HOME ENTERTAINMENT 96

 BootLog.co.uk

HomeSoftwareArchiveTop TipsGlossaryOther Stuff

FEATURE

 

HOW TO BUY..SURROUND SOUND TVs

 

WHY YOU WANT ONE...

Every few years TV technology takes a big leap forward. It happened with the changeover from 405 to 625 lines, from black and white to colour, and mono to NICAM stereo. Itís happening again, with surround sound, but unless youíve actually heard it, it can be difficult to see what all the fuss is about, but consider this; virtually all movies on tape, most recent movies shown on terrestrial and satellite TV, plus a growing number of TV programmes now have Dolby Surround soundtracks.

 

They contain a lot of extra information, mixed in with the normal stereo soundtracks, that is used to literally bathe the viewer in a sea of sound, coming from all directions, recreating the cinema experience. Surround sound is an extremely powerful tool, thatís used to deliver and dramatically enhance special effects, focus the viewerís attention and help create an atmosphere. The point is, if youíre watching a mono, or even a stereo TV, youíre missing out on a significant part of what the director or producer wants you to hear. Itís a bit like watching a Technicolor movie in black and white.

 

WHAT YOU NEED...

Nowadays thereís plenty of ways of retrieving this information, but the simplest, and most convenient method is still a TV, with all the necessary surround-sound decoding circuitry and multi-channel amplifiers built-in. Thereís now a good selection of TVs with Dolby Pro Logic decoders, with screen sizes from just 21-inches, to 37-inches and more, costing from £600 upwards, but which one is right for you, and where do you start looking? 

 

The first bit is easy. Choose the largest screen you can afford, and fit comfortably into your living room. To work out optimum screen size simply multiply normal viewing distance in feet by four, to give you a screen size in inches. So, if you sit 7 feet from the screen, a 28-inch TV should be about right. You really must try and see, listen and compare as many different models in your size/price range as possible. Specialist dealers are usually a lot more helpful and knowledgeable than the high-street box-shifters, though some of them are making the effort, and one or two now have quite reasonable demonstration facilities.

 

Listening and comparing different models is vitally important, there are some quite dramatic differences. The big problem for a lot of people is the two or three satellite speakers needed for surround sound. Itís possible to create some quite interesting spatial effects using just two speakers, but the bottom line is, you need those extra speakers behind or to the side of the viewing position, to get the full effect.

 

Award extra points to DPL TVs with external front speakers connections -- most TV speakers are crap -- and check the amplifier power ratings. A weedy rear channel can completely spoil the impact of big set-piece effects. If you havenít already got one, you will also need a NICAM VCR, and a satellite receiver, to give you the biggest range of source material. 

 

SHOPPING TIPS

 

* Listen and compare carefully before you buy, preferably in a room-like setting

* Picture quality is important, but truth to tell, thereís not a huge amount of difference between surround sound TVs from the top half dozen manufacturers

* Size does matter, get the biggest screen you can afford and accommodate

* Think about where youíre going to put the rear speakers, and the cables, make sure theyíre long enough

* Avoid getting hung up on slick gadgetry and widgets, that donít have anything to do with picture or sound quality, or ease of use

 

BEST BUYS

Hitachi C2848TN, 28-inches, £850 -- excellent value, a very good picture, a big rich sound and some neat design points, including optional cordless infra-red rear-channel speakers

 

Mitsubishi CT28AV1BDS, 28-inches, £900 -- itís packed with goodies, including a built-in Astra satellite receiver. Surround sound performance is very good, the picture is very clean moreover itís very easy to set-up and use

 

Philips 29828C, 28-inches, £1000, -- confounding the rumour that all DPL TVs have underpowered rear channel speakers, this one has a lively, commanding presence, with a pin-sharp picture to boot

 

WIDESCREEN TVs

 

WHY YOU WANT ONE...

Itís official, one day all TVs will have 16:9 widescreen displays, but whatís the point of buying one now? Good question, at the moment thereís only a few hours each week of widescreen transmissions from C4, and thatís using a system (PALplus) that other UK broadcasters have shown no interest in. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of letterboxed movies and programmes, on tape and broadcast, that look better when shown on a widescreen TV. Some 4:3 TV programmes look better when expanded to fill a widescreen display, some models with Ďpanoramaí display modes manage to minimise or avoid cropping the top and bottom of the picture. A growing number of camcorders have a widescreen recording mode too, that squashes the picture vertically. It returns to itís correct proportions when shown in the Ďzoomí or stretch mode on a 16:9 TV

 

Itís the format of the not too distant future, and next year, when digital satellite transmissions begin, those with widescreen TVs will be ready and able to take advantage of it, as soon as set-top decoder boxes become available. Performance and  specifications are improving all the time, prices are coming down too, to the point where some 16:9 TVs cost only a little more than similarly-sized models with conventional 4:3 screens.

 

WHAT YOU NEED...

Think very carefully about screen size. Smaller 16:9 screens -- less than 28-inches -- lack impact. Bear in mind that the image area of a 4:3 picture, shown on a 28-inch widescreen TV, is only slightly larger than the picture on a normal 21-inch TV. Make sure youíve got the room for one of these sets, they weigh a lot more than an ordinary TV too, though the large back-projection (37-inches and above) models are very compact.

