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ROOMS WITH A VIEW

 

INTRO

Want to watch satellite TV in bed? Rick Maybury has some ideas that could help you watch multi-channel TV and video in every room of your house...

 

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According to a recent market survey the average British household now has 2.5 television sets. We’re not sure where people keep their point-five of a TV, but of the other two, one is usually in the main living room, the other is in a bedroom or the kitchen. That’s all well and good if you live in a good reception area and you’re happy with just four terrestrial TV channels on the second set, but what if the signal isn’t strong enough for a basic set-top aerial, or you want to watch satellite channels, or a video as well?

 

Anything is possible, of course, but unfortunately there are no cheap, simple or instant solutions to these problems. We’ll take a look at some of the more obvious low-tech options first.

 

The simplest method is to split the aerial feed as it emerges from the aerial (or VCR or STV receiver’s RF output, if you want to watch those as well), just before it goes to the main TV, and run an extra aerial cable to the room or rooms, where you’re going to use another TV. There’s a couple of points to bear in mind. The first one concerns the weakening of the signals when more than one set is connected. Picture quality will suffer, possibly to the point where you might not get a satisfactory picture on either TV. The answer is to use a properly designed aerial splitter, preferably one with an built-in signal booster or amplifier, with two or more outputs, so you can run separate feeds to several rooms at once. Needless to say that even if your second TV is a stereo model, you won’t get stereo sound from either the VCR or satellite channels with this kind of basic RF distribution system.

 

The most obvious problem with this type of set-up is that there is no means of controlling the source component (VCR or satellite tuner), so you would have to keep going back to the living room, to work the VCR, or change satellite channels. We’ll come to ways of overcoming this in a moment.

 

BIG BUCK SOLUTIONS

If picture and sound quality are important, and your second TV has stereo sound then you might want to consider a custom hard-wired or AV distribution system, installed in your home by a specialist firm. However, apart from being horribly expensive -- you won’t see much change from a couple of thousand pounds for a basic system --  it can entail a great deal of upheaval; it’s probably worth thinking about if you’re having a lot of decorating or renovation work carried out, or -- if you have the foresight and good fortune to own a new house -- having a system fitted whilst it is being built..

 

Another possibility is to buy all of your video and audio components from one of the very few top-end manufacturers who have developed ‘multi-room’ systems. They include companies like Bang and Olufsen who have an integrated distribution control system, called Beolink. It uses a combination of cables, RF and infra-red links to send video, audio and control signals to other components around the house. In fact several manufacturers have developed similar technologies at one time or another, though only a tiny handful ever made it past the drawing board.

 

Five years ago Philips boldly tried to persuade the consumer electronic industry to adopt a common standard for this kind of technology. They devised a system called D2B or the domestic digital bus, which would enable all manner of  domestic appliances to share common control protocols, it even had a facility whereby VCR timers could be remotely programmed over the phone. A small number of products (TVs and VCRs)  appeared fitted with the necessary control electronics and sockets, however, the Japanese majors gave it the thumbs down, several of them had systems of their of own -- Home Bus, CE Bus and Esprit to name just a few -- and as far as we’re aware they’ve all been put on hold. Someone someday will do it, but don’t hold your breath...

 

Whilst we’re on the subject of what was, or may have been, does anyone remember the Rabbit? Rabbit was an ingenious AV distribution system sold in the UK about four or five years ago. It sent video, audio and control signals down a thin two-core wire. When it worked it worked brilliantly, unfortunately it was prone to interference if the cable ran too close to mains wiring, and the wire was extremely vulnerable to damage. There’s probably still a few kicking around, gathering dust in dealers stockrooms, if you come across one at a reasonable price (less than £30 say) it might be worth a gamble.

