SATELLITE FOR BEGINNERS
Face it, the only way youíre going to get to see live
Premiere League, a whole load of recent movies, more kids programmes than you
can shake a stick at, plus a few quite watchable TV series, is to bite the
bullet, and go get a satellite system.
If youíve been putting off buying a satellite system until
now, either because theyíre expensive, or too much like hard work, then now is
a good time to take a look at what youíll be missing. Satellite systems have
never been so cheap or well featured; in most cases installation takes only an
hour or two and this Autumn another eight new channels are going on the air,
joining the score or more English-language channels already up and running. If
thatís not enough, then thereís another forty or so foreign channels, which
might be of interest if youíre multi-lingual, want to stay in touch with the
old country, or simply see how the rest of the world keep their whiteís looking
Satellite TV isnít the only way of increasing your channel
choice. If you live in a cable TV area then itís well worth checking out what
they have to offer. In addition to the BSKYB and terrestrial stations thereís
usually a few extra channels, that you canít get from satellite. A growing
number of cable companies offer additional facilities, like a cheaper telephone
service, and interactive services, like home banking and shopping. Thereís a
couple of points to watch out for though. Cable TV is usually a little dearer
than a comparable satellite package, and sound quality varies from area to
area. In some places itís as good as terrestrial TV and satellite, in others
you might end up with mono, or hissy stereo on some channels. Bear that in mind
if youíre interested in home cinema.
One of the best excuses for satellite television is the
abundance of TV programmes and movies with Dolby Surround soundtracks. Youíll
need a Dolby Pro Logic decoder somewhere in your AV system -- theyíre fitted
inside TVs, VCRs, satellite receivers audio separates and mini hi-fi systems --
and up to five speakers dotted around the living room, but itís well worth the
effort; you can also use it to enjoy surround sound movies on tape and
terrestrial TV, and you wonít want to
go back to nasty, thin mono TV sound ever again...
Satellite TV got off to a rather shaky start in the early
nineties and it has had a bumpy ride in the past few years. Whatever your
feelings about the rights and wrongs of cross-media ownership, access to major
sporting events and the ethics of pay-to-view television, the fact is satellite
television is now an integral part of the British television scene; itís not
going to go away, so you may as well enjoy it. The only real decision you need
to make is which system to buy? Thatís where we come in, weíve identified the
five basic types of receiver and picked out what we consider to be the best
buys in each category. Youíll wonder how you ever managed without it...
TOP FIVE SYSTEMS
Free satellite systems? Itís not as far-fetched as it
sounds, there have been suggestions that in the not too distant future
satellite receivers and dishes could be given away as part of a subscription
package. Itís no secret that BSKYB have been subsidising the cost of budget
systems, moreover, the economies of scale are pushing down manufacturing costs
all the time, and the broadcasters are keen to increase their slice of the
Needless to say thereís a catch with any low-cost (or
free...) system deal. Most of them are pretty basic and largely unsuitable for
home cinema use. You will be locked into paying a premium subscription rate for
at least a year, and youíll have to cough up for the installation fee.
If you want to retain some flexibility then you should
reckon on paying at least £150 for a system, £200 is nearer the mark, and that
will buy you a half-decent receiver, that can be used as an AV source
component. If you can afford to spend a little more -- £250 say -- then youíll get better
performance, more convenience features, plus some multi-satellite facilities.
Top-end receivers, costing from £300 upwards, tend to be geared towards
multi-satellite reception, a couple of them also have advanced audio
facilities, including Dolby Pro-Logic surround-sound decoders. You pays your
SUB £100 CHEAPIES
Pace Prima, £99 (inc. 60cm dish but excluding installation
and BSKYB subscription)
The biggest concern with cheap receivers is a lack of AV
socketry. Only one -- now discontinued
-- had a full set of three SCARTs, all current models have just one, so you
canít easily get stereo sound on a TV, and record satellite channels in stereo
as well. However, if thatís not a problem then the best of the bunch right now
is the new Pace Prima, which has a good assortment of features, including
Wegner Panda 1 noise reduction, favourite channel memory, VCR timer and
informative on screen displays. Donít forget to add on the cost of a compulsory
yearís subscription and installation.