 

The more display modes you have, the better; just make sure theyíre easy to change as you may want to switch quickly. Itís also useful to be able to shift a 4:3 picture in widescreen up and down, to see captions, or avoid cropping the tops of peoples heads. Sets with panorama viewing modes should definitely be on your shortlist. These stretch the edges of 4:3 pictures, to fill the screen width, but the centre portion of the image -- where your attention is focused, and most of the action takes place -- retains itís correct proportions.

 

Larger screen sets benefit from 100Hz or flicker-free displays, though models, with a lot of digital video processing circuitry have trouble with fast movement, which can look jerky. When youíre comparing models try to watch some fast-action -- live sports events are ideal -- and see how it copes. All widescreen sets have NICAM but only about half of them have Dolby Pro Logic. Bear that in mind when youíre working out your budget; spectacular widescreen pictures fall flat without surround-sound.

 

If the set of your choice includes a PALplus decoder, so much the better, but avoid paying too much extra for it. The system has an uncertain future, and itís unlikely any other channels will ever be using it. 

 

SHOPPING TIPS

 

* Think big! Titchy 16:9 sets are only good for the bedroom, or playing video games

* Make sure you have enough room, theyíre big buggers! Take a tape measure with you

* Ignore any sales pitch about digital upgradability. Itís all cobblerís, no decisions have yet been taken. All TVs, 4:3 and 16:9 will be compatible with digital set-top decoders, as and when they become available

* Try to watch some fast sports when youíre looking at sets, check for jerky movement      

* Surround sound is not that common on 16:9 sets, so think about making other arrangements

 

BEST BUYS

JVC AV-28WKX1EK, 28-inches, £1000 -- a good-looking set, better than average picture quality and itís got JVCís 3D phonic sound system. Thatís worth having if  you absolutely cannot run to a full multi-speaker Pro Logic system

 

Sony KL-37HW1, 37-inches, £3800 -- the one to go for if space is at a premium but you want the big picture. This compact 37-inch LCD back projector takes up less room than most 26-inch 4:3 TVs

 

Thomson 81DXC69DLU, 32-inches, £1400 -- combining a great-looking picture with better than average sound, thanks to its chunky speakers. Itís excellent value for money too. Bonus features include Dolby Pro Logic sound and sharp styling

 

BIG SCREEN NICAM TVs

 

WHY YOU WANT ONE...

You would have to be mad, or deaf in one ear, to buy a mono TV these days, but a lot of people are still wary of trading up to a big screen NICAM television. Thereís no need. In the past five years price differentials between the most popular screen sizes have been all but eroded, to the point where the cheapest 28-inch models cost only £100 or so more than some 21-inch sets. A larger display makes a tremendous difference to viewing enjoyment; movies in particular benefit from the big screen treatment, and if youíve got any interest at all in the idea of home cinema nothing less than 28 inches will do.

 

Stereo sound and a large screen are only part of the story though. As displays have got bigger, so manufacturers have had to concentrate more on improving picture quality. Defects become more obvious, and flicker can be a problem, hence the move towards greater use of digital video processing circuitry. This helps reduce noise levels, producing cleaner, sharper images. Thereís been a lot of work on picture tubes too, to improve brightness and contrast in strong ambient light. Moreover designers are increasingly mindful of how their TVs look, when theyíre switched off. These days TVs are no longer confined to receiving a handful of terrestrial channels, theyíre expected to be multi-purpose displays for VCRs, satellite receivers, laserdisc players, video games and camcorders as well.

 

WHAT YOU NEED...

Itís tempting to go for the largest, cheapest set you can find, but that could be a false economy, you may end up sacrificing performance, and you could miss out on some useful facilities. The usual place where manufacturers cut corners or make economies is with the sound system. Your ears will be the best judge; good NICAM sound is immediately obvious, itís arresting, the soundstage is clearly defined, with wide channel separation and a sense of depth.

 

On some cheap NICAM sets you can be hard-pressed to detect any sort of stereo image. Itís mostly to do with the speakers; many set-makers still put form ahead of function, with tiny speakers squirting tinny sound through little slots either side, or beneath the screen, in trendy Ďmonitor-styleí cabinets. The bass content on some TVs is derisory; models with an extra bass driver -- sometimes optimistically described as a sub-woofer -- can help, though weíd rate provision for a set of external speakers equally highly. Large TVs often have a lot of secondary functions, so look closely at the on-screen control system, and how easy it is to navigate. Count the sockets, youíll need at least 2 SCART AV connectors on the back, and an AV terminal on the front, preferably with an S-Video input. This will prove useful if youíve got a camcorder or video game console. Teletext junkies should put large page memories high on their wish-list, and donít forget the stand or cabinet, itís worth paying a little extra for a good one.   

