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SATELLITE RECEIVERS

 

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SATELLITE SYSTEM SUPERTEST

 

INTRO

Still undecided about satellite TV? Rick Maybury looks at six systems, costing from less than £100 to £300

 

COPY

Itís still amazing to think that we can watch hundreds of television channels, beamed from satellites orbiting 36,000 kilometres above the equator, using a receiver and a dish antenna no larger than a dustbin lid, that together cost no more than good night out. Okay, so you donít need a dish the size of Jodderel Bank anymore, but to the uninitiated it can seem as though you need a degree in astrophysics to buy and use a satellite system.

 

It helped to be a bit of an anorak in the early days, but itís long since  evolved into just another black-box technology; in fact the only thing you need to learn nowadays is how to decipher those densely-packed channel guides. Nevertheless, if youíre about to buy your first system it pays to keep your wits about you, like any other mass-market consumer product or service, there are pitfalls to be avoided and no shortage of charlatans or dodgy deals.

 

In order to receive satellite television you need two things, a dish or some other kind of satellite antenna, and a receiver box that plugs into your TV and/or VCR. The dish bit is easy, normally it comes with the receiver, and it will usually be installed for you. Itís not really a DIY job, it can be done but quite frankly itís not worth the effort, or risk. In any case it doesnít cost a lot, typically £30 to £60, it might even be part of the deal -- itís always worth haggling. Choosing the receiver is not so simple, and there are a few basic ground rules to observe. Avoid end of line or discontinued stocks, theyíre cheap because theyíre obsolete. Satellite TV technology moves at a frightening pace, so be warned that even if you buy the latest top-of-the-line design you can bet it will need upgrading or replacing in five years time.

 

You need channels, and lots of them. Donít buy a receiver with fewer than 200 channels, unless youíre only interested in the basic BSkyB channel packages. It sounds a lot but 200 channels are barely enough to cope with the existing TV and radio channels, let alone any new ones, or channels from other satellites. Make sure any dish and receiver you buy is compatible with Astra 1D, and it must have a built-in Videocrypt decoder. Thereís still a few old or second-hand receivers kicking around that need an external decoder, which is fine, except theyíre not made anymore... 

 

Satellite sound can be quite hissy so some kind of noise reduction system is needed. The best sort is the Panda 1 system devised by the Wegner Corporation; licensed products are instantly recognisable by a panda logo on the front panel. Some proprietary systems are also worth considering, but thereís no easy way to tell which they are, other than by listening to a few demonstrations, and studying the reviews.

 

Finally plugs and sockets; again, the more the merrier. In particular look for two and preferably three SCART AV connectors, so you can easily integrate the receiver with your VCR, TV and hi-fi. Two dish inputs are well worth having, so you can upgrade to multi-satellite operation, if you get hooked. To help you on your way hereís six representative systems, that should give you a fair idea of what to look for, and what to avoid.

 

REVIEWS

 

AMSTRAD SRD-700

In the early days Amstrad used to be a byword for satellite TV and they had the receiver business pretty much to themselves, but in the past few years their market share has been eroded. Now theyíre fighting back, but is the SRD-700 too little, too late?

 

The SRD-700 will win no prizes for good looks, Amstrad have played it safe with a traditional black-box design, in fact the only cosmetic frill is a split fascia, a hark back to Pace receivers a year or two back. The covered single card slot is a good idea though, especially if thereís kids around, and it has a parental lock, of sorts, that disables selected channels, but it only works if you hide remote control handset.

 

It has 300 factory-tuned channels, with 30 of them set aside for favourite stations. The VCR timer can be programmed for 6 events up to year ahead, and thereís a simple on-screen display system, for fiddling around with the receivers tuner and timer facilities, but it can be quite difficult to read the text if itís against a bright background. 

 

The back panel connections are best described as adequate. It has only two SCART sockets, a stereo line audio output and one LNB input, which is fine providing you donít want to progress much beyond the Astra channels. 

 

Picture performance is satisfactory during normal signal conditions but the receiver isnít particularly sensitive and depending on the location, it can struggle to get a clear picture on some of the weaker channels, or when thereís a reduction in signal strength, during bad weather for example. It doesnít have Panda noise reduction but Amstradís own system isnít too bad; thereís some hiss but itís not too intrusive.

 

Thereís nothing intrinsically wrong with the SRD-700, but itís not sufficiently well appointed, nor does it perform well enough to stand out against the crowd.

