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FEATURE

 

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SATELLITE SYSTEMS

 

INTRO

If youíre considering buying a satellite television system then you canít afford to miss HEís down-home, no-sh*t, user friendly, back-to-basics buying guide

 

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Ten years ago, if anyone had suggested to you that it would be possible to pick up over a hundred television and radio channels on a dustbin-sized aerial, from a cluster of satellites orbiting 36,000 kilometres above the equator, you might just have believed them. Had they also predicted that complete satellite systems would be selling for less than £100, youíd probably have called for the men in white coats. Nevertheless, in less than a decade direct-to-home satellite television has evolved from a science-fiction fantasy into just another black-box technology.

 

Dishes on the sides of houses donít even get a second glance anymore and the urban blight of a million giant white mushrooms has become just another forgotten tabloid headline. Satellite TV evokes only marginally more interest than terrestrial television; the headlines it generates these days mostly concern the politics of sports programming, rather than the mind-boggling technology.

 

Thatís how it should be. Most people donít need, or want to know how it all works -- itís simply a means to an end -- but just because most dishes and satellite receivers look the same, it doesnít mean that they are. Huge variations in prices highlight important differences in performance and facilities. However, thereís more to buying a satellite receiver than comparing price tickets and features. Itís all too easy to get lumbered with a system thatís obsolete in a couple of years time, or incapable of coping with changes made to the rest of your TV, video and hi-fi equipment.

 

If youíre a first-timer then it might look a bit daunting. Relax, itís not as bad as it seems, itís mostly common-sense. Firstly, if youíre shopping around for a system treat anyone who utters the words Ďsatellite TVí and Ďfuture-proofí in the same breath with utmost suspicion. Secondly remember what your old mum used to say about never getting something for nothing, and third, for satellite TV substitute ĎPay TVí and you wonít be disappointed.

 

If you can live with all that, deal with forked-tongued salespersons and keep your wits about then satellite television has much on offer, to keep you amused entertained and informed. To help you on your way weíve broken the market down into four bite-sized chunks: budget give-aways,  mid-market systems, home cinema source components and surround-sound exotica. To keep things as simple as possible weíve confined ourselves to fixed dish systems for the Astra channels; next month we turn our attention to multi-satellite receivers and motorised dishes.  

 

SUPER CHEAPO SYSTEMS

You know what weíre going to say about deals that look to good to be true. They usually are, and you get what you pay for. Thatís certainly the case with those sub-£100 satellite systems you see splashed across the weekend papers. With very few exceptions these receivers are either very basic, or past their install-by date, and at the risk of yet another clichť, you might also end up with something you didnít bargain for. Thatís a compulsory installation fee, plus a yearís subscription to BSKYBís movie channels. Together they add up to more than £400 in the first year, just make sure you understand what youíre getting yourself into.

 

Minerva SAT 500, £99 (60cm dish) excluding compulsory BSKYB subscription and installation fee

This smart-looking receiver is actually made by Grundig in the UK. It was one of the first receivers to be designed specifically for this market segment, and is normally only sold through independent dealers. It has a few useful features, like the on-screen display, favourite channel memory, VCR timer and PIN-coded parental lock. Performance is satisfactory, but the 100-channel tuner is a limitation. Thatís barely enough to cover existing Astra TV and radio channels, let alone any new ones. The single SCART AV socket is a problem too, that will involve sacrificing picture and sound quality somewhere down the line.

Grundig Satellite Communications. Telephone (01443) 220220

 

Matsui RD-600, £99 (60cm dish) excluding compulsory BSKYB subscription and installation fee

The RD-600 is sold exclusively through Dixons and Comet stores, and it suffers from the same problems as most of its rivals, namely a tiny 100-channel tuner and single SCART AV socket, but performance is actually quite good, and itís able to deal with weaker stations or periods of poor reception. It has a fair sprinkling of the most useful convenience features as well, including an on-screen display, station naming, favourite channel memory, VCR timer and PIN-coded parental lock. Worth considering, providing you have no aspirations towards serious home cinema.