 

WIRELESS DISTRIBUTION

The big drawback with virtually all distribution systems is the need to run cables all over the house, wouldn’t it be great if someone came up with a way of sending signals, without wires? Well, they have and you can, the only trouble is it’s illegal in this country, or not yet available. The commonest of these gadgets are known generically as video senders. They’re basically miniature TV transmitters, that re-broadcast the aerial output signals from a satellite receiver or VCR, so they can be picked up nearby on a TV. The TV has to be tuned to a spare channel, usually the same one as the VCR or satellite receivers RF output frequency. It’s fairly obvious why they’re illegal, even though the output power is very low, in the order of a few milliwats, and can only travel a few metres; nevertheless there’s still a chance that the transmissions will interfere with a neighbours TVs or other more important items of radio equipment. For the record it’s not actually illegal to sell or buy video senders, and typically they cost between £30 to £50, but be warned the authorities have no difficulty tracking them down if they receive any complaints, and at least one offender was speedily identified and apprehended after using a video sender to watch his own home-made naughty videos!

 

Several companies have come up with ways of using household mains wiring to distribute AV and control signals. The way it works is similar in principle to those cordless baby alarms and intercoms that were popular a while ago, audio and video signals are modulated on to a high frequency FM carrier which rides ‘piggy-back’ on the mains cables, and as most homes have ring-mains systems, the signals are available at every wall outlet. Prototype systems we have seen in the past few years appear to work very well indeed. In principle they’re very easy to install with  simple plug-in adaptor modules sited next to the TV. The adaptor has AV sockets that connect directly to the TV, and in some cases a small infra-red receiver that relays control signals back to a transmitter unit next to the source components.

 

It sounds like an ideal solution, so why can’t we go out and buy one? Well, once again there’s a problem with the legality of these devices. There are quite complex rules about what you can and cannot do with the mains supply. The electricity generating authorities variously maintain only they are allowed to squirt signals down the mains, and in any case they have their own plans for using the National Grid for distributing everything from telephone calls to TV and video on demand.

 

BACK TO BASICS

So far the methods we’ve described have been expensive, inconvenient or illegal, but here’s an idea that gets around pretty well all of the problems. Buy a second satellite tuner and VCR. It’s not nearly as expensive as it sounds. You can pick up second-hand STV receivers and VHS video recorders quite cheaply nowadays -- typically £50 to £100 -- you might even have one or both devices going spare if you’ve upgraded recently. The only minor difficulty would be supplying a feed from the dish to the second satellite box, though it needn’t be a problem, splitter boxes for satellite dish down-leads are readily available for just a few pounds. The only other slight drawback is that the two receivers would have to share the single Videocrypt smart-card. There are devices that allow two receivers to operate from one card, but the wiring would be quite complex, particularly if the two receivers were some distance apart. In any case the small-print in the BSKYB subscription agreement has been changed recently, to preclude their use, and they may not be available for very much longer, and may even have disappeared by the time you read this. By rights you should take out another subscription if you’ve got a second receiver but unless you tell them about it seems highly unlikely they’ll ever find out, and we won’t let on...

 

RADIO REMOTES

We’ve looked at the various ways of distributing the signals around the home, but there’s still the problem of remotely controlling the distant VCR or satellite receiver. In the case of integrated one-make multi-room systems that shouldn’t be a problem, but for those with AV and RF installations based around a hotchpotch of components, from various different manufacturers, this next batch of products might prove interesting.

 

A company called Radio Remote have developed a range of wireless remote control systems, that will allow you to control a satellite receiver or VCR from almost anywhere in the house, without wires. They’re based on the Fox universal remote control handsets which have been fitted with miniature radio transmitters, (that’s in addition to the existing infra-red emitter, so they still work as normal). The handset is programmed with a library of command codes covering a wide range of TVs, video and audio equipment, from most of the major manufacturers. The transmitted radio signals are picked up by a small receiver module, placed close to the equipment to be controlled. The receiver converts the radio signals into infra-red pulses that reproduce the commands needed to operate the relevant device. The range between the handset and the receiver is around 25 metres -- more than enough for most houses -- and it costs around £80.  For more details contact Radio Remote on (01903) 700714

