SATELLITE TV FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Q. I’m interested in getting a satellite system, mainly for
watching sports and movies, what sort do I need, and how much will I have to
A. Pretty well all of the channels you would be interested
in are available from the Astra satellites. There’s four of them at the moment,
broadcasting around 64 TV channels. They’re all in the same orbital position,
so you can pick them up with a single fixed dish. If you live in the South it
needs to be a 60cm type, if you live North of Birmingham, say, you will probably
need a larger 80cm dish. When you come to buy your system make sure it’s
compatible with all of the Astra satellites, the most recent one -- Astra 1D --
operates on a different frequency band to the other three. Most of the channels
you’ll be watching are encrypted, or scrambled, using a system called
Videocrypt. Almost all receivers nowadays have the necessary decoder built-in. Virtually
all channels now have stereo soundtracks, to get the best sound the receiver
needs to have a stereo sound system.
As far as prices are concerned, they start at just under
£100 for the system -- that’s the dish and receiver -- but the really cheap
deals usually have hidden costs, which may include paying for the system to be
installed by a contractor chosen by the retailer, and signing up to a year’s
subscription with BSkyB. If you want a
little more flexibility then expect to pay at least £150 for the dish and
receiver, installation can cost as little as £35 depending on the amount of
work involved, and basic subscription packages start from just under £10 a
Q. How does the subscription system work?
A. Although most channels are encrypted a few are still free
to view. However, if you want to watch any of the BSkyB channels, (with the
exception of Sky News), you’re going to have to pay for the privilege. Once you’ve
signed up, BSkyB will send you a viewing card, though some dealers can issue
you with one, when you buy your system. The card contains a microcomputer which
is used to unscramble the signal; how many channels you can watch will depend
on which subscription package you’ve chosen. Once you’ve got a card you can increase
the number of channels you receive simply by phoning the subscriber centre,
they send signals, over the satellite link, to upgrade the card, this normally
only takes a few minutes.
Q. There’s a cable system in my area, is this any better or
cheaper than satellite?
A. Because cable involves a fixed-link between you and the
cable company they’re able to offer a number of additional services, including cable
telephone in some areas, and things like interactive TV, teleshopping and home
banking, plus a whole lot more in the future. Some cable systems offer a wider
range of channels, including local stations that are unavailable on satellite. Generally
speaking, though, satellite is cheaper to run, and ironically the quality --
particularly sound -- may be a lot better than that available from some cable systems.
In some parts of the country, particularly rural areas, it’s the only option if
you want multi-channel TV.
Q. I’ve heard that digital TV is coming, should I wait to
buy a satellite system?
A. There’s little doubt that TV will be going digital in a
big way, and trial satellite broadcasts are already underway, but it will take between
five and ten years before the technology is established, during which time
existing services will continue, possibly well into the next century. If you
want a satellite TV system buy one, they’re unlikely to get much cheaper.
Provided you take anything you hear about ‘future-proof’ technology with a bucket-full
of salt you won’t be too disappointed.
Q. What is multi-satellite TV all about, and do I need it?
A. At the moment broadcasts from around thirty TV satellites
are receivable from the UK. If you could see them they would be strung out in a
long arc or ‘belt’ in the Southern sky, stretching from the eastern horizon to
the west. The Astra satellites are located at 19 degrees east of due south; either side of them are other European
satellites, broadcasting several dozen TV channels that may be of interest to
you, especially if you speak another language. You can pick up channels from
Japan, the middle East, the Indian sub-continent and Eastern Europe. They carry
a wide variety of programming, including news, movie, general entertainment,
and dare we say, even pornography.