Dixons telephone 0171-499 3494

 

Pace Apollo, £99 (60cm dish) excluding compulsory BSKYB subscription and installation fee

Ironically one of the first sub £100 systems on the market was based around a discontinued badge-engineered Pace receiver. Now theyíve joined the fray, under their own name this time, with this unusually well-equipped cheapie. Itís arguably the best of the bunch with a 120-channel tuner, 4-event VCR timer and informative on-screen display, but the really good news is that it has three SCART AV sockets and Wegner Panda 1 noise reduction for quite passable stereo sound. The picture is okay too, though sensitivity is only average but if youíre tempted by this sort of deal this is the one to go for.

Pace Micro Technology, telephone (01274) 532000

 

MID-MARKET SYSTEMS

Strange as it may seem, paying a little more for a satellite system -- between £150 and £200 -- can actually save you money. Apart from anything else it wonít tie you down to a potentially unsuitable subscription package, you decide who does the installation, and you can choose a receiver with plenty of spare channels, so you wonít have to replace it in a year or twoís time. It will also buy extra convenience facilities, and usually better performance as well. Features to look out for include extra sockets, so you can more easily connect it to a stereo TV, VCR and hi-fi system, and maybe an extra dish or LNB, for multi-satellite operation.

 

Amstrad SRD700, £190 (60cm dish)

This is a replacement for the popular SRD540; in addition to improved facilities it looks a lot neater too, with a single covered card slot and stylish cosmetics. The tuner stores up to 300 channels, with a separate 30 favourite channel memory. The VCR timer is a bit over the top -- 6-events over a year -- and it has only two SCART sockets but thatís sufficient for a basic AV system. Thereís not much in the way of gadgets, it has a parental lock of sorts. Nonetheless, picture quality is quite good. Amstradís own noise reduction system works well too. Dull but capable.

Amstrad, telephone (01277) 228888

 

Grundig GRD 280, £200 (60cm dish)

Bearing a close family resemblance to Grundigís other mid-range receivers the distinguishing features on this model are the 280-channel memory, 30 favourite channels, 10 radio channels and 3-digit channel display. The VCR timer handles 4-events over a 28-day period, all functions are controlled from the on-screen display system and it has a secure parental lock. Itís well equipped for multi-satellite operation with twin LNB inputs, and thereís a full set of AV connectors, including 3 SCART sockets. Tuner sensitivity is fairly average but the picture is clean and well defined. Grundigís noise reduction system works well and the stereo soundtrack is reasonably crisp.

Grundig Satellite Communications, telephone (01443) 220220

 

Pace MSS100, £180 (60cm dish)

Clearly inspired by CD players and video games consoles, this makes a very welcome change from all the other boring black receiver boxes on the market. Inside the curvy grey case is a fairly routine receiver with a 250-channel tuner, that has eight categorised favourite channel selections. Thereís a VCR timer, PIN-activated parental lock, sleep timer and very informative on-screen displays. The card slot is around the side and thereís 3 SCART AV sockets on the back. No complaints about on screen performance, and the stereo sound is very smooth, thanks to an efficient noise reduction system. Worth considering if youíre looking for something a little bit different. 

 

HOME CINEMA-READY SYSTEMS

The requirements for a serious home cinema satellite system are relatively simple; it calls for top-notch picture and sound performance, plus a full set of AV connections with at least 3 SCART sockets, stereo line audio output and preferably two dish inputs. Several mid-range receivers have those basic qualifications but weíre on the lookout for any performance tweaks, extra features or innovations, that make the system easier to use, more flexible and better able to deal with future upgrades or developments. That tends to narrow the choice to a handful of advanced systems in the £200 to £300 price segment. These are they:

 

Grundig GRD300: £250 (inc. 60cm dish)

This is Grundigís latest flagship receiver, and once again the family resemblance is unmistakable. The most obvious external difference is a large centrally-mounted alphanumeric fluorescent display, that shows channel number and name. The tuner has a 300-channel memory with fast access to 30 favourite channels and 10 radio stations. Despite not having Panda noise reduction their own system works very well indeed; stereo sound is very clean with minimal background hiss. Picture quality is excellent, though sensitivity is nothing special, but with a properly aligned dish colours are pin-sharp and thereís very little noise.  

