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FEATURE

 

BLUFFERS GUIDE TO DIGITAL SATELLITE

 

Digital satellite, what’s that all about?

 

It’s the bright, shiny new way of sending television pictures and sound through the ether, this time from satellites.

 

So what’s in it for me?

 

Nothing yet, but when BSKYB start their service next year, you will be able to buy an expensive receiver, and watch all your favourite channels

 

Is that it?

 

Well, picture quality should be a lot better, multiple audio channels are a distinct possibility, and reception will be less affected by bad weather, but the real benefits of satellite TV will take a while to appear.

 

What are they?

 

Digital transmission systems are a lot more efficient, so many more channels can be broadcast, using the same amount of frequency space, currently occupied by analogue channels. More channels means a greater choice, but the most intriguing possibilities are widescreen services, pay to view programming, interactive TV and VNOD.

 

VNOD, come again?

 

That stands for video nearly on demand. The idea is, movies will be transmitted on several channels at once, with the start times staggered, so you should never have to wait more than 15 minutes or so, to see it from the beginning.

 

Naturally the cost of subscriptions will go up?

 

That’s possible, though the optimistic view is you will only pay for what you watch, so it could -- in theory at least -- work out cheaper.

 

Will I need a load of extra boxes to get all this stuff?

 

Inevitably you will require extra hardware. In the early days it will be a separate set-top receiver/converter, that you can plug into your existing TV, though eventually all the necessary gubbins will be built into new TVs. Ideally there will be only one box, to decode both terrestrial and satellite digital transmissions, and the industry is working towards that goal, though we have to say it’s not looking too good at the moment. There’s some dispute over the conditional access and payment systems.

 

I don’t like the sound of that.

 

No, and nor does anyone else, so it’s in everyone’s interest to devise common standards. There’s various ideas about how payments will be made. One suggestion is for digital receivers to have a built-in telephone modem, that can dial up your bank account, and extract fees automatically. That kind of two-way communication facility opens up all sorts of other possibilities, like interactive video games and BSKYB are currently floating the idea of a digital decoder with Internet capabilities. Another brainwave is for digital satellite receivers to be able to send, as well as receiver data, via satellite, though that’s still some way off. 

 

How about the widescreen bit, that sounds more interesting?

 

One of the big advantages of digital broadcasting is the relatively straightforward upgrade path to widescreen display, and this could an early feature. Existing 4:3 receivers would be unaffected, the decoder box would automatically configure the picture to suit the TV.

 

Exactly how much is all this going to cost, and would I be able to use my existing dish?

 

We expect the first set-top decoders to cost around £500; any dearer and no-one would be interested. Prices should fall quite quickly though, once the economies of scale kick in. You will need a new dish, the new digital satellites are in a different orbital position.

 

What happens to my current analogue system, will I be forced to bin it?

 

No, at least not straight away. BSKYB have pledged to ‘dual illuminated’ all existing channels for several years to come. We reckon if everything goes according to plan, digital could start to have a real impact within five years, though you’ll still be able to use your existing system for a while longer. A lot depends on the serviceability of the current Astra satellite fleet, which will be reaching the end of their operational lives early into the next century.

 

2. GETTING STARTED

 

CAMCORDERS

There’s basically two types of camcorder: basic models, that are virtually guaranteed to end up gathering dust in the bottom of a wardrobe after a couple of months; and the rest. That’s not to say all cheap models are a waste of money -- there are some very good ones -- but the more basic the machine, the quicker the novelty wears off.

 

It’s a myth that some models are more difficult for beginners to use, than others. All camcorders, from the cheapest budget models to the most expensive semi-pro machines, have fully automatic focus and exposure systems. You simply point and shoot, and in most situations you will get a watchable picture. The point about buying a machine with a few more facilities, is firstly: that it will be able to cope with unusual or difficult conditions; and secondly, have more creative facilities, to make movie-making more fun, and your videos look more interesting.

 

Decide first how much you’re prepared to spend. The cheapest machines start at under £500, it is possible to find a well-specified camcorder for that amount, though it’s likely to be a discontinued model. There’s nothing wrong with that, but do make sure it not more than a year or two out of date, otherwise you could be missing out on performance and facilities. Most camcorders sell for between £500 and £700, they’re mostly ‘low-band’ models using the 8mm and VHS-C formats. Within that price bracket there are plenty of good machines to choose from, but if you want better picture quality you will have to start thinking in terms of spending between £750 and £1400. That’s what most Hi8 and S-VHS-C cost these days (though remember what we said about discontinued models). The picture is clearer and more detailed, moreover ‘second generation’ copies or edits made from your recordings will look a lot better.