There are three ways to receive these channels. The first
involves physically moving the dish, using a motorised positioner, that tracks
along the belt. This will give you the greatest coverage, providing the dish
has a clear, unobstructed view of the sky. Motorised systems start at around
£500. If you’re only interested in specific channels from one other satellite
simply install a second dish. The third alternative is to retain your existing
dish, and fit it with a bracket that holds additional LNBs. They’re slightly
offset from the centre of the dish, so that they pick up signals from satellites
either side of Astra. You can also get a widget that moves the LNB across the
face of the dish. This kind of set-up will add between £100 to £200 to the cost
of a basic Astra system. In both cases coverage is limited to just a few extra satellites,
but they tend to be the most interesting ones. Ideally you should also have a
receiver that is programmed to receive these broadcasts (many are nowadays) and
preferably a larger dish as some of these satellites transmit at lower power
Whether or not these channels are worth watching is another
matter. Take a look at the listings in one of the specialist satellite
magazines to see what’s on offer, and bear in mind that some of them are
scrambled so it may be very difficult to obtain the necessary decoder and
viewing cards outside the country of their origin.
Q. How can I hear the stereo sound from satellite TV
channels if I’ve only got a mono TV?
A. All stereo satellite receivers have stereo line-outputs,
that you can connect to the auxiliary input on your hi-fi system. Place the speakers a foot or two either side
of the TV screen.
Q. Can I record satellite TV programmes, and is it possible
to tape one channel whilst watching another, like terrestrial TV?
A. Yes and no. You can record satellite broadcasts by
connecting your receiver to the VCR using the multi-pin SCART connectors on the
back of both boxes, suitable leads are available from video dealers for around
£5.00. If you want to make a time-shifted recording just set your VCR in the
usual way, you will also need to set the timer on your satellite tuner as well,
if it has one. Some older models do not, in which case you’ll have to leave it
switched on and tuned to the appropriate channel. Some VCRs now have built-in
satellite receiver controllers, that can do all that for you, and a few even
have Video Plus+ programming facilities.
As far as watching one satellite channel whilst recording
another is concerned, it can’t be done as there’s only one STV tuner in the system,
though one model (Amstrad SRX-360) has twin tuners. You can of course record a
STV channel and watch a terrestrial broadcast at the same time, or vice-versa.
Q. Is it possible to get surround-sound from satellite TV
A. Yes, Dolby Surround signals contained in movie soundtracks
are transmitted with the normal stereo sound, but you will need to have a
decoder somewhere in the system, either in the satellite receiver itself, within
your hi-fi system or built into the TV. Incidentally, quite a few satellite
channels now transmit teletext information, which you can see on your TV,
assuming it has a decoder.
Q. Will movies be transmitted in widescreen, is it worth
buying a new TV?
A. No, not yet. This
is one of the many promised benefits of digital TV, but there are still a lot
of technical and political arguments to be resolved; in any case equipment is
not widely available and it will be a while before UK broadcasters begin
Q. What’s the minimum specification for a decent home cinema
A. Obviously it
needs to have stereo sound though virtually all receivers have it these days. Satellite
broadcasts can get quite hissy so noise reduction is essential, the best system
is Wegner-Panda 1 NR, look for the little Panda logo on the front panel.
Interconnections can get complicated, so make sure any receiver you buy has at
least three SCART sockets on the back panel, plus stereo audio line output.
There’s growing interest in multi-satellite operation, so it’s useful to have
two dish inputs. An increasing number of channels are being scrambled, mostly
using the Videocrypt system, and some broadcasters issue their own viewing cards,
so it’s a good idea to get a receiver with two smart-card slots, to save you
having to keep swapping them over.
BUDGET ASTRA SYSTEMS
Goodmans ST700 £150 (currently on special offer at
Cambridge ARD-200 £150 (now discontinued, look for
MID-RANGE FIXED DISH SYSTEMS
Grundig GRD-150 £200
Nokia Sat-1700 Mk II £300
HOME CINEMA SYSTEMS
Amstrad SRD-2000 £380
(built-in Dolby Pro-Logic decoder)
Pace MSS-1000 £400 (built-in Dolby Pro-Logic
Echostar LT-8700 £1500
Manhattan 9900 £900
R. Maybury 1995 3006