Grundig Satellite Communications, telephone (01443) 220220

 

Nokia SAT 1800 IRD £300 (60cm dish)

New Nokia receivers are few and far between but itís usually worth the wait. The SAT 1800 has several advanced features, including a Video Plus+ timer with PDC, that allows it to control a nearby VCR, using itís built-in multi-brand remote control system. This makes time-shifting satellite programmes as easy as terrestrial channels. The tuner stores up to 500 channels and theyíre organised into a favourite channel memory and three categorised programme listings (movies, news and sport). It has all the usual creature comforts, (parental lock, comprehensive on-screen displays, Wegner Panda 1 NR etc.), all the sockets youíre ever like to need plus the sharpest picture and clearest sound weíve heard in a long time. Brilliant!

Nokia, telephone (01793) 644223

 

Pace MSS 290, £230 (60cm dish)

This one is a real oddity, boasting a unique 3D sound system that creates a super wide soundstage on an ordinary stereo TV, or a close approximation of Dolby 3-Channel surround, if you wire up its rear channel output to a couple of active speakers, (or a stereo amp and speakers). Pace are touting it as a low-cost alternative to full surround, though by the time you add on the cost of the extra rear channel components there not a lot in it. Nevertheless it is a most agreeable receiver, that performs well. The spatial and 3D effects are fun and worth investigating if youíre not yet ready for full-blown Dolby. 

Pace Micro Technology, telephone (01274) 532000

 

DOLBY PRO-LOGIC SYSTEMS

Now that so many satellite channels broadcast movies and TV programmes with Dolby Surround soundtracks thereís a very good argument for having a Dolby Pro-Logic decoder built into a satellite receiver. Hook it up to a NICAM VCR and you can enjoy surround sound movies on tape, or broadcast by terrestrial channels as well. Oddly enough it hasnít caught on, there are still only two Dolby Pro-Logic satellite receivers on the market (three if you count clones). True, theyíre not quite as flexible as integrated mini systems, or as convenient as surround-sound TVs but it is definitely worth considering, especially if youíre on a tight budget, or trying to keep the box count down.

 

Pace MSS1000 £350 (60cm dish)

The first and still the best Pro-Logic satellite receiver. Itís the cheapest too, though donít forget to add on the cost of a decent pair of bookshelf speakers for the rear channel sounds (it has its own built-in amplifiers). This is a very well appointed design with 250-channel tuner, multi-layer favourite channel selections, Panda noise reduction, twin LNB inputs, two viewing card slots, a full compliment of SCART sockets plus really well thought out display and control systems. Itís all there, just about every gadget and widget youíre ever likely to want or need, plus superb picture quality and the added impact of a highly competent surround sound system.

Pace Micro Technology, telephone (01274) 532000

 

Hitachi 2070D £400 (60cm dish)

Straightforward clone of the Pace MSS1000.

 

Amstrad SRD2000, £380 (60cm dish)

Amstradís top Astra receiver is the only other model on the market with a built-in Dolby Pro-Logic decoder. Itís a well thought out design, and it looks the part with unusually stylish (for Amstrad) cosmetics. The feature list compares well with the Pace MSS1000; it has with 300 channels, informative front-panel display, two dish inputs, twin smart-card slots and four SCART sockets. No problems with on-screen performance either, pictures looks sharp and detailed, noise levels are below average. Surround-sound performance is fine, not quite as punchy as the Pace receiver, but hooked up to a good quality amp and speakers youíd hardly notice.

Amstrad, telephone (01277) 228888

 

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” R. Maybury 1996 0603

 

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