MID-RANGE, SUB £200
Grundig GRD280, £199.99
The GRD280 is a competent all-rounder thatís well suited to
modest home cinema set-ups. The styling is clean and uncluttered, it has a 300
channel memory with favourite channel selection, three SCART sockets,
4-event/30 day VCR timer plus a simple on-screen display. Twin dish inputs come
in handy for simple multi-satellite operation, from a single fixed dish;
thereís a secure PIN operate parental lock and a large front panel channel
display. It has a proprietary noise reduction system, which works quite well.
Picture quality is generally very good and the newly designed remote handset
makes it a lot easier to use.
Grundig, telephone (01443) 220220
BEST ASTRA SYSTEM
Pace MSS-290, £230
If you canít run to a full-blown surround sound system the
MSS290 offers an interesting alternative. It creates a variety of unusually
deep spatial effects using just a single pair of speakers, either on a stereo
TV, or by connecting it to a hi-fi system (or active speakers). Even without
the audio processor it would still be worth considering; it has a 250 channel
memory with 8 categorised favourite channel selections, Panda 1 noise reduction
and a full set of SCART sockets. Picture and sound performance are both better
than average, and itís good value at just £230.
BEST SURROUND SOUND SYSTEM
Pace MSS1000/1, £379.99
Although others have produced satellite receivers with
built-in Dolby Pro-Logic decoders -- most notably Amstrad, with their SRD2000
-- Pace have made this niche in the market their own. The MSS1000 is an elegant
solution to reducing the box count in a surround-sound system. It has itís own
built-in amplifiers for the front and rear-channel speakers, and itís
well-equipped for multi-satellite operation. DPL performance is a little
lightweight, and the back channel could do with a little more power, but the
sound is crisp and detailed. The picture looks good too, clean and well defined
with better than average sensitivity. Recommended.
BEST MULTI SATELLITE SYSTEM
Nokia SAT 1800, £300
This receivers multi-satellite credentials are almost
overshadowed by the impressive array of convenience features, that includes a
Video Plus+ timer, which can control the recording functions on a wide range of
VCRs. However, the categorised 500 channel memory, sensitive tuner, twin LNB
inputs, extensive tuning and polariser control functions, plus an interface for
a motorised dish positioner, means its ideally suited to scanning the skies for
obscure channels. Itís no mean Astra performer and a top-notch home cinema
component, with a sparkling picture and smooth sound with minimal background
hiss, thanks to Panda 1 noise reduction. Itís good value too, well worth
Nokia, telephone (01793) 556000
Thereís the right way to do it, and the way most people end
up doing it... Setting up a satellite system takes only a few minutes, but weíd
guess that less than half of the satellite receivers in use in this country are
connected to a TV and VCR by SCART AV leads.
Most people simply canít wait to get hold of the proper
cables and end up taking the easy way out, daisy-chaining the satellite
receiver in with the aerial lead. Despite their best intentions most never get
around to sorting it out. The quick and simple solution gets a picture on the
screen, but at some cost. AV performance is not as good, you wonít get stereo
sound from satellite channels on the TV (assuming itís a stereo model), and you
wonít be able to tape satellite programmes in stereo. Moreover, you will almost certainly suffer
interference problems later in the year, when Channel 5 test transmissions
Using a set of SCART leads will give you the best possible
picture and sound, the VCR records in stereo from the satellite receiver, and
your TVís auto-switching functions will mean having to press fewer buttons.
Thereís a few ifs and buts, and if your satellite receiver has got only one
SCART socket, or youíve a really old TV or VCR, that doesnít have a SCART
connector, then skip the next bit. It doesnít matter if your TV or VCR are mono
models, itís still worth using SCART connections, and itíll make life easier
when you come to upgrade.
The ideal installation is a stereo TV, stereo VCR and
mid-range satellite receiver. You will need
two type ĎUí or ĎVí (21 or 9-pin) SCART-to-SCART leads. The first one
goes from the AV input socket on the television to the AV output SCART on the
satellite tuner; itís normally marked ĎTVí. The second one goes between the
ĎVCRí socket on the satellite receiver, to the AV in/out socket on the back of
the VCR. The aerial lead has to go to the TV via the VCR -- so it can record
terrestrial channels -- but it can
safely bypass the satellite box.