 

SHOPPING TIPS

* Use your eyes and ears. Look at the picture and listen to the sound first, then worry about the price ticket

* Donít forget to do a socket check: 1 SCART bad, 2 SCARTs good, front AV sockets even better

* Check the picture at normal viewing height -- showroom racks are usually several feet off the ground -- try to imagine what it  will look like in your living room

* Modern TVs are very reliable, unless youíre very unlucky with domestic appliances extended warranties are often an unnecessary expense

* Play with the controls, can you find your way out of the menu control system or the teletext mode without help from the salesperson?

 

BEST BUYS

 

Ferguson T94N, 37-inch, £1800 -- this has to be the best value mega screen 4:3 TV on the market. The picture is superb though it works best in subdued light. The NICAM sound system is quite punchy, though with such a big screen itís worth using outboard speakers

 

Sony KV-29F1U, 29-inch, £700 -- quite simply one of the best pictures weíve seen on a big screen TV. Lots of useful features, plenty of gadgets to play with and half-decent sound

 

Toshiba 2855DB, 28-inch, £650 -- Toshiba are one of the few TV manufacturers to take audio quality seriously. The ĎQuadrylí system on the 2855 delivers an unusually rich, deep sound, that compliments the crisp, clean picture

 

PORTABLE TVs

 

WHY YOU WANT ONE...

Sales of fourteen and sixteen inch portable colour TVs have been soaring recently, and itís not difficult to see why. Theyíre great value, the cheapest models are now selling for less than £120, and theyíre remarkably versatile. Most of them end up in bedrooms, or brought for the kids for video game monitors. Theyíre turning up in kitchens too; manufacturers have not been slow to latch on to this trend, with colour co-ordinated ranges, that fit in easily with a variety of furnishing styles and decorís. 

 

In fact the term portable is used rather loosely and covers any television that can be easily transported. That includes battery-powered pocket-sized TVs with LCD screens measuring just a couple of inches across, up to 18 and 20-inch sets, whose only possible claim to portability is a built-in carrying handle.

 

In the last year or so thereís been another development. It follows a dramatic growth in the number of televideos or TV/VCR combis coming on to the market. Theyíve been around for a while, but theyíve mostly been brought by shops and commercial organisations for uses as AV presenters and in-store demonstrations. However, prices have tumbled, with several 14-inch televideos now selling for less than £350. Thatís no more than the cost of a 14-inch colour TV and mono VCR. They offer the best of both worlds, and some of them have up-market features, like teletext and twin tuners, so you can watch one channel, whilst recording another. 

 

WHAT YOU NEED...

If youíre only after a second set, for the bedroom or kitchen then you need look no further than the budget portables that are now being sold just about everywhere, from supermarkets to high-street multiples. Shop around there are some amazing bargains at the moment. Donít be put off by unfamiliar brands, picture quality on most small screen TVs is usually very good and reliability doesnít seem to be a problem. Most big retailers are pretty reasonable about exchanging goods and refunding your money, if you are dissatisfied or thereís a problem.

 

Virtually all portables come with remote control and have on-screen displays, but itís worth spending a little extra on convenience features, like an on/off sleep timer and auto set-up. A SCART AV socket, for video games hook-ups is useful too, and if youíve got a camcorder, a front-mounted AV terminal comes in handy when the TV is used as an edit monitor. Portables with teletext or fastext decoders cost a bit more, prices start at around £150; youíll probably have to use it with an external aerial. If you have a boat or caravan get one with a 12 volt DC supply, or think about a battery-powered LCD TV, especially if youíre off camping.  If youíre planning to travel in Europe then make sure it has a multi-standard tuner and display. Thereís not a lot to choose between the various combis on the market right now, but itís a good idea to choose one from a well known manufacturer. Thereís more to go wrong and servicing or repairs can take longer for the more obscure brands

 

SHOPPING TIPS

* Try before you buy, some of them can be deceptively heavy

* Sets with multi system tuners, displays and power supplies are the best bet for campers and caravanners

* Sound quality is usually fairly ordinary. A headphone socket is a good idea if you want to do some private viewing

* Pocket LCD TVs, with screen sizes of less than 4-inches can be tiring to watch, and they eat batteries

* Be bold, thereís a huge range of colours and case styles to choose from

 

BEST BUYS

Alba 840CTV, 14-inch, £130 -- cheap and fairly basic, but itís got everything you need for a spot of bed-time viewing, including a remote control, on-screen displays and sleep timer

 

Citizen ST173, 7.5cm LCD, £200 -- laptop style portable with folding screen; itís an ideal travelling companion, with an AM/FM radio and video input socket for a camcorder 

 

Grundig TVR-370, 14-inch televideo, £380 -- a well specified combi with 14-inch screen, teletext, UHF/VHF tuner, NTSC playback and a 2-head mono VCR with a Video Plus and PDC timer

 

2. VCRs

 

HIGH END NICAM

 

WHY YOU WANT ONE...

You can get a half-decent NICAM VCR for less than £350 these days, so why would you want to spend any more? Simple, budget NICAM machines tend to have fairly average AV performance, and they usually lack flexibility. Obviously picture and sound quality are the prime considerations for a home cinema VCR, but itís important for other reasons, not least video movie-making. This is the other key market manufacturers are targeting with their high-end models, with features like edit control, timebase correction and flying erase heads. This is also the province of the Super VHS video recorder, which has established a niche market amongst high-band camcorder owners. The formatís high quality recording capabilities minimise the degrading effects of copying or editing recordings.

