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FEATURE

 

SATELLITE FOR BEGINNERS

 

INTRO

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.

 

COPY

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 white.

 

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

 

INTRO

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 television audience.

 

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 money...  

 

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.

Pace, telephone  (01274) 532000

 

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.

Pace, telephone  (01274) 532000

 

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.

Pace, telephone  (01274) 532000

 

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 considering. 

Nokia, telephone (01793) 556000

 

SET-UP SIMPLIFIED

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 begin.

 

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...

 

FAQS

Q. Whatís the bottom line on prices, how much does it all cost?

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 happen?

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 broadcasts?

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 metal arm).

 

Q. Do I still have to pay for a TV licence if I only watch satellite channels?

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. 

 

 

---end---

” R. Maybury 1996 2606

 

 

 

 

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