The TV will automatically select ĎAVí or Ďexternalí input
whenever the satellite receiver or VCR is switched on (or a tape is played in
some cases). To record from the satellite receiver the VCR normally has to be
set to Ďextí, sometimes itís channel 0, on others thereís a separate switch.
To incorporate the satellite receiver and VCR into a home
cinema surround-sound system, you will need to connect the stereo line-audio
output sockets on both devices to the appropriate input sockets on the AV
amplifier or decoder.
If you want to get really clever and watch satellite
television in another room, then youíve got several options. The simplest
method is to run a coaxial lead from the aerial (RF) output on the satellite
receiver, to the room concerned. Youíll probably want to be able to change
channel from the other room. Thereís several gadgets on the market, to do just
that. Theyíre called Ďremote sendersí most of them consist of two small boxes,
the first one is a transmitter, it sits alongside the second TV and picks up
the infra red signals from the satellite receiverís remote control. It beams
this information -- by FM radio -- back to a receiver module, placed close to
the satellite receiver. The radio signals are converted back into IR commands,
that control the receiver.
Whilst this kind of arrangement works well enough, the sound
will be mono, and -- depending on the length of the cable run -- the picture
could be quite noisy. The ideal solution would be a complete AV distribution
system, but weíre talking serious money now, and a custom installation could
easily set you back several thousand pounds. If you canít run to that, and
youíre only interested in watching satellite TV in other rooms then it will
actually work out cheaper, and picture and sound quality will be better, if you
install a second satellite receiver. Thereís no need for another dish, two
receivers can share one. The only slight disadvantage having one viewing card
between two receivers, you could always take out another subscription...
Q. Whatís the bottom line on prices, how much does it all
A. Most receivers and dishes cost between £120 and £500, you
can reckon on another £50 or so for installation, and after that thereís the
subscriptions. A few channels are still free to view, but if you want to see
any of the popular movie, sports or entertainment channels, youíre going to
have to pay Mr Murdoch for the privilege. Subscriptions for the BSKYB channels
cost from £10 to around £26 a month. There are also number of Ďadultí channels,
subs cost between £50 to £100 a year. Watch out for those Ď£99í satellite
system deals, theyíre not as cheap as they seem; you will have to commit to at
least a yearís subscription to BSKYBís full channel package.
Q. What is a viewing card?
These days most satellite channels are scrambled, the
majority of them with the Videocrypt system, Satellite receivers sold in this
country have a slot for a viewing card, also known as a Ďsmart cardí. This
contains a microcomputer, programmed with the information needed to unscramble
encrypted transmissions. You can add to the number of channels you receive with
a simple telephone call to the subscription centre. They will then update your
card, over the satellite link. It only take a few minutes. They can also cut
you off just as quickly, if you forget to pay...
Q. How easy is it to have a dish installed, will I need to
get planning permission?
A. Probably not, unless your home is a listed building, or
there are local restrictions. The best way to find out is to get in touch with
an aerial installation firm, preferably one who is a member of the CAI
(Confederation of Aerial Industries), and they will be able to let you know if
there are any particular difficulties associated with your property.
Q. I understand cable may be coming to my area in the next
year or two. Is it any cheaper than satellite, should I wait?
A. If you want to watch the satellite channels now then why
wait? Cable has some advantages, thereís good choice of channels, including
some you canít get from satellite. You will also get the terrestrial channels,
handy of youíre living in a poor reception area. Cable provides a fixed link,
and you may be offered telephone and home shopping services as well. However,
it can work out more expensive, and satellite sound quality is often better.
Q. What about digital satellite TV, when is that going to
A. Quite soon, maybe within the next year or so. Initially
it will be used to carry the same channels already available, however, the
beauty of digital is the greatly increased capacity, that eventually will be
used for a much broader choice of channels and services. Thatís still to come,
wait for it to settle down, it will probably be quite expensive to begin with,
and thereís still some uncertainty about integration and compatibility with
terrestrial digital TV.
Q. How about widescreen?
A. Thatís coming too, and widescreen TVs are already in the
shops but unless youíre extra keen, or a real home cinema buff, it might be a
good idea to wait for digital TV to sort itself out.
