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ASTRA UPGRADE

 

INTRO

Are you stuck on Astra, or can your satellite receiver be used as part of a multi-satellite system? We've been looking at ways of upgrading three popular Astra tuners

 

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When you brought your present satellite receiver were you impressed by claims of 'future-proof' technology? Probably not, we've become pretty cynical lately, with good reason,  and there's quite a few people out there, stuck with decoderless, 16-channel satellite receivers to prove it. The once thing we can be sure of is a steady increase in the number of Astra channels and the writing is already on the wall for any receiver with less than 64 channels, but enlightened STV systems manufacturers dare not stop there, which is why most new receivers have a minimum of presettable 99 channels, even ones ostensibly designed for fixed-dish operation.

 

Such a large number of channels may seem irrelevant, even with the prospect of yet more Astra satellites but these days an increasing number of manufacturers have at least half an eye on upgradability and several now market compatible positioner units, for multi-satellite operation. A positioner is an electronic box of tricks that controls a motorised actuator arm, which tracks the dish along the Clarke Belt, along which all of the TV broadcast satellites are situated. The positioner has three jobs, first and foremost it must know precisely where the dish is at any given point on its travel; secondly it must be able to memorise the positions of all the satellites that can be 'seen' by the dish, and thirdly it should be able to interface with the receiver, so that selecting a channel number automatically steers the dish to the appropriate satellite.

 

PROBLEMS?

If you plan to upgrade be warned that a positioner box is only the beginning. In addition you will need an actuator arm and a suitable polar or horizon mount for your present dish, providing of course it has an unobstructed view of the Southern sky, if not it may be necessary to move it. In fact, if you've only got a bog-standard 60cm Astra dish you might as well replace that as well because most of the other satellites you'll be watching put out much weaker signals, and you'd do well to consider a dish at least 1-metre in diameter, though check local planning regulations first. You might as well replace the LNB too, whilst you're at it, if you're serious about multi-satellite operation you should use a dual or triple band type, that will enable you to pick up those elusive transmissions. Now we come to the big question, does your receiver need replacing?

 

This is beginning to sound like the story of the hundred year-old broom, who's head and handle have only been replaced half a dozen times... By now you're thinking it would be far easier to start from scratch with a motorised dish system, and you would probably be right, but  if your receiver is a comparatively recent IRD with plenty of life left in it might make more sense to go the upgrade route, especially if you're prepared to shop around for the necessary components. Positioner boxes sell from 100 upwards, depending on the make and model; an actuator and polar mount will add a further 60 or so to the bill, and a 1-metre dish and  LNB another 120, say. With all the bits and bobs, extra cable etc. that comes to around 300 to 350, a possible saving of several hundred pounds over the cost of a motorised dish system, some of which sell for well over 1,000, so you see, it can be worth the time and effort.

 

But where do you start? The first place is your receiver. Has it got enough spare channels to make the exercise worthwhile, and is there a compatible positioner? You might find the answer in the instruction book, otherwise contact your dealer. If  there isn't one don't give up just yet, it's not essential for the positioner to connect up to the receiver, it just means you'll have to press a couple of extra buttons on the positioner's own remote handset to manually select each satellite. The next, and by far the most crucial step is to check whether or not your present dish position is suitable, and this is where you might need professional help. The dish should have a clear view South; if it's 'looking' at Astra through a gap in adjoining houses then there's not much point motorising your present dish because all you will get is one or two extra satellites, if you're lucky. Assuming you have a suitable location you will need to make sure it can bear the extra weight of a larger dish, mount and actuator arm; now you can start looking around for the extra parts.

 

To help you on your way, and to show you just how easy or difficult it can be we've been trying out three systems that, amongst other things, are sold on the basis that they can be easily upgraded to multi-satellite operation. Here's what we found.

 

 

NOKIA SAT 1700 AND 262-5152 POSITIONER

The 5152 positioner has been designed specifically to work with Nokia's 5900-series of receivers, which includes the SAT's 1100, 1200, 1700, 2100 and 2200 models. It will not easily integrate with other systems and it can only control actuators with pulse or reed-relay feedback systems. The unit can store positional details of up to 40 satellites and it can be controlled either from the receiver, or by suitable IR handsets supplied with Nokia, Luxor and Salora TVs, though the last two brands have not been available in the UK for several years. A remote control handset is available as an optional extra.

