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
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
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.
* 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
* Size does matter, get the biggest screen you can afford
* 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
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
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
* 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
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
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.
* 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?
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
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
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
* 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
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
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
* 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
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
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
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.
* 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
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
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
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
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.
* 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
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
£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
BOX COPY 1
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
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...
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
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.
* Before you even think about buying a motorised dish, makes
sure you have somewhere for a large dish, with an unobstructed view of the
* 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
* 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
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
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?
* Itís worth paying extra for things like program
auto-exposure (AE), and creative facilities, such as digital effects modes and
* 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
* Get a good carry bag, to protect your machine, and its
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
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
HOW TO BUY...
ADD BOX COPY
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
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.
R. Maybury 1996 2210