 

Top end NICAM VCRs usually have a range of extra functions, such as multi-speed replay, satellite control systems linked to a VideoPlus+ timer, and a range of noise reduction and tape tuning systems, for cleaner, sharper pictures. Youíre also more likely to find machines with manual recording level control, multi-brand TV remote handsets and NTSC replay with hi-fi stereo sound at this end of the market, though the latter feature has begun to appear on some budget machines lately.

 

The most recent development has been VCRs with built-in Dolby Pro-Logic surround-sound decoders. Thereís two of them at the moment, doubtless with more to follow. Theyíre a quick and easy way to upgrade to a home cinema system, and thus far it appears there no need to compromise on performance, compared with other mid-price, Ďone-boxí solutions.

 

WHAT YOU NEED...

The current market is broadly split between high-performance home cinema VCRs, and machines with additional movie-making facilities. The latter are well suited to AV applications, but you may end up with a lot of features that wonít be used, if you havenít got a camcorder. Super VHS machines fall into this category, the extra picture performance makes little or no difference to pre-recorded VHS tapes -- there are no movies on S-VHS --  and off-air recordings do not look significantly better than those made on a top-grade VHS video recorder.

 

Donít put too much emphasis on fancy-sounding picture enhancement facilities, theyíre mainly used as marketing tools. Some manufacturers make a real song and dance about every minor tweak, others with machines of equal or better performance prefer to emphasise other added-value features. In the end you should use your own judgement, and ask to see machines demonstrated, so you can make side by side comparisons. The two most important things to look for are picture noise -- it shows up most clearly on bright areas of the picture and highly saturated colours -- and resolution, which is a measure of the machineís ability to reproduce fine detail. Look for fuzziness, especially around vertical edges, and patches of high contrast. It can be difficult to assess sound quality in a showroom, but if you can, try to listen to the sound through a decent AV set-up, with a separate amp and speakers, rather than a stereo TV.

 

SHOPPING TIPS

* Identify your needs, donít waste money on an edit VCR unless you have, or plan to buy a camcorder

* Super VHS video recorders offer no special benefits for replaying pre-recorded movies or off-air taping

* See and compare as many different models as possible

* If satellite control and a multi-brand TV remote are important to you, make sure theyíll work with your equipment

* Donít worry too much about fancy sounding picture enhancements, use your eyes to determine picture quality

 

BEST BUYS

JVC HR-J935, £500 -- hot off the production-line, this corker of a VCR is the first one to have a Time Search, giving noiseless fast picture search and real-time sound in all trick-play modes

 

Panasonic NV-HD610, £430 -- award-winning performance from a modestly priced machine. Features include satellite control and a multi-brand remote, but the main selling point has to be the outstanding picture and sound quality

 

Toshiba V856B, £550 -- a home cinema thoroughbred, thereís not much in the way of gadgets, but it has satellite control and a multi-brand TV remote. Itís a wee bit pricey, but youíre paying for quality

 

BUDGET NICAM

 

WHY YOU WANT ONE...

If youíre not already sold on the idea of a NICAM stereo VCR hereís something to think about: right now they now cost no more than some high-end mono machines. Benchmark prices began to fall about eighteen months ago, first to around £350, and this year to below £300. To begin with only a couple of lesser brands were involved, but now theyíre all at it. Whilst itís true some  budget NICAM VCRs are quite basic, and picture quality can sometimes be rather ordinary, there are exceptions. Thereís a couple of machines weíd be happy to use as source components in a home cinema system. Several models have the kind of features that a year ago would not have been found on a VCR costing less than £400. 

 

But are they going to get any cheaper, and should you wait? There may be a few more discounts in the run up to Christmas and during the January sales but we reckon prices have probably bottomed out. However, the level of specification will continue to improve and itís worth keeping an eye on developments in the hotly-contested £350 to £400 sector. Manufacturers are already turning their attention from convenience features to performance, and some of the digital noise reduction and tape tuning systems -- now common on top-end models --  could well be making an appearance on budget VCRs next year. Whether or not theyíre worth waiting for is open to question, if youíre considering replacing or upgrading your VCR now why wait?

 

WHAT YOU NEED...

Even at this price level picture and sound quality should still be high on your list of priorities. In the past ultra-cheap NICAM VCRs have had a patchy performance record, and itís still worth avoiding some of the less well known and in-house brands. Donít be dazzled by lots of gadgets, theyíre a poor trade-off against a noisy or wonky picture.

 

Apply the same criteria that you would use for more expensive machines, and always try to see as many different models as you can. If youíre planning to use your new VCR in a home cinema set-up, look for models that have at least two SCART AV sockets, this will make life a lot easier if you want to expand your system at a later date. NTSC replay is fairly common, but only a couple of machines have it with hi-fi stereo sound, and theyíre usually worth short-listing. In spite of the price you neednít compromise on convenience features, like auto set-up and on-screen displays, though do check to make sure any machine youíre considering is a current, or reasonably recent model. Some cheap NICAMs may be old or obsolete stock, that lack the latest facilities, like Video Plus+, PDC and auto installation.