 

Serious, semi-professional and the latest ‘digital’ camcorders cost upwards of £1500 to £3500. Within that price band there’s only a couple of machines that we’d recommend to first-timers, the obvious one being the JVC GR-D1, a feature packed DVC cutie, selling for £1800. It’s a brilliant little gadget, incredible picture and sound quality, but the price is a bit off-putting, and it might be worth waiting a while, for the cost of digital technology to settle down.

 

In the high-band sector there’s a very good assortment of models including the Canon UC9 Hi, (£800), Panasonic (NV-SX3, £750), and Sony CCD-TR810 (£900). They’re brimming with useful features and gadgets, that won’t leave you high and dry, when the going gets tough. Within that price band there’s a few high and low band models with built-in or fold-out LCD screens, so you can play back on the spot. It’s a fun idea if you want to see what you’ve just recorded, with a couple of friends, but it adds to the price, and often the bulk, moreover they tend to have fewer creative facilities than similarly-priced machines.

 

As far as low-band models are concerned, the new Canon UC200 and UC900 (both £650) are good value, The Sony CCD-TR510 is a most agreeable little machine, as is the JVC GR-HF700 (£700). Further down the scale there’s the Panasonic NV-RX1 (£550), and Canon UC2000, arguably the best budget machine on the market at only £500. 

 

Your shopping list should include items such as multiple programmed auto-exposure modes, for those tricky situations (manual exposure is even better); an edit terminal, or built-in editing facilities, so you can more easily chop out the wonky bits, a decent zoom (10 to 20X), but watch out for ‘digital’ zooms, that reduce image quality. Image stabilisers are good at reducing camera shake, especially the ‘optical’ types, and machines with the latest, longer-lasting  nickel metal hydride or lithium ion batteries require fewer pit-stops. 

 

3. YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED

 

BRINGING UP THE REAR

Dave Singleton, Penzance

JVC AX-V6 AV amplifier, Hitachi C2846TN TV, JPW Gold speakers

 

Having spend the best part of a grand on my system I’m becoming increasingly frustrated trying to get it to sound right. The big problem is finding the best positions for the front and rear speakers. Is there an ideal layout, or should I just fit them with castors?

 

Clearly there can be no hard and fast rules, there’s simply too many variables, from the size and shape of the room, the furnishings and your own preferences. There are a few basic guidelines though, that might help you out. Try to arrange the rear-channel speakers so they’re at, or better-still, a foot or two above ear level, to the sides or maybe slightly behind the listening position; don’t put them immediately behind you though, as this can sound odd. Ideally you shouldn’t be able to tell where the rear channel is coming from; the aim is to bath you in sound, creating an ambience, rather than solidly located sounds. It’s worth experimenting with the delay setting on the AV amp, to lock the soundfield to your seating position, and eliminate any echoes, which will make it appear as though sounds are coming from behind you.

 

The front speakers should be equidistant from the TV screen; most people settle for between two and three feet. If they’re too widely spaced the sounds can become detached from what’s happening on the screen, though it will enhance bold stereo effects. Too close and the soundfield will collapse, and effects will loose drama.

 

HARD LINES

Sam Marks, Keswick

Toshiba 2512DB TV, JVC HR-S7000 VCR, Aiwa NSX-AV90 DPL mini hi-fi

 

I’m confused by the mention of ‘lines’ when you talk about picture quality on VCRs. Your reviews say my Super VHS video recorder can replay recordings with 400-lines, the TV picture has 625 lines, but I read somewhere the average TV can only resolve 350 lines, so what’s going on?

 

It’s a common query and the use of the word lines can be misleading but it goes something like this. A PAL TV signal is composed of 625 ‘picture’ or horizontal scanning lines. In fact only 575 of them are used to create the image you see, the rest  -- not visible on the screen -- are blank or carry stuff like teletext data and other signals used by broadcasters, but that needn’t concern us at the moment. 

 

When we talk about resolution -- on a TV or VCR -- we’re describing how much information there is in the picture, in other words, how much fine detail a system can handle. When we test video equipment we use electronically generated test patterns, to measure resolution. They consist of a series of calibrated graticules with ‘lines’ of varying spacing. They look a bit like the fine teeth on a comb, you can see them on engineering test cards. When we say a VCR can resolve 400 lines, that indicates the system can accurately reproduce or display a horizontal pattern of up to 400 fine vertical lines, across the width of the screen. In practice few domestic TVs can resolve that much detail outside of the central portion of the screen, they tend to merge together at the edges, 320 to 350 is a good working average.

