I will preface this by apologizing for being unable to provide screen shots (since I don't have the equipment available currently to do so).
I will provide as much detail as I can based upon my initial evaluation of this unit. If there are any further (relevant) observations/details later on, I will surely post them here.
I approached this from a mostly positive/enthusiastic mindset, since this box had potential (at least on paper)....at least for the (rare) program timer option. My enthusiasm lost it's momentum rather quickly!
Footprint is rather small (7" wide, 5 1/2" deep, 1 1/14" high).
RF and composite (line) outputs only. Audio is available at both outputs when in "RF" mode. Audio is considerably lower in volume when set to "line" mode. AC adapter has an unusually short cord.
Power and channel up/down buttons on front panel. Power on/off LED also on front panel (combined with IR sensor window) which is small and only somewhat visable (especially when viewing at an angle). Has simple ("now/next") guide (better read fast though, since it dissapears in 5 seconds!).
Instruction manual requires a magnifiying glass to read, is poorly written and leaves out important details, rendering it somewhat useless.
Firstly, although mostly superficial, the outward appearance of this box was a dissapointment. It's all plastic and looks somewhat like a toy. I suppose it's the combination of a grey body, white cover and white buttons that gives it this somewhat "Mickey Mouse" appearance....but this is certainly subjective.
However, construction is somewhat decent (how much can you honestly expect from these inexpensive units?) and it's vented on it's sides (although minimally). After many hours of use, it hardly broke a sweat. It became slightly warm in a 74-76 degree room (ambient temperature is a major factor to consider when judging this). The power supply is a seperate AC adapter, which (obviously) contributes to the low level of heat the unit produces.
Navigating the menu from power up is relatively fast and easy. In fact, the initial channel scan engages automatically (no prompting necessary). Unlike certain other units I've seen, it lists the actual call letters of the available channels as it adds them to the scan list.
I could go on and on with details about the menu, displays, remote control, etc. but quite frankly, I'm basically dissapointed and therefore, all of these details seem relatively unimportant, since, in my opinion, they're overshadowed by all of the negative aspects and problems that I encountered while testing this box.
Here's what (in my opinion) disqualifies this box from being anything special and, if anything, clearly puts it in the "must to avoid" category. Since I've had limited experience with other units, I'm basing my opinion on what I expected (vs. reality) from this box and it's overall performance.
The cons (sorry, but there are few "pros":
1) There's no EPG, other than the minimalist "now/next" (a poor excuse for a program guide).
2) When changing channels directly, there's a six second delay (scan up/down is typically fast).
3) The on screen channel display is tiny and in an ackward position on the screen. However, when the channel becomes visual, it's accompanied by a large banner on the bottom of the screen which displays relavant info. (such as channel ID, time, limited program data and signal meter(s). The tiny channel display (when you input the channel number from the remote) is difficult to see from a distance and quite annoying.
4) There are two signal meters (unusual). One displays "quality", the other displays "intensity". I found that, even with questionable signals, the "quality" meter was generally 80-100. The "intensity" provides a much more efficient guide, as it will vary more greatly, depending upon the signal conditions.
However, there is no specific "meter" or "signal" button!
To check the signal, you must push the display button. This brings up the full banner and only for five seconds! Without a continuous signal display (or audible beep), forget about re-orienting your antenna to max out the signal....poor design! What were they thinking? That everyone already has their antennas in a perfect position.... Not in the real world!
5) Additionally, when changing channels, it takes several seconds for the meters to stabilize. By the time the meters are in an accurate position, the display dissapears and you have to push the button again....and again!
6) Buttons on remote are closely spaced and too small (oddly enough, there's an extra inch of wasted, unused space available below the button array).
7) Picture quality is good. However, I found that it was a bit darker overall than the analog version and the color was a bit more intense. I would be satisfied with picture quality, had it not been for it's other (numerous) faults.
8) On the subject of sensitivity. Overall, there are many variables where this issue is concerned. Location, position, obstructions, atmospheric conditions, etc. In my environment, I have the advantage of a good UHF/VHF outdoor antenna (amplified). I am located on the outskirts of Manhattan (NYC). The majority of transmitters are on the Empire State Building, which is approx. 10 miles away. There are no tall buildings or obstructions nearby. Just big, tall trees (which can be somewhat of an problem, depending upon the type and strength of the signal). Regardless of the converter box, my signal strength and quality is quite good from the outset. However, there are various transmitters located as far as approx. 50 miles away (in New Jersey). These signals are weak and well out of range and direction, relative to the position of my antenna. I've had minimal experience with other boxes but this one appears to have slightly better sensitivity with these distant signals. However, where other boxes may blank out with these channels, this one would display a picture that was basically unusable, since it was unstable (breakup, pixelization, etc.).