 

While youíre at it, itís not a bad idea to take a look at the next model up in each manufacturers range. Some companies save their best features for the so-called Ďstep-upí machines, which may only cost a few more pounds than their Ďentry-levelí VCR.  

 

SHOPPING TIPS

* Donít just confine yourself to the cheapest machines, think about spending a little more

* You wonít get the best picture and sound quality, but thereís no need to make too many sacrifices

* If youíre looking for a home cinema machine, check out the SCART sockets, and look for VCRs with NTSC replay

* Steady still frame and slomo are good indicators of deck design and performance

* Listen to the deck mechanism as you load and play tape, a lot of clanks and clunks are a bad sign

 

BEST BUYS

Akai VS-G745EK, £300 -- this has to be a loss-leader, Akai canít be making a penny out of this incredible, value for money machine. Itís superbly well featured, and AV performance is more than adequate for home cinema use.

 

Aiwa HV-FX3500, £350 -- Aiwa started off the current round of price reductions, this is their step-up model, worth the extra £50 for the additional facilities and slightly smoother sound

 

Philips VR557, £370 -- this machine is on the budget borderline but the slightly higher price pays for a good looking picture and crisp hi-fi sound, thatís suitable for a home cinema system

 

3. Satellite TV

 

ASTRA SATELLITE SYSTEMS

 

WHY YOU WANT ONE...

Thereís a lot of loose talk at the moment, about several zillion digital satellite channels hitting the airwaves in the next few months. Our advice is to forget it, for the time being at least, and concentrate on whatís available right now. The first scheduled digital satellite broadcasts will probably begin next year, but itís going to take a good long time before the equipment is as cheap, or thereís such a wide diversity of choice, as there is right now, from the present analogue systems. 

 

Thereís barely enough hours in the day to watch whatís available right now from the five Astra satellites, let alone the Hot Bird Channels, and the several hundred other satellite channels available to anyone in the UK with a big enough dish, who needs any more?

 

If youíre new to satellite TV itís worth just going over the basics, so you know what youíre up against. TV satellites are positioned in a geostationary orbit, 36,000 km above the equator. They travel at the same relative speed, and in the same direction as the Earth, so from the ground, they appear to be in a fixed position in the sky. TV channels are uplinked to the satellite from Earth Stations dotted around the world, the satellites then beam the signals back to the ground, in a tightly controlled pattern, called a Ďfootprintí.

 

Within the footprint transmissions can be picked up on a small parabolic dish antenna. It works like a concave mirror, concentrating and focusing the signals to a single point. At the focal point thereís a device called a low noise block-converter or LNB, that amplifies and converts the high-frequency microwaves to a more manageable form. Theyíre carried by cable, from the LNB to a set-top receiver, that works pretty much like a normal TV tuner.

 

Most set-top receivers also have a built-in Videocrypt decoder, that unscrambles pay-to-view or subscription channels. Part of the computer algorithm, used to unscramble the signal, is held on a microchip bonded to a Ďsmart-cardí or viewing card. This is held in a slot on the front of the receiver. And thatís all there is to it...

 

In fact thereís no need at all to concern yourself with the technicalities; as far as you, your TV and VCR are concerned, satellite channels are just like any other TV channels, apart from the way you pay for them. Incidentally, a few satellite channels are free to view, though most of them are Ďsoft-scrambledí which means you will still need a receiver with a Videocrypt decoder, though you wonít need a viewing card to watch them.

 

WHAT YOU NEED...

Analogue satellite systems are amazingly cheap at the moment, but you do need to keep your wits about you. Check out your local high street superstores. Youíll almost certainly come across several special offers and promotions, with the promise of a complete system for £99, or less. That sounds like incredible value, but look closer, at the small print. There you will almost find several strict conditions. The commonest one is a mandatory yearís subscription to the full BSKYB movie channel package. That comes to a little over twenty seven quid a month or around £330 in the first year. Thereís usually a compulsory installation fee in there as well, taking the cost in the first year to within spitting distance of £400; itís not looking like such a good deal now, is it? 

 

The receivers supplied with those cheapo systems are usually very basic, and generally unsuitable for home cinema use. Either they lack the necessary AV socketry -- you need a minimum of two SCART sockets -- the sound quality is iffy, or channel capacity is limited, or all three!

 

We suggest you avoid the cheapie deals unless youíre complete happy with the cost and restrictions, and donít mind the quality/performance limitations. Apart from anything else, buying a non subsidised system will give you the freedom to select the channel package that best suits your needs, and choose the installer, (or maybe do it yourself, an averagely competent DIYers should have no trouble).

 

Systems worth considering as home cinema components start at around £200, though itís worth spending another £50 or so, for a few more convenience features, greater channel capacity and maybe more efficient audio noise reduction. Satellite systems costing more than £200 tend not to work any better than cheaper models, but they will usually have more sophisticated operating systems and maybe extra refinements, including twin smart-card slots, and facilities for multi-satellite reception. This normally includes a second dish input, or connections for a dish positioner, that will guide a motorised dish, to pick up other TV satellites. Top end Astra receivers costing more than £350, and thereís only a couple of them, boast features like built-in Dolby Pro Logic decoders and dish positioners, or both.