 

The 5152 shares the same cabinet design as the SAT 1700 and its immediate predecessors; it connects to the host receiver by a single phono lead, which carries remote control data between the two units. Front-panel controls are hidden behind the central hinged flap, they comprise five buttons for East/West tracking, satellite position up/down, and memory. A three-digit front-panel display shows relative antenna position (000 to 999), satellite position plus various mode and status indications.

 

The installation and set-up routines are fairly convoluted, best carried out by an engineer unless you're reasonably confident or experienced in these matters. The antenna alignment procedures are reasonably straightforward but some of the programming routines are long-winded. Satellite position numbers will also have to be programmed into the receiver, so that selecting a channel automatically steers the dish to the correct satellite.

 

Once installed the 5152 behaves impeccably. Not, perhaps, the ideal system for enthusiasts or dedictated button-pushers, there's very little to play with, but definite appeal to Nokia SAT system owners, already hooked on fuss-free STV and looking for a painless way to expand their viewing choice,

 

FACT FILE

Address:  NOKIA CONSUMER ELECTRONICS  Bridgemead Close

Westmead, Swindon SN5 7YG

Tel: (0793) 644223

 

VERDICT

Build/styling                 8

Compatibility               9

Features                      7

Ease of use                  7

 

Buying Satellite rating   85%

Effortless channel expansion for Nokia owners

 

System: basic antenna control unit

Satellite memory: 40 positions

Full/partial remote: full with compatible receiver

Dimensions: 360 x 268 x 60mm

 

 

 

PACE PRD-900 AND MSP-991 POSITIONER

The MSP-991 is the companion positioner for Pace series 700,800, 900 receivers, though it will also work with 9000, 9200 and MRD920 receivers.  It can also operate as a stand-alone unit with other systems, and it comes with its own remote handset. The 991 will work with both of the most common types of actuator, i.e. those with  pulse (reed-relay) or photo-sensor feedback systems.

 

Cosmetically it follows the same theme of the 700/800/900 series, with the controls (four buttons for on/standby, mode, East and West) hidden behind a hinged flap. The front panel display comprises a three-digit readout showing dish position,  programme number (when used with 9000,9200 and MDR920 receivers) and status. Connection to a compatible receiver is via a SCART lead, which plugs into the 'decoder' socket,  there's a loop-through to a second SCART on the back of the positioner box, which can be used if the receiver's decoder socket is occupied.

 

Installation follows the usual routine of setting the East and West limits on the dish, then programming in the position of each satellite in turn. On 700/800 and 900 series receivers dish position is stored along with the channel number in the in the receiver's memory. It works the other way around on 9000/9200 and MDR920 receivers with the channel number and satellite position held in the 991's memory. In both cases the dish will track to a selected satellite, simply by pressing the appropriate channel number on the receiver's remote handset. There are a couple of provisos, some early 9000 and 9200 series receivers which cannot store more than 28 and 64 satellite positions, though that's unlikely to be a major problem for most users.

 

A smooth and sophisticated positioner, mainly of interest to Pace owners but versatile enough to operate with any other make or type of system, and capable of controlling a wide range of actuators.

 

FACT FILE

Address: PACE Victoria Road, Saltaire, Shipley BD18 3LF

Tel: (0274) 532000

 

VERDICT

Build/styling     9

Compatibility   9

Features           9

Ease of use      8

 

Buying Satellite rating  95%

Versatile multi-system design and a first choice for Pace owners

 

System:  multi-role antenna positioner

Satellite memory: 128

Full/partial remote: full, via SCART lead

Dimensions:  66 x 360 x 210mm

 

 

PALCOM SL-650IRD AND SL-650P POSITIONER

Skip this one unless you have Palcom 650 receiver, or plan to get one, because the SL-650P positioner will only work with that receiver. It's fairly obvious from the styling that they're a matched pair, and very smart they look too, discreet and businesslike. The two units connect together via an 8-pin DIN lead and the receiver's remote control handset operates both units. The positioner will work with most types of actuator, including those with the less common Hall-effect magnetic sensors, as well as reed-relay and opto-couplers.