As a further test, I tried this box with a passive indoor antenna, which provides good signal on some channels, poor signal on others. Even in a relatively good reception location, an indoor antenna can be far worse than an outdoor antenna with certain signals. It presented more of a challenge for this box (as well as others). Under these conditions, this box performed similarly to others. However, I found this one to be a bit more sensitive with the weaker signals. No major difference though. In some cases, the picture was a bit more stable than it had been with the other boxes. Not significant.
I did find a significant issue concerning these weaker signals that was not evident with the other boxes I tested and is worthy of major criticism!! When the signals were questionable and there was breakup, pixelization, etc., firstly, the audio would become badly distorted. With other boxes, it would simply skip (fade in and out). I found this to be quite annoying. Even worse is the fact that the video would lose sync with the audio!! To reset it I would have to change channels (back and forth) or turn the box off and then back on. This loss of sync was consistent whenever the signal became weak enough for even slight instability. This is a major flaw, since signals can be imperfect and cause these fluctuations frequently and commonly. Under these conditions, you would need to reset the channel constantly. I've never seen this happen before (with the other boxes I've tested). As far as I'm concerned, this loss of sync (and inability to recover) is unacceptable!
9) My tests were done in the 4:3PS setting, which generally fills the screen on my 35" Sony XBR TV. In some cases, there's the typical cropping but even with a perfectly normal 4:3 picture, I found some excessive overscan (specifically on the bottom and left side of the screen). In all fairness, this was minimal but could possibly interfere with the common scroll on the bottom of news broadcasts, etc. This will vary, depending upon the TV and it's factory settings. I found the other (aspect) settings to be useless.
10) Using the analog pass-through requires you to: A) Leave the box turned on -and- B) Use the menu to navigate to the appropriate screen where you can change the RF output - That's a total of nine button presses!! In addition, when you cycle through the on-screen setting there is actually no indication that you've accessed the pass-through option. There are three options available (channel 3, channel 4 and pass-through). When you reach the pass-through option, the only indication is a snowy picture (if you don't normally receive channel 3) or whatever channel might occupy channel 3 in your area. This contradicts the manual which gives the impression that you'll actually see the option displayed prior to the switchover. However, I did confirm that you will see the option displayed when you've set the box to "line" vs. "RF" for the output. This might indicate that it may be possible to "piggyback" multiple units (a minor convenience for some). I didn't actually test this theory but it seems logical.
This is ridiculous! As far as I'm concerned, simply turning the box off is the best (and most logical) option, should you need to switch over to analog channels. More poor design!
I saved the best (ooops, I mean worst) for last:
11) The feature that supposed to set this box apart from the competition.
The infamous, ever-popular program timer.
At best, it's a mixed bag. At worst, it's pathetic!
This feature and it's functionality will be somewhat subjective, so I'm not actually condemming it. However, it leaves alot to be desired!
Firstly, the time can be adjusted manually. This is one of the few intelligent design aspects of this box. However, it's 24 hour time! That's right....no AM, no PM....0:00 - 24:00. This applies to setting the program timers as well. What were they thinking? I'm pretty sure this design dates back what?....30 years? Reality check please....it's 2008!
....and there's no direct access from the numeric keys. You must scan (via cursors) for all settings. This may have been an anticipated, somewhat minor inconvenience but I can assure you, it adds to the overall tedious, inconvenient, outdated functionality of the program timers. Additionally, you must set all parameters for each timer number. Unlike many current timers (incorporated into VCR's, DVD recorders and combo units), should you wish to set more than one program for a specific day (a common occurance), you must set the month and day each and every time. Plus, when assigning the "wake up" channel, you must scan through all of the available channels to locate the particular channel that you wish to record....and only by call letters....not by channel numbers. I personally feel that most viewers tend to focus on the channel number....not the call letters. I suppose that most could become adjusted to this but (as with other features) it's not very intuitive.
Plus, there's no on/off control. The timer either changes channels (if the box is left on) or turns the unit on at the chosen time. You simple set an on time. Assuming that the sleep timer is disengaged, the box will remain on indefinitely. Setting the sleep timer to the various options (other than "off") might be an alternative, assuming that the box would "wake up" if a program timer were set. I didn't test this option. Overall, I found this to be a poor excuse for this (much anticipated) program timer!
Last but not least.... there's no direct access to the program timer function (as with many modern recorders). You must access it through the menu screens. Minor, perhaps, but it just adds to what is, in actuality, an archaic, very inconvenient program timer....worthy of this criticism!
There are other features that I didn't test (as I lost my patience with all the basic imperfections and design flaws that I had quickly discovered).
I honestly almost gave up early on but decided to pursue this testing process further, in order to provide as much info. here for all who are concerned about (and considering) this box. Since it seemed as if it was starting to generate the kind of buzz similar to the "DTV PAL", (which turned out to be quite a dissapointment), I thought that you should have these facts as soon as possible.
Based upon what I've read here about the "DTV PAL" and learned (hands on) about the Zinwell....I would strongly suggest avoiding both!!
......I guess it's "back to the drawing board" (again)!