 

So is it worth waiting for digital, and what are the advantages? Plainly itís the way the TV and video is going, and eventually both terrestrial and satellite television will be in a digital format. It makes a lot of sense, from the broadcasters point of view. Itís a very efficient way of transmitting TV signals, and half a dozen or more channels can be squeezed into the same amount of frequency space, or bandwidth, occupied by a single analogue TV channel. The signals are more robust, and thereís the possibility of several CD quality soundtracks for each channels.

 

Digital broadcasting will pave the way for widescreen and high-definition TV, and other added value pay TV services, like video on demand (VOD), but all this is some way off. Moreover, equipment will be expensive in the early days; digital satellite receivers are likely to cost upwards of £500 in the first year or two. The question of decoding systems, conditional access, and how many set-top boxes weíre going to need has still to be resolved.  Meanwhile analogue satellite and terrestrial TV will continue well in to the next century, itís going to happen, but we suggest you bide your time, wait and see.

 

SHOPPING TIPS

* Watch out for the hidden costs on sub £100 system deals

* Any receiver you buy will need at least 150 channels, just to cope with whatís available now

* Donít buy a satellite receiver with only one SCART socket, you wonít be able tape programmes in stereo

* Convenience features like on-screen displays and a channel ident are well worth having

* Satellite channels are noisy, NR systems like Wegner Panda 1 help a lot

 

BEST BUYS

Pace MSS290, £230 -- outstanding performance, plenty of channels and some interesting audio enhancements, itís a slick, well presented receiver that will see you through the next few years

 

Grundig GRD-280,  £200 -- one of the best mid-range receivers on the market, good AV quality, a useful line up of facilities, at a realistic price

 

Nokia SAT 1800, £300 -- this has to be one of the best satellite receivers around at the moment, a fine performer with some handy extras, like a VideoPlus+ timer, that controls the VCR, to make a time-shifted recording

 

BOX COPY 1

SKY PACKAGES

Itís difficult to say precisely how many satellite channels there are. Even the apparently straightforward BSKYB subscription packages are complicated by the fact that a lot of channels share transponders. Some of them only operate for a limited period each day, and others -- like the Sci-Fi Channel -- varies its times on different days. Anyway, it breaks down something like this. The basic multi-channel package currently costs £11.99 a month, that gets you Sky 1, Sky 2/Fox Kids, Granada Pus/Men & Motors, History Channel. UK Gold, UK Living, Bravo, CMBC, Nickelodeon/Paramount, The Family Channel, QVC, VH1, MTV, Sky News, Weather Channel, The Childrenís Channel and Discovery. For an extra £6 you can add one premium movie or sports channel, and for an additional £6 you can have two premium or sports channels. The whole kit and caboodle, with all three movie channels (Sky Movies, The Movie Channel and Sky Movies Gold), plus Sky Sports 1 and 3 costs £26.99. The Disney Channel is included for free on a dual movie or the all channel package. Non BSKYB related freebies include TNT/Cartoon Network, Eurosport and CNN. There are various other subscription channels, that can be accessed using an upgraded (via phone) BSKYB smart-card, they include The Fantasy Channel, The Adult Channel and The Playboy Channel. 

 

BOX COPY 2

CRACKING THE CODE

The Videocrypt scrambling system used by BSKYB has been like a red rag to a bull to hackers in come countries, denied access to BSKYB programming. Various pirate unscrambling systems have been developed. Most of them donít work, and the few that do are quickly countered. Several ingenious computer software programs were written that did actually work for a while, but since BSKYB issued new  viewing cards to all of their subscribers, new piracy systems have not appeared, with one exception. There is a technique, that involves recording an encrypted movie on a VCR, then playing it back through a decoder, connected by complicated means to a PC, running software that appears on the Internet several hours after the broadcast. Needless to say youíve got to be pretty sad and desperate to go to such lengths, moreover the running costs of the PC and download time are probably not much less than renting the movie from Blockbuster...

 

MULTI-SATELLITE SYSTEMS

 

WHY YOU WANT ONE...

It seems incredible now, but prior to the launch of Channel 4 in 1982, there were those who maintained the British public didn't want or need a fourth TV channel, nor would anyone have enough time to watch them all. In any case, it would be impossible to find enough programmes to fill it, without resorting to wall-to-wall repeats. Fourteen years, five Astra satellites and more than thirty English-language television channels later it seems there are still some people who simply canít get enough TV...

 

Fortunately for hardened TV junkies there is a way to satisfy their craving. A motorised satellite dish with a multi-satellite receiver can pull in another 350 or so extra channels from around the world, with more coming on stream all the time. It hardly seems to matter that most of those channels will be in a foreign language, scrambled, or both. In fact for some enthusiasts, the more obscure and difficult to find a channel is, the better. The ultimate buzz comes from eavesdropping on unscheduled news feeds, studio links and test transmissions.