 

DATA STREAM

Price                 £190 (inc. 60cm dish)

Features           300-channel tuner, 30-favourite channel memory, 16 audio modes, 6-event/365-day VCR timer, parental lockout, LNB tone switching

Sockets            2 x AV in/out (SCART), 2 stereo line-audio output (phono), 1 dish input (F-connector), RF/aerial bypass (coax)

 

Pros:    Itís solidly built and quite easy to use and thereís not enough gadgets and frills to scare technophobes

Cons:    So few facilities means itís not very flexible, and multi-satellite operation will be limited as thereís only one dish input

 

HC Rating         80%

Telephone: Amstrad, (01277) 228888

 

BRITISH TELECOM SVS 250

Until the middle of last year BT satellite systems were made in the UK by Cambridge Industries but since they pulled out of the receiver market theyíve been putting their badge on Chinese-made equipment. There are three models, the SVS-300 is their current mid-ranger, targeted at the home cinema market.

 

It has almost all of the basic qualifications, though the 199-channel tuner could be a limitation for some users. The tunerís other facilities have been generally well thought out though, with the first 99 channels allocated to present and future Astra broadcasts; thereís a 40 favourite channel memory, and it has a VCR timer that can record 8 programmes up to 31 days ahead. Individual channels can be disabled, to prevent the kids watching things they shouldnít, though thereís no lock as such, and itís secure for only as long as the remote handset remains hidden.

 

Talking of which... The button box that comes with this receiver is a bit unusual. It has really long buttons, some rather strange bulges on the underside, and the infra-red emitter looks as though itís been tacked on as an afterthought.

 

Virtually everything is controlled from the receiverís multi-lingual on-screen display; itís not particularly easy to navigate, and it pays to keep the instruction book handy, in case you get lost, or do something unfortunate to one of the settings. It covers a lot of ground, though, delving deeply into the receiverís extensive tuning, picture and sound control functions. They include a scan facility -- useful for multi-satellite operation -- brightness, video invert, channel naming and 15 pre-set audio modes.

 

Sensitivity is fair to middling with just a few sparklies on weaker channels and it can cope with all but the worst weather conditions. This is another non-Panda receiver, so there is some background hiss, but itís not enough to write it off as a home cinema component. BT have played it fairly safe by keeping close to the old Cambridge specification, it works well enough, and the price is realistic.

 

DATA STREAM

Price                 £200 (inc. 60cm dish)

Features           199 channels, 40 favourite channel memory, 8-event/28-day VCR timer, channel scan, channel lock, LNB tone switching, video invert

Sockets            3 x AV in/out (SCART), 1 dish input (F-connector), stereo line audio output (phono), composite video out, baseband video out (phonos), RF aerial bypass (coax)

 

Pros:    not significantly different from its predecessor, easy to use, reasonable performance, and value for money

Cons:    a rather bland design, the remote handset is awkward and the on-screen display needs to be driven with care

 

HC Rating         83%

Telephone:        BT 0171-492 2000

 

 

GRUNDIG GRD300

Since their take-over of Gooding Satellite last year Grundig satellite receivers are now designed and built in their own UK factory, in Wales. The GRD300 was one of the first new models to emerge late last year, replacing the deservedly popular GRD250.

 

Itís not radically different from its predecessor, even the front-panel layout is broadly similar, with a single covered card slot on the left side of the fascia, plus a large alphanumeric display panel in the middle. In common with most receivers these days, it has 3 SCART AV sockets, and itís one of a growing number of mid-market designs to have two dish inputs. That, coupled with a 300-channel tuner gives it a good multi-satellite capability, thereís also 30 TV and 10 radio favourite channel selection system, secure PIN operated parental lock and 8-event/30-day VCR timer. 

 

So far so good, but it comes a bit unstuck with the poorly-designed remote control handset, that operates all of the receiverís main functions via an on-screen display. The main problem concerns the legibility of the labelling of the tiny close-set buttons, which consists of purple lettering on a grey background.  Itís a radical change from the remotes supplied with previous models, which were distinctive and easy to use.

 

On paper the specifications look quite impressive but we found the actual performance of our sample to be only average.  Impulse noise spikes or Ďsparkliesí are visible on weaker stations, and they quickly increase as signal conditions deteriorate. Grundigís own noise reduction system works very well though, almost as good as some Panda-equipped receivers weíve heard.

 

In many respects the GRD250, which the GRD300 is replacing, was a better receiver. Some improvements are worthwhile though, such as the increased channel capacity and the vastly more informative front-panel display, which also shows the channel name, but the remote handset is a step backwards, and itís hard to spot any significant improvements in performance..