 

POWERMID

Powermid is one of the easiest ways of  remotely controlling distant devices, but unlike the Radio Remote it relies on the equipment’s original handsets. Powermid consists of two wacky-looking black pyramid-shaped units. The transmitter is sited alongside the second TV, whilst the receiver is placed in line of sight of the devices you wish to control. The transmitter has an IR receptor which picks up commands beamed from the remote handset. These are converted into radio signals, they are picked up by the receiver which changes them back into infra-red pulses. Once again the range is in the order of 25 to 30 metres and it sells for around £50. Powermid is distributed by Celtel and they can reached on (01256) 64324.

 

POWERLINK

Powerlink is very similar to Powermid. It’s another two-piece system with the transmitter unit picking up infra-red remote commands from existing handsets. The signals are re-broadcast by radio to the receiver, which translates them back into infra-red pulses, beamed at the equipment to be controlled. It’s also compatible with Radio Remote handsets and it costs around £60. Radio Remote are on (01903) 700714.

 

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AERIAL DISTRIBUTION

There are basically two types of aerial splitter, passive ones which simply divide the signal from a TV aerial, (or the output from a VCR and satellite receiver) into two paths; and active splitters, or distribution amplifiers, which can have two or more outputs and boost the strength of the signals so they can be sent along longer cable runs. Passive splitters are generally quite cheap, usually costing between two to five pounds. Most of them are have an input plug, and two output sockets, they’re simple to install and there’s not a lot that can go wrong. The only points to be aware of are the length of the cables, especially if you live in a weak signal area, and it’s important to use a good quality, low-loss co-axial lead, to connect the splitter’s output to the second TV.  Make sure you use the right type of cable, it should be designed for the job and have a 75 ohm impedance; prices vary but expect to pay between 40 to 75 pence per metre.

 

Active splitters start at around £15 for basic one-in, two-out models. The internal amplifier is normally powered by a plug-in mains adaptor, or the power supply is built-in and everything is housed inside a plug-in module; they consume very little power and be safely left switched on all the time. Boosters with more than two outputs cost a little more, typically £18 plus for a three output design, and £20 to £30 for one with four outputs.  Splitters, boosters and coaxial cable are all widely available from TV and video dealers. The two leading companies in this market are Antiference and Maxview, they can be reached on (01296) 82511 and (01553) 810376 respectively.

 

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AV OR ‘HARD-WIRE’ DISTRIBUTION

Installing a hard-wire AV distribution system is not for the feint-hearted, and only really sensible if you’re absolutely committed to the best AV performance, with the equipment and bank-balance to match. Line-level stereo audio and composite video signals do not travel especially well, there’s a limit to how far they can go before noise and interference knock picture and sound quality on the head. There are no simple off-the-shelf solutions either, the longest SCART to SCART extension leads we’ve come across are only five metres long; you would need half a dozen or more for a simple living room to bedroom hook-up, moreover they look untidy are difficult to conceal, and we wouldn’t even want to guess what the picture and sound  would be like with that type of hook-up.

 

Cable runs need to be kept as short as possible and routed well away from potential sources of interference. Ideally the signals will sent via a distribution amplifier, and they’re not cheap. Multi-core screened cable is bulky and can be rather expensive, and it’s important to fit specially designed and correctly terminated wall sockets at each remote location. From that you may rightly conclude that it’s not really a DIY sort of job. However, there are plenty of companies willing to carry out this kind of work for you, but they should be chosen with great care. When phoning around for quotes always ask if they can provide references for at least one other similar installation, if they can’t, it suggests they might not have done this kind of work before -- you will be their first attempt -- so give them a miss. In the end, however, the cost of a hard-wire installation is difficulty to justify, simply to feed a second small screen set in the bedroom, it would almost certainly be far cheaper to buy a second satellite system or VCR.

 

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Ó R. Maybury 1995 1603

 


 

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