 

You may be relieved to know motorised dish owners are not all nerdy anoraks; multi-satellite systems are popular with foreign nationals, ex-pats and students of all kinds, wishing to keep in touch with the old country, or get a flavour of other societies. A significant number of systems are also brought by those with, shall we say, more 'specialist' interests, in channels and material that cannot be legally broadcast, or received in the UK.

 

WHAT YOU NEED...

There are basically three ways of picking up TV broadcasts from more than one satellite: a moveable dish, a fixed dish with a moveable LNB, or a fixed dish with additional LNBs.

 

Steerable dishes are the most versatile, and pick up the greatest number of satellites, but they're also rather expensive, do not expect to see much change from £1000 for a competent system. Moreover, most TV satellites operate at fairly low power levels, or their footprints are not directly aimed at the UK, so a larger dish is needed, typically between 1.2 to 1.5 metres in diameter. The dish also requires a complex mechanical mount, that has to be sited in a position with an unobstructed view of the Southern sky.

 

A small fixed dish, pointed at the Astra satellites will also pick up so-called 'side lobe' transmissions from satellites orbiting close by. Various gadgets are available, that move the LNB from side to side, to intercept the signals. Alternatively, extra LNBs, can be mounted on a small bracket.

 

Both methods are a lot cheaper than a steerable dish -- expect to shell out between £50 to £100 --  but a small fixed dish can only pick up a fraction of the extra channels available; but, if they're the ones you want to watch, why pay more?

 

Steerable dish systems also requires an electronic positioner unit, that memorises the location of each satellite. Some receivers have the necessary circuitry built-in. Multi-satellite receivers must, of necessity have large channel memories, and it helps if they have flexible tuning systems as well, plus provision for one or more external decoders. By the way, not all multi-satellite receivers have Videocrypt decoders, bear thin mind, if you want to watch BSKYB channels as well.

 

SHOPPING TIPS

* Before you even think about buying a motorised dish, makes sure you have somewhere for a large dish, with an unobstructed view of the Southern sky

* Even if you reckon you have got room, you will still need to get a proper site survey carried out, by a specialist aerial installation firm

* If youíre going to do it, do it properly with at least a 1.5 metre dish and high performance LNB

* If you only want to receive one or two specific channels than it may be better to have a second fixed dish, or modify your present dish, if the channels are on a satellite thatís close to Astra

* Make sure youíre multi-satellite receiver has a Videocrypt decoder, otherwise youíll need a second receiver, just for the Astra channels

 

BEST BUYS

Nokia SAT 1800, £300 -- a real jack of all trades this one; add on the optional positioner box and youíve got one of the most accomplished multi-satellite systems on the market

 

Pace MSS1008 IP, £450 -- superbly well-designed integrated satellite receiver and positioner, plus a Dolby Pro Logic decoder, and Videocrypt. Everything you need, in one simple to use box

 

Pace MSS508 IP, £350 -- a stripped-down version of the MSS1008 IP, without the DPL decoder, but with the same basic features, including the positioner and excellent AV performance

 

4. CAMCORDERS

 

WHY YOU WANT ONE...

Tricky beggars camcorders. Just about everyone agrees theyíre really clever little gadgets, great for capturing special events, holidays and kids growing up, but theyíve had a bit of an image problem. Time to put the record straight and dispel a few myths.

 

For a lot of people the most compelling reason for not buying a camcorder is the price. True, a half decent machine will set you back between £500 to £800 but put that into perspective. Thatís two or three times as much as a respectable 35mm compact still camera, and maybe twice as much as a VCR, yet a camcorder packs in more advanced technology than both of them put together. Look at it another way, a camcorder has a life expectancy of between seven to ten years, that works out to £80 a year, say, which is not a lot to pay for a lifetime of memories.

 

You may have heard theyíre difficult to use? Not so; some machines might look complicated but since day-one every camcorder has had a Ďfull-autoí mode, which means all you have to do is frame the shot and press the record button. On most camcorders, in most conditions, youíre virtually assured a watchable picture and coherent soundtrack. Thereís not a machine on the market that you couldnít learn to use in 30 seconds flat. Thatís not to say youíll become an instant Tarrentino, but donít let anyone tell you that you need any special skills to make a video movie, you donít!

 

Even if your first attempts look a bit amateurish -- and thatís not unusual --  thereís plenty of ways of tidying up video footage, with a little judicious editing. Thatís not difficult either, all you need is a VCR and a set of copying leads, to chop out the iffy bits, or rearrange scenes into a more logical order.

 

But arenít camcorder owners nerks? Well, thereís certainly a few idiots who insist on shoving their lenses where theyíre not welcome. Thereís also the occasional  Beadle wannabee and ghoul, but you get a percentage of twats with almost every sport or pastime; we suspect camcorder owners are no worse in that respect than any other group in society.

 

Video movie-making can be a lot of fun; it can easily develop into a worthwhile hobby or add to the enjoyment of your other leisure pursuits. It sounds corny, but the real pleasure of owning a camcorder comes when youíve had one for several years, and look back at those old recordings. The sooner you get one, the better... 

 

WHAT YOU NEED...

