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Right now more than fifty satellites are spraying hundreds of television channels into your back garden. With the right dish and receiver you can see how the rest of the world keep their whites bright and teeth clean...



Itís amazing how adaptable we all are. We take the idea of receiving high quality television pictures and sound from orbiting space satellites on dustbin-lid sized dishes, completely for granted. Yet less than thirty years ago you would have needed an antenna the size of Rutland, and enough electronics to fill an aircraft hanger, to pick up one fuzzy test card, and that would have been in black and white...


Dishes and set-top receivers have become a familiar part of the home entertainment landscape but few people realise that thereís another world beyond the sixty or so channels receivable on a typical Astra satellite system. From the UK it is possible to pick up several hundred other television broadcasts from more than fifty satellites, and you donít need a Jodrell Bank sized dish to do it. Most of those transmissions can be received on a dishes measuring between 80 centimetres and 1.5 metres across. To be effective the dish in question should have a clear view of the Southern sky, and bolted to a motorised polar mount. It also helps if the receiver has a wider tuning range, good sensitivity and a huge channel memory.


But what is there to see? The many unscheduled feeds and studio links carried by satellite can be compulsive viewing. If you or your family originate from outside the UK thereís bound to be at least one channel aimed at your ex-patriot community. Itís educational too, especially if youíre studying a foreign language -- thereís more than 30 to choose from  -- moreover you can learn an awful lot watching other countryís soaps and game shows...


Many mid-range and top-end Astra receivers are capable of doing the job, but it makes life much easier if the receiver is designed from the outset for multi-satellite operation, preferably with an integrated dish positioner, or connections for an external control unit. That means the dish will automatically align itself to the correct satellite, simply by selecting a channel.


It sounds straightforward enough but there are one or two points to be aware of. The biggest problem nowadays is encryption, and whilst many channels are transmitted Ďclearí, more are turning to scrambling, to restrict their target audiences, or provide the broadcaster with a source of subscription income, via sales of  decoders or smart cards. To add to the confusion, only around two thirds of the available channels are broadcast using the PAL system. The score or so channels that transmit SECAM signals are not a problem, and at the very least youíll get a picture on a plain vanilla PAL TV, albeit in black and white, but you will need a specialised decoder, if you want to watch any of the others, using D2-MAC, B-MAC or the growing number of digital transmissions.


Nevertheless, even a modestly-equipped PAL multi satellite system can pull in over 200 extra channels and almost as many radio stations, which should be more than enough for the most determined channel surfers. Needless to say dross is the same the world over but even if you canít find anything worth watching, thereís almost an eveningís entertainment just cruising the channels.





Itís difficult to avoid superlatives when talking about the ESR 800XT, but the fact is, this is the most expensive and comprehensively equipped receiver in this roundup, by quite some margin. It is also has the largest channel store -- thereís room for 800 of them -- plus far and away the most advanced set of multi-satellite features. This is also the first satellite receiver weíve come across to have three remote handsets. Yes, we thought it was a mistake as well, but no, they all have a purpose.


The first one is the regular infra-red jobbie, for normal day to day operation; handset number two covers much the same ground, but itís a wireless remote, that uses radio signals to control the receiver. It has a range of up to 150 feet, so you can watch satellite TV in the bedroom say, using a cable connection between the second TV and one of the receiverís many AV outputs. The third remote is used exclusively for controlling things like the text functions the on-board D2MAC decoder. In an ideal world this would be fully integrated with the rest of the receiver but itís more political than technical, something to do with the way this US-made product is modified for the European market. We suspect it will be of little consequence to most multi-satellite enthusiasts, who probably welcome a few extra buttons to play with.


Getting back to the main features, the range of tuning and programming options should be enough to keep the most determined dish-dabbler happy. Virtually all tuning and LNB functions can be customised. The dual input tuner can be set for dual polarity or dual band inputs, with presettable 18MHz or 27MHz bandwidth; threshold extension can be set to optimise noisy or weak signals. Key audio and video parameters can be adjusted and stored for each channel; settings are protected by a PIN-coded lock.


PC connectivity is another unusual feature. It started out as a dealer facility but Drake are now making the necessary software and connecting leads available to anyone who wants them. It enables firmware data, like the LNB menu, to updated, as and when new products come on to the market, as well as access to some of the receivers higher functions. Drake put software revisions on their internet site, so modifications can be carried out almost instantly.  


The receiver is programmed with the orbital position and channel allocation of just about every satellite there is, barring those launched between the time the receiver leaves the factory, and installation. Set-up is relatively straightforward; it has to be told the longitude of the site where it is used, then it sets up the dish positioner by checking the position of three known satellites, after that it figures out where all the others are. New satellites and channels can be added, and dead ones removed, with relative ease. Small alignment errors are corrected by an auto-peak system, that fine-tunes the dish aiming.


Having put so much effort into the operational side of the 800XT it would be a surprise if the on-screen performance wasnít up to scratch. Obviously the Astra satellites pose no problems whatsoever, most channels produce a pin-sharp picture with no noise to speak of, colours are sharp and accurately resolved. It hardly misses a beat with weaker