Associations, and Home owner's Associations will not allow consumers like myself to have used with an "Over-The-Air" Rooftop Antenna claiming that these types of antennas are real Eyesore, which to me doesn't make since what so ever."

I'm pretty sure you can put up an antenna and no one can stop you based on federal law.

Author's Response:

Section 224 of the Telecom Act states that a utility or local exchange carrier "shall provide a cable television system or any telecommunications carrier with nondiscriminatory access to any pole, duct, conduit or right-of-way owned or controlled by it." However, it does not conclude that the FCC has the authority to open rooftops for antenna placement.

It gets worst:

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 preempted local regulations, particularly zoning regulations, which prohibit telecommunications antennas subject to exceptions where reasonable health or safety regulations are involved. Nonetheless, in many cases, special zoning variances, building permits, FCC licenses or other governmental approvals are required for the installation and operation of a telecommunications antenna. The tenant will want to have its obligations, particularly the obligation to pay rent under the lease or licensee agreement, conditional and effective only upon the tenant obtaining the necessary approvals. While a reasonable period of time must be allowed for this process, the property owner must protect himself/herself by setting a definite deadline by which: 1) the tenant can exercise its right to terminate; or 2) the tenant must begin to pay rent - approvals or no approvals. While setting a deadline might not result in rent actually being paid on time, at the very least, the existence of the date can institute a dialogue between the landlord and the tenant about the status of the approval process and the project in general.

I'd never thought about this until you said it, so I looked it up.

Bill C.S. Ho
Sent: Wednesday, April 16, 2008 4:38 PM

You cited the Section 224 of Telecom Act in response to the rooftop antenna placement. I think you should quote the Section 207 instead which is directly related to the OTA reception devices (antenna and dish). This FCC rule became effective in 1996 and has since then been amended a couple times. Basically, landlords or local community or association cannot restrict the placement of antenna in private area (rented or owned) that would lead to degradation of reception signal or increase in cost of installation. Putting an antenna on the rooftop of an apartment (which is not part of the rental agreement) may be prohibited by the landlord but not on the patio or balcony within the rental property exclusively used by the renter.

http://www.fcc.gov/mb/facts/otard.html

David Nebeker
Wednesday, November 5, 2008 10:25 PM

Superb web site.  I have a decade old Panasonic 27" TV with simple thin frame about the TV picture.  On NTSC it produces a stunning picture, better than with the Insignia DTV converter box (which I agree is pleasant to use).  The Channel Master CM7000 via s-Video is the only converter box I have found in limited Salt Lake City which yields a better picture.  But the Channel Master looks like something that should sell for $12, has very small print in the program guide, and buttons on the remote and an input on the back which do nothing.  It seems to me like a shabby effort other than the superb picture it yields.  Do you know of any convert box which gives a sense of quality and the quality picture of the Channel Master?  In particular have you seen the Samsung SIR-T451?  I am about to return a Sony SAT DH-200, which I assumed would be good because of the Sony name and the original price of $899 to be sold for $799.  It yields a very poor picture.   Regards.

David Taber
Sunday, December 28, 2008 10:49 AM

Thank you so much for putting together this informative web site!  I have been in the guts of the analog TV business for 30 years, and this site provided almost exactly what I needed to know (the tuner and ASIC IDs).

I've bought a Zenith DTT901, and it works fine...but the sensitivity seems mediocre.  I live in a rural area, about 70 miles line-of-site to San Francisco.  But channels pumping out a megawatt (analog) don't come through the box at all in digital.  I get exactly one channel.  Any clue if there is a truly high-sensitivity box out there?  The available information seems to indicate that the Zenith is in the good-to-very-good area...obviously, not good enough for me.

Author's Response:

The Zenith should do fine (your only upgrade path would be to choose convertor box that has a microtune tuner in it). I suspect your main problem is likely your antenna. For as far as you are away from San Fran, I’d suggest the following Antenna.

Winegard HD 7698 Platinum

It’s the one I have and it works like a charm. Note, you can’t just get a UHF antenna as some stations can go back to VHF so this antenna accommodates that as well as addresses signal issues in fringe areas. When signal strength is an issue, always go with the best antenna you can buy and then work towards the TV (using high quality cable like:

Belden 7916A Single Quad-Shied RG-6 Coax Cable

Which has a very low loss per foot (perhaps the lowest in its class), and only split of you absolutely have to or purchase a powered splitter which doesn’t introduce any splitting loss. Like:

Winegard HDA-100 Distribution Amp

Note post Feb 17, a number of stations have submitted “maximizing applications” which will allow them to boost their power level, so while they may be temperamental signal wise currently – after Feb 17, they will be fine. Especially if you have a good antenna.

Hope this helps, Let me know how it turns out…

Joe Averyt
Sunday, January 11, 2009 7:31 PM

I learned more from your website than all the other sites I visited combined.  Thanks for the information. I have a question regarding the DTV converter boxes discussed in Bruce Bahlmann’s article.  Bruce, I saw your recommendation to use an RF amp on the output of the antenna if you need to split the signal. Is it possible to split the digital signal out of the converter box instead?  I want enable my three TVs to watch over-the-air stations.  When my satellite signal drops during bad weather, I need to watch the local channels to be sure a tornado isn’t bearing down on my humble abode. I’m trying to save a few bucks upgrading an already obsolete video setup.  A digital splitter, if such a thing exists, is likely to be less expensive than 2 additional converter boxes.

Author's Response:

Splitting the output of a single converter would mean that all three TVs view the same channel. If you want this to happen, I’d suggest buying a converter with three different outputs and just running these outputs to the different sets unless the three sets are considerable distance apart.

If you want all three sets to operate independently, then you’d need three different converters and decent coax cable to connect them to the antenna. Ideally, you should run all three coax cables to a central location and perform the antenna splitting there. If you are 60 or more miles from the broadcast antennas you are trying to receive on all three TVs, I don’t recommend un-amplified splitting – as a 3 way splitter will mean that each of the three outputs will get 1/3 of the original signal. So, unless you are starting out with a great antenna source, you will likely be disappointed with the results.

Note, an amplifier won’t make up for a bad antenna – rather it will just amplify noise. So, my best advice is upgrade the works (add new antenna, a quality amplified splitter, and make sure you home-run all cables running to your converters from the splitting point). In this way, even when the weather turns bad (note that poor weather will negatively impact the quality of signals received over the air), you will still receive clear signals so you don’t miss any weather or other warnings. Better safe than sorry.

 

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