 

DATA STREAM

Price                 £250 (inc. 60cm dish)

Features           300-channel tuner, 30 TV & 10 favourite radio channel memory, 8-event/30-day VCR timer, index channel location, auto screen blanking, LNB tone switching

Sockets            3 x AV in/out (SCART) 2 dish inputs (F-connector), stereo line audio output (phono), RF aerial bypass (coax)

 

Pros: Smart-sophisticated receiver with multi-satellite leanings, a capable performer

Cons: not as good as the GRD-250, a truly horrible remote control handset that makes the receiver harder to use than it deserves

 

HC Rating         85%

Telephone Grundig (01443) 220220

 

MINERVA SAT 5000

The Minerva SAT 5000 is one of a number of satellite systems selling for the headline price of £99. However, all is not as it seems, this receiver, which is made by Grundig and sold through independent dealers -- and those like it -- are only available at that price if you sign up for a yearís subscription to BSkyBís full movie channel package, and pay an installation fee of £40. That little lot adds up to over £400 in the first year.

 

It looks quite smart though, certainly no worse than most other receivers on the market. There are no front panel displays to speak of, just a couple of LED indicators. However, the biggest disappointment is the lack of channels, there are only 100 to play with, just enough to cover the most popular radio and TV Astra broadcasts but woefully inadequate for anything else, let alone multi-satellite viewing. Itís of limited use as a home cinema component with only one SCART AV socket; it will almost certainly mean sacrificing picture and sound quality if you want to make recordings of satellite programmes.  

 

Itís not completely devoid of features though, there is a 10 favourite channel memory and a useful PIN-operated parental lock. Surprisingly it also has an on-screen display, which gives access to the tuning and set-up functions, which includes channel idents and 23 audio modes (13 preset, 10 user-definable).

 

To be fair picture quality is quite reasonable, sensitivity is good and noise levels are a little below average. Needless to say noise reduction is quite basic and background hiss is evident but itís unlikely to be a problem, unless the receiver used with a decent hi-fi or stereo TV. You get what you pay for, in this case a very basic Astra receiver, but donít forget to take into account the Ďhiddení costs.

 

DATA STREAM

Price                 £100, includes 60cm dish but not the cost of compulsory BSkyB subscription and mandatory installation

Features           100 channel tuner, 20 favourite channel memory, 23 audio modes (13 preset, 10 user-definable), 2-event/28-day VCR timer, PIN-coded parental lock, LNB tone switching

Sockets            1 x AV in/out (SCART), 2 stereo line audio output (phono), 1 dish input (F-connector), RF/aerial bypass (coax)

 

Pros:    picture quality isnít too bad, and it is very easy to use

Cons:    far too basic for serious home cinema or multi-satellite applications, and watch the cost of the hidden extras

 

HC Rating         75%

Telephone Grundig (01443) 220220

 

NOKIA SAT 1800 IRD

Itís a testament to the sound design of the Nokia SAT 1700 system, which first appeared three years ago, that it has taken so long for them to get around to replacing it, with the SAT 1800 IRD; it has been well worth the wait!

 

Itís a real stonker, and the first satellite receiver to have a Video Plus+ timer, with VCR control. Itís a brilliant idea. Just punch in the Pluscode of the programme you want to record on the SAT 1800ís remote handset, and it does the rest. At the designated time it switches itself on, selects the right channel, then, using its own infra-red remote controller, turns on the VCR and sets it to make the recording. It works with most makes and types of VCR, and itís easily programmed using a simple 2-digit code.

 

Thereís more. It has a massive 500 channel memory, that can be organised into three category lists; theyíre factory-set for movies, news and sports channels, but they can be easily changed to any other subjects. In addition thereís an 18 favourite channel memory, three SCART AV sockets, twin LNB inputs, PDC (programme delivery control) and provision for a motorised dish, the list just goes on and on.

 

A menu-driven on-screen display controls all of the receivers many and varied functions, and it comes with a well-designed remote handset, that for once has large, clearly-labelled buttons.

 

Itís not all window-dressing though, it works really well too. Sensitivity is very good and it copes easily with periods of reduced signal level. Normally noisy channels look clean and colours are sharp and well-defined. Sound performance is above average  too, with Panda noise reduction system taking good care of the background hiss. Itís a tad dearer than most mid-market receivers, but considering the extra facilities itís well worth extra.