Q. How good is satellite sound, are there any surround-sound
A. Itís not too bad at all, somewhere between FM radio and
good quality audio cassette, but make sure any receiver you buy has efficient
noise reduction, preferably using Wegner Panda 1 circuitry. Dolby Surround
signals pass cleanly through the system. After tape satellite TV is the most
abundant source of movies and programmes with Dolby Surround soundtracks.
Q. How can I record satellite programmes in stereo?
A. Simple, just connect your stereo VCR to the satellite
receiver via a SCART-to-SCART AV lead.
Q. What is a motorised dish, and will I need one?
A. A motorised dish can track across the satellite belt and
pick up a lot more channels. For best results the dish need to be quite large
-- 1 metre across at least -- and you
will need a suitable location, with a clear view of the Southern sky. However,
most of the English language channels are on the Astra, Hot Bird and Eutelsat
satellites, and you can pick them up on a single small fixed dish fitted with a
motorised LNB or dual LNBs (the widgets stuck out in front of the dish on a
Q. Do I still have to pay for a TV licence if I only watch
A. Yes, nice try though...
THE FUTURE OF SATELLITE
Few consumer technologies have advanced so far, so quickly.
Developments in satellite television show no signs of slowing down, in fact
changes now underway will render the current generation of receivers obsolete
early in next century.
Thereís no need to worry just yet though, you can buy a
satellite system right now, and be sure of getting a few years use out of it.
All of the existing channels will continue for the foreseeable future and new
ones are coming along all the time. Granada are launching seven new channels
this Autumn, and several more pencilled in for the next eighteen months.
The Granada channels are due to go on air on October 1st,
they will be encrypted but are be included in the price of BSKYBís basic Multi
Channel subscription package (currently £10 per month). The flagship channel,
and the one that has received the most publicity is Granada Plus. This will be
carried on Astra 1A and will be mostly made up of archive material of classic
shows, including Coronation Street, from the first episode. The other six
channels will feature mainly original new programming. Granada Talk TV, also on
1A, will feature the top names in the talk show business, including David
Frost, Brian Walden and Melvin Bragg. Viewers will have a chance to
participate, via video phone booths, set up around the country. Granada Men and
Motors is a late night channel devoted to two and four wheeled automotive
pursuits with tests and reviews and sports coverage. Other topics to be covered
are menís grooming and there will be a sports panel game. The remaining three
channels, to be broadcast from Astra 1B, come under the heading Granada Good
Life. There will be sequenced daily strands called High Street, Health and
Beauty, Food and Wine and Homes and Gardens.
However, the writing is on the wall for analogue satellite
television and the future is digital. Itís not going to happen overnight, but
satellites are being launched and receivers could be in the shops this time
next year. In the short term digital television means a lot more channels, so
many in fact that it will be possible for broadcasters to develop so-called
video nearly on demand (VNOD) services. The same movie will be transmitted
simultaneously on several channels, with the start times staggered, so
subscribers never have to wait more than a few minutes to see the beginning.
Digital transmissions are a lot more robust than analogue
signals used at the moment, so there should be a noticeable improvement in
picture quality. The extra capacity will enable broadcasters to transmit
several high quality soundtracks on each video channel, for multi-channel
surround-sound systems like AC-3 and MPEG audio.
Interactive services are another possibility and the next
generation of Astra satellites will be equipped to handle two-way traffic, so
that viewers will be able to send, as well as receive data. This opens up an
enormous range of possibilities, including things like teleshopping and home
banking, interactive video games, true video on demand, where the viewer could
select a particular movie from a vast library, and provide access to on-line
information retrieval systems, like the Internet.
Widescreen and high definition television (HDTV) are two
more developments that will benefit from digital broadcasting. Most attempts at
widescreen TV have largely floundered on the cramped capacity of analogue
transmission systems, resulting in quality compromises and incompatibility with
existing televisions. Thatís not a problem with digitally formatted signals,
where receivers can be designed to handle a variety of display formats.
Analogue HDTV has also been hindered by the limitations of existing narrow-band
transmission systems, and terrestrial HDTV is impractical. Thatís not a problem
with digitally formatted signals, the extra information can be easily
accommodated in the data stream, and receivers will be able to reconstruct the
picture to suit the size and shape of the screen, and upgrading from one format
to another will not be a problem for consumers.
R. Maybury 1996 2606