 

Positioners are often an afterthought but in this case the receiver and positioner appear to have been designed to work together from the outset and function more like a single-box multi-satellite receiver. The high level of integration between these two units is illustrated by a complete lack of ifs, buts and maybes in the instructions, and facilities like 'autofocus' which corrects for any small positional errors. These can be  caused by slippage or unintentional movements of the dish or mount etc., the system monitors the signal strength of the selected channel, and adjusts dish position accordingly. Autofocus can be adjusted to compensate for satellites which are close together, or switched off altogether, if needed. Installation and set-up procedures are easy to follow, thanks to a very informative and simple to follow on-screen display system which includes dish position as just one more pre-settable parameter in the programming menu.

 

A smart and sophisticated system which trades versatility and cross-brand compatibility for total system integration. It's fairly expensive but it's the one and only choice if you have a Palcom 650IRD.

 

FACT FILE

Address:  STRONG, 3/16 Chelsea Garden Market,  Chelsea Harbour,

London SW10 OXE

Tel:  071-352 0600

 

VERDICT

Build/styling           9

Compatibility        10

Features                 9

Ease of use             8

 

Buying Satellite rating  98%

The only choice if you have a Palcom 650IRD

 

System:  dedicated positioner for the 650IRD receiver

Satellite memory: 50

Full/partial remote: full

Dimensions: 62 x 430 x 250mm

 

VERDICT

 

Build and styling

In all three cases the positioners are housed in matching cabinets, so as far as looks are concerned it's a matter of personal taste. The plain, simple and functional Palcom units will probably age better than the more contemporary-looking Pace and Nokia systems. Build quality is good on all three though the Pace and Palcom positioners use heavier-duty components and look, as well as feel more robust.

 

Features

The Pace and Nokia positioners share a similar set of features; the Pace unit has a larger memory capacity, though it's questionable whether there will ever be an need to store the positions of more than twenty or thirty satellites. The Palcom positioner's 'autofocus' facility could be worth having, especially when used with larger dishes in windy locations, which can be prone to positioning errors.

 

Ease of use

Once these systems have been correctly installed and programmed they're all extremely easy to use; moving the dish to a new satellite is no more complicated than selecting a channel number. When it comes to manually steering the dish the Pace and Palcom positioners offer marginally more scope for exploration as they can both be remotely controlled from their infra-red handsets

 

Value for money

Prices vary but a trawl through the advertisements in Buying Satellite puts the three positioners at between 100 and 160, with the Pace unit generally towards the lower end of the range, and the Palcom usually the dearest. The Palcom receiver is the the most expensive of the three and with its positioner comes closest to the cost of a purpose-designed multi-satellite receiver. 

 

Compatibility

As far as system compatibility goes the Palcom unit wins hands down. The Pace and Nokia units integrate easily with their companion receivers but they still feel a little like an afterthought.The Pace unit was the only one that could be easily used with other makes of receiver, the Nokia positioner could, at a pinch, but there's no chance with the Palcom unit.

 

TECHNICAL TIPS -- a brief guide to multi-satellite jargon

 

Actuator

Motorised servo mechanism with an extending arm that moves the dish on its polar mount.

 

Clarke Belt

Ring of  geosynchronous satellites encircling the Earth 36,000km above the equator, named after Arthur C. who first proposed the idea back in 1945. From the UK it appear as an arc, low in the Southern sky

 

Declination

The offset angle of a dish on a polar mount, in relation to its own horizontal plane. One of the parameters used to align a multi-satellite dish.

 

Dish limiting

Means of preventing the dish from travelling beyond pre-set limits at either end of its travel. Dish limits are set in software, ie by the positioner, and by mechanical switches on the actuator gearbox.

 

Feedback systems

The way the actuator tells the positioner where the dish is, along it's arc of travel. The three most common systems generate a stream of pulses as the actuator moves, either using a mechanical switch, reed-relay, 'Hall' effect sensor (both switched by a rotating magnet), or opto-coupler, whereby a roatating disc with holes around its edge interrupts a beam of light focused on a photosensor.

 

Horizon or Polar mount

Specially designed dish mounting system that tracks precisely across the Clarke Belt

 

 

---end---

R.Maybury 1993 2209

 


 

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