 

DATA STREAM

Price                 £300 (inc. 60cm dish)

Features           500 channel tuner 3 x 9-channel category lists, 18 favourite channel memory, 8-event/31-day Video Plus+ VCR timer with PDC, PIN operated parental lock, 32 audio modes (20 preset, 12 user programmable), LNB tone switching

Sockets            3 x AV in/out (SCART), 2 dish inputs (F-connector), stereo line audio output, LNB switching, VCR control (phono),  magnetic polarisers and IR link (spring terminals), RF aerial bypass (coax)

 

Pros:    An outstanding design, both in terms of performance and facilities, with some genuinely innovative features. Without doubt one of the best mid-market receivers to date

Cons:    Maybe a little over-qualified for basic Astra-watching, and some of the more advanced facilities need a little patience

 

HC Rating         95%

Telephone:        Nokia (01793) 644223

 

PACE MSS300

The Pace MSS300 has been around for a while -- since late 1994 in fact -- but it can still show a lot of more recent receiver designs a clean pair of heels when it comes to features and performance.

 

It certainly looks the part, a smooth front panel, clean flowing lines with a large, centrally mounted alphanumeric display. Thereís only one smart-card slot, itís protected against little fingers by a hinged cover, and it has a PIN coded parental lock to keep older kids out of harmís way.

 

The tuner has a 250-channel memory; favourite selections can be programmed into any of 8 category lists. In addition to a more or less conventional VCR timer it has a sleep timer as well, which switches the receiver off after a pre-set period. It has all the necessary connections for home cinema operation, plus twin dish inputs, so itís well equipped for multi-satellite work.

 

A couple of features have been handed down from Paceís top-end receivers, like the sound shape system, which is basically a tone control -- handy for sorting out the sound on some overseas channels --  though oddly enough very few satellite receivers have them. The other one is the busy front panel display, that shows channel number, name, status and mode information. It has an on-screen display as well, and very good it is too, intuitive and easy to use, with helpful prompts as and when necessary.

 

Picture performance is superb, the tuner is very sensitive and thereís always plenty in reserve when conditions deteriorate. The audio specifications are most impressive, in addition to the tone control thereís a very effective Panda noise reduction system that all but eliminates annoying background hiss. Itís getting on a bit now and doubtless Pace have plans to replace it so but it can still cut the mustard.  

 

DATA STREAM

Price     £270, (inc. 60cm dish)

Features           250-channel memory, 8-event/31-day VCR timer, 8-category favourite channel memories, PIN-coded parental lock, sound-shape (tone) control, sleep timer

Sockets            3 x AV in/out (SCART), line audio output (phono), 2 dish inputs (F-connector), RF aerial bypass (coax)

 

Pros:    A thoroughly competent, highly flexible design thatís equally at home as a home cinema component, or multi-satellite viewer

Cons:    Nothing really, maybe just a little pricey

 

HC Rating         90%

Telephone:        Pace (01274) 532000

 

SUMMARY 500

Itís clear from our tests that there are only relatively small differences in picture quality between the best and worst receivers in this roundup, provided theyíre fed with good clean signal. This underlines the importance of competent installation. Differences quickly become apparent when the signal level drops -- during a heavy rainstorm for instance -- and on weaker stations, thatís when the better designed receivers justify their extra cost. However, the main reason for spending a little more on a system is the increased flexibility, and better sound. The number of channels is very important, but so too is the operating system and remote control,  receivers that are difficult to use can be a real pain.

 

Weíve given sound quality a high priority, and in particular background noise levels. Thatís important if you want to get the full benefit from the stereo soundtracks that most satellite channels have nowadays. A lot of them, especially the movie channels carry recent films that have Dolby Surround, so itís well worth considering connecting the receiver to a hi-fi or TV with a Pro-Logic decoder, but excessive noise will spoil the effect and may result in inferior surround-sound performance. You might not be considering buying a surround sound system right now but things change, five years ago you probably thought youíd never be able to afford satellite TV...  Having the right sockets are vitally important; you will need a receiver with at least two SCART AV connectors, if you want to watch and record the best quality pictures and sound.

 

Two of the six receivers in this roundup stand out head and shoulders above the others.  Theyíre the Nokia SAT 1800 IRD and Pace MSS300. Theyíre both accomplished all-rounders, that will give a good account of themselves in a home cinema system, or scanning the skies with motorised dish or dual LNBs. The SAT 1800 gains extra brownie points for its 500-channel tuner and Video Plus+ timer; itís a genuine innovation, that weíre sure other manufacturers will emulate.

 

BTís SVS300 is a neat little package, performance is fine, itís a good price too. The Grundig GRD-300 would have fared a lot better but for the slightly higher price and awkward remote control handset. Amstradís SRD700 is a bit ordinary, it works reasonably well but it lacks any killer features, donít dismiss it completely though, especially if youíre on a very tight budget. Sadly the Minerva SAT500 is a non-runner, and the headline price is very misleading. True, you will end up paying for installation and subscription charges on all of the others, but at least you can shop around for quotes, and choose which channels you want to watch, moreover all of the other receivers have the necessary number of  sockets to enable them to work comfortably in a home cinema system, and the capacity to handle the growing number of channels available now, and over the next few years.