 

BACK TO BASSICS

Simon Teller, Basingstoke

Yamaha DSP-E580, JPW speakers, Mitsubishi CT25A5, Pioneer CLD-D515 LD player

 

I spend most of my time watching sci-fi movies, and I find the bass from my system deeply unmoving. The obvious thing to seems to be to add a sub woofer, but which one?  Should I go for an active type, or are would a passive sub do the trick?

 

A sub-woofer will provide you with the satisfying ‘rumble’ you crave but your system would probably not be able to do justice to a passive (unpowered) sub-woofer, apart from anything else finding a good match can be difficult, and in he end it’s doubtful it would make all that much difference. There’s plenty of excellent  powered sub-woofers on the market, and the final selection really depends on how much you’re prepared to spend, though as a word of caution, there is a point of diminishing returns. Simply opting for the biggest, most powerful (and expensive) models, without consideration to the rest of your system,  may not be the best solution.

 

Current favourites, at the ‘budget’ end of the market include the Yamaha YST-SW150 at £280, and the REL Q-Bass, which costs around £350. Moving up the price scale a little there’s the excellent Boston Acoustics VR500 costing £400, Mission 75AS selling for £550, and the REL Strata, for £500. If your pockets are a little deeper then consider the REL Stadium for £1000. You might even like to think about using two subs, to distribute the sound more evenly, and really make you think a Starship is about to land on your roof!

 

OLDIES BUT GOODIES

Mike Sealey, Brighton

Hitachi CPT 2528 TV, JVC HR-D750, early Amstrad satellite receiver

 

I’m saddled with a lot of old gear, though I have to say it all works well, and I’m loath to part with any of it. My Hitachi telly has stereo sound, but not NICAM, so I use the VCR.  Unfortunately the TV and VCR both only have one SCART socket each, so I have to use aerial connections for the satellite receiver and suffer mono sound. Any ideas, apart from buying a new TV?

 

You could just upgrade the satellite receiver, it sounds as though it’s due for retirement. Most new models -- apart from those budget-deal cheapies -- now have three SCART sockets. One connects the satellite box to the TV, and another is used to daisy-chain the VCR. This will also enable it to record from the satellite receiver, and you can continue to use the VCR as your NICAM source. This arrangement will auto-route the active source to the TV, which should automatically switch to its external input.

 

A cheaper, though less convenient alternative would be a two or three-into-one SCART switcher box. They’re widely available from video dealers and companies like Maplin, for under a tenner. Most of them have manual switching, which is a bit of a nuisance, as it means you have to get up out of your comfy chair, every time you want to change from VCR to satellite. However, there’s at least one automatic SCART switcher available, and news of a new low-cost type, coming onto the market this month, from Philex. The TASC-2 will in the shops shortly, selling for around £25.00.

 

A WIDE CHOICE?

Ian Laurence, Biggin Hill

Toshiba V705 VCR, Kenwood KA-V7700 DPL amp JBL Control 1c speakers

 

If I huff and puff I reckon I can get around £2500 together, to spend on a widescreen TV. I’ve got the room for a relatively large screen -- up to 36-inches say -- I don’t think I’ll be needing any fancy facilities,  just a good picture. Any suggestions.

 

It’s all very well slapping in a big widescreen TV, but be aware there’s not a lot to watch on it at the moment. There’s a few broadcast letterboxed movies, and some on tape,  that the TV can expand to fill the widescreen display, but the quality is very variable. LaserDisc is a better bet, though personally we’d wait until early next year, to see what’s happening with DVD, before getting too deeply involved.

 

When you see a 4:3 picture on a widescreen set, it can look rather small, so it might be better to go for a really large 4:3 TV. A letterboxed picture will actually come out larger than one shown on most 16:9 sets (the largest ones are all 32-inchers) and you get the added impact of big 4:3 picture. The Ferguson T94N and Grundig ST-95-775 both have 37-inch screens are well within your price range. If you must have a widescreen TV, then shortlist the  Philips 32W963, Mitsubishi CT-32BW1B and Toshiba 32W6DB, though on all of them you’ll be getting a few extras, like on-board DPL, that you won’t necessarily have much use for.

 

---end---

Ó R. Maybury 1996 0609

 

 

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