The only problem in buying a camcorder is choosing the right one. Thereís over one hundred Ďdomesticí machines available right now, with more features and facilities than you can shake a stick at, but itís not as bad as it looks. The market breaks down into three broad sectors: basic or budget machines, family models, and serious or semi-pro equipment.

 

Thereís plenty of quite respectable budget camcorders selling right now for less than £600, and in that price bracket youíll generally find a few end of line bargains. However, itís a mistake to buy the simplest machine you can find, in the belief it will be easier to use. Most basic camcorders tend to work best in good strong natural light, you may be disappointed by the quality of recordings made indoors. Budget machines generally have few creative options and as a result many owners quickly become bored or disillusioned as they discover the limitations of their machines.  

 

Itís well worth spending a little extra on a Ďfamilyí model, which will normally have a range of exposure aids and effects options. The commonest one is a program auto-exposure (AE). This usually includes presets for shooting in low-light conditions (night or gain-up); against a open window (backlight); on a stage or shooting fireworks displays (spotlight) or with a highly reflective background (sand and snow). Most camcorders program AE systems include creative effects like Ďportraití, which narrows the depth of field, so that the subject stands out against a soft-focus background.

 

The family camcorder sector also includes the growing number of machines with built-in or fold-out colour LCD screens. Itís a popular feature, that allows several people to watch (and hear) the replay, on the spot. However, the screen adds around £200 to the price and most LCD cams are fairly basic point-and-shoot machines.

 

We havenít mentioned formats yet, but the fact is thereís comparatively little to choose between VHS-C and 8mm, when it comes to picture and sound quality and prices. The only real difference is that thereís a wider variety of 8mm equipment. The same applies to the Hi8 and S-VHS-C high band formats, which give a sharper, cleaner pictures and thus are more suitable for enthusiasts, or anyone wanting to copy or edit their recordings. The cost of high band camcorders has been falling, and thereís several very competent machines selling now for less than £800. However, most models tend to sell for more than £1000, and include advanced exposure and editing facilities and are mainly of interest to enthusiasts.

 

Itís now a year since the first DVC (digital video cassette) camcorders appeared. The format is capable of near broadcast quality pictures and sound, but the first machines were all rather expensive, costing more than £3000. However, within the past six months JVC, and more recently Sony, have launched pocket-sized DVC machines, selling for under £2000. DVC is on course to become the format of the future, but it will be a while before prices come down to anything like the cost of todayís analogue equipment. Analogue camcorders are not going to disappear overnight, in fact theyíre likely to be around until well into the next century, so what are you waiting for?

 

SHOPPING TIPS

* Itís worth paying extra for things like program auto-exposure (AE), and creative facilities, such as digital effects modes and title generators

* Other useful extras include optical image stabilisers, Control L/LANC edit terminals and built-in edit controllers

* Donít worry too much about high-powered zooms, x12 to x20 is more than adequate

* Hi8 or S-VHS-C equipment is well worth the extra, if youíre concerned about picture quality or intend to copy or edit your recordings

* Get a good carry bag, to protect your machine, and its accessories.

 

BEST BUYS

Canon UC3000, 8mm, £550 -- definitely the best budget camcorder on the market right now. It has a full set of program AE modes, titler, editing terminal and stereo hi-fi sound. Picture and sound quality are both very good

 

Panasonic NV-SX3, S-VHS-C, £750 -- just nipping in ahead of its main rival, the Canon UC9Hi (£800), as the best value high band camcorder, this chunky machine has a big bright lens, plenty of creative options and good editing facilities

 

JVC GR-DV1, DVC, £1800 -- the first sub-compact DVC camcorder to hit the market and itís been an instant success. Itís not hard to see why, it a brilliant little machine, capable of near broadcast quality pictures and sound, with a flexible exposure system plus loads of tricks and effects

 

HOW TO BUY...

ADD BOX COPY

 

CAMCORDER ACCESSORIES

Camcorder design and performance has improved so much in the past five years that you need very few accessories to make a watchable video movie. The days are long gone when you had to lug around bag-fulls of lenses, lights and a tripod but one thing hasnít changed, and thatís the abysmally short running times of most camcorder batteries. You will need at least one spare battery pack, two to be on the safe side. A sturdy shoulder bag is useful too, to protect the machine whilst travelling, and it offers some security against snatch-thieves.

 

When you get home you will probably want to tidy up your holiday movie. If your camcorder has a Control L/LANC or Panasonic 5-pin  edit terminal, an edit controller is a good investment. Prices start at around £150 for stand-alone units like the Videonics Thumbís Up or Bandridge Montage. You can also get PC software editing packages; Gold Diskís Video Director is good value for £50. Audio mixers, that will allow you add your own soundtrack or commentary, whilst copying to VHS, start at under £20. Tandy Stores and Jessops Photo Shops have a good selection of audio and video mixers and processors, up to and including semi-pro systems costing £1000 or more.

 

 

 

---end---

” R. Maybury 1996 2210

 

[Home][Software][Archive][Top Tips][Glossary][Other Stuff]


Copyright (c) 2005 Rick Maybury Ltd.

admin@rickmaybury.com