 

 

BOX COPY 1

BUYING TIPS

 

* Picture and sound quality ultimately depends on the performance and accuracy of alignment of the dish. Make sure itís properly installed, preferably by a company recognised by the CAI (Confederation of Aerial Industries)

 

* Any receiver you buy will need at least two SCART AV sockets, unless youíre prepared to compromise on AV performance

 

* Satellite sound is inherently noisy, some receivers are better able to deal with it than others, the Wegner Panda 1 system is still the best, look out for the Panda logo on the front panel of any receiver youíre interested in, or ask for a demonstration

 

* Satellite TV technology is advancing at a fantastic rate so donít believe everything you hear about receivers being Ďfuture proofí, thereís no such thing; expect to have to buy new equipment at least every five years

 

* Most so-called convenience features are a waste of space but a couple are worth having, like twin dish input, and smart-card slots, just in case you catch the bug...

 

BOX COPY 2

JARGON BUSTER

 

ASTRA

A series of TV broadcasting satellites owned and operated by Luxembourg-based consortium. Currently there are five Astra satellites, co-located at 19.2 degrees East of South, between them transmitting almost 80 TV channels and several hundred sound-only Ďradioí channels.

 

AV

Audio-visual, a blanket term used to describe the coming together of previously separate television and hi-fi technologies, into unified home-entertainment systems

 

CONDITIONAL ACCESS

Something youíll be hearing a lot more of in the future, with the coming of digital TV. Conditional access is the technique whereby a broadcaster can control who watches their programmes, and how they pay for it...

 

D2MAC

Multiplexed Analogue Component; hybrid digital and analogue transmission system used by a number of European satellites, designed initially to overcome the noise and interference problems of satellite broadcasting, now used primarily for widescreen transmissions. Specialised D2MAC receivers are required in order to pick up these signals

 

DIGITAL

Satellite transmission system whereby picture and sound information is sent as numerical data. Digital signals make far more efficient use of broadcasting capacity, leading to more channels. Digital TV also provides a simple upgrade path for future windscreen and high-definition broadcasts, theyíre less prone to interference, and more difficult to unscramble, making it easier for broadcasters to charge for their services

 

DISH

Satellite antenna, normally a parabolic reflector that collects the incredibly weak signals from orbiting satellite. The curvature of the dish acts like a concave mirror and concentrates the signal to a single focal point, where it is collected and amplified (see LNB), before being sent by cable to the set-top receiver.

 

DOWNLEAD

The cable that connects the dish to the receiver, it carries both the signals and a DC power supply for the LNB

 

LNB

Low Noise Block-converter. The small widget stuck out in front of a satellite dish. Its job is to first amplify the microwave satellite signals reflected back from the dish, then to convert them to a lower, more manageable frequency, before theyíre sent by cable to the receiver. The performance of the LNB, usually expressed by its Ďnoise figureí, has a major impact on picture and sound quality

 

SCART (aka Euroconnector and Peritel)

Syndicat des Constructeurs d'Appareils Radio Recepteurs et

Televiseurs. Standardised 21-pin plug and socket system carrying picture, sound and control signals, utilised on most AV components sold within the EC, including TVs, VCRs and satellite receivers

 

SMART CARD

Credit-card sized plastic card with an embedded microchip, containing information needed to unscramble or authorise pay-to-view satellite and television channels

 

VIDEOCRYPT

Encryption or scrambling system used by a number of European satellite broadcasters, including the BSkyB. In order to make the picture unviewable each TV line is chopped up into pieces which are then rearranged. A receiver with a built in Videocrypt decoder and valid smart card is needed to unscramble the picture

 

BOX COPY 3

TABLE

 

Make/model

Price ££s

Chans

Audio

Sockets

Timer

Score

Amstrad SRD 700

190

300/30

16/G

2/1

6/365

80%

BT SVS 250

200

199/40

15/G

3/1

8/31

83%

Grundig GRD 300

250

300/30

15/G

3/2

8/30

85%

Minerva SAT5000

100 ex

100/20

23/G

1/1

2/28

75%

Nokia Sat 1800

300

500/18

32/P

3/2

8/31

95%

Pace MSS300

270

250/40

23/P

3/2

8/31

90%

 

Glossary: Price -- inclusive of 60cm dish, ex --excludes mandatory subscription and installation charges; Chans -- no. of channels/favourite channel memory; Audio -- audio presets/noise reduction system (P = Panda, G = generic/own system); Sockets SCART/LNB; Timer -- events/days

 

---end---

R.Maybury 1995 2812

 

 

 

 

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