Once I plugged in these little boxes, though, I realized there's a world of difference in DTV converters. All three worked fine; it's how they work that matters.
I read user comments on websites complaining about setup difficulties with some of these boxes, but I encountered none. Immediately after you turn the power on the first time, each of the boxes offers to scan the airwaves for available channels. Activate the scan, come back a minute later, and you're ready to watch some newfangled digital TV.
I could go on and on detailing the ergonomic differences among these converters, but both of us would get bored. Instead, I'll just mention some things I liked and disliked:
• On the RCA, when you change channels or hit the info button, it tells you what show's on and what show's on next, provided your local affiliate provides that information. This one feature almost makes me want to junk my 2007 Samsung 57-inch LCD TV, pick up an old CRT set for $50, and settle down with the RCA. The Zenith brings up this info with one punch of the Guide button, and also shows you what's on adjacent channels. I loved that feature, too. You can find all this stuff in the Digital Stream's on-screen guide, but you've gotta go digging.
• On the RCA, bringing up the main menu completely kills the picture and sound. Maybe I'll stick with my Samsung TV after all.
• The Zenith's unfriendly remote has tiny buttons, many with gray labels on a black field. The RCA remote, on the other hand, has big buttons that are as easy to read as a highway sign - a real plus for older users. A slight curve in the top gives it a great feel. The Digital Stream remote is just okay: Didn't love it; Didn't hate it.
• The Digital Stream and Zenith models will both display widescreen images on 16:9 TVs. That feature will be useless for most buyers, but I'm sure there's that 2 percent out there who'll consider it essential. Maybe for really old 16:9 sets that don't have digital tuners? Maybe for use with projectors?
• If you're watching on an old-style 4:3 screen, you have to choose whether to show widescreen images with letterbox bars at top and bottom, or to show them full-screen and crop off the sides. On the Zenith, you can't set this for all channels at once - you have to set each channel individually, which I found tedious.
• It was hard to catch differences in picture quality with normal program material. But the computer graphics of channel 4's weather feed revealed a few subtle distinctions. The Zenith was probably the best overall. The RCA looks similar but its color is a bit pumped up (you can correct that with your TV's color control). The Digital Stream's color is fine, but its picture looks softer than the RCA's or the Zenith's. All delivered an enjoyable picture free of noticeable artifacts.
• The Digital Stream and Zenith boxes exhibit a distortion in the treble that seems isolated to the left channel. It annoyed me when I listened through my fancy-schmantzy surround-sound system, but it was inaudible through the speakers in my TV.
• With all three boxes, reception was perfect from my rooftop antenna. When I tried using a $5 bowtie antenna instead, the RCA and Zenith models both dropped seven channels entirely and had problems pulling in three others; the Digital Stream dropped seven channels and had problems pulling in five others.
With the Digital Stream box, separate windows provide information on current and upcoming programming.
All these digital TV converters work pretty well, especially if you're using them with an old analog TV that will likely level out any performance differences.
That said, I kept coming back to the RCA for its comfy remote, its awesome "On Next" feature, and its non-annoying audio performance. The Zenith ranks a very, very close second in terms of the on-screen interface, but its generi-remote made me uncomfortable - overall, it reminds me of a competent and likable business associate with a halitosis problem. The Digital Stream's OK, but for me, its rather clunky on-screen interface made it the least enjoyable converter to use.
No matter which digital TV converter you choose, though, it's definitely going to outperform the analog tuner you're used to by a factor of 1,000. It'll be the best $10 to $20 you've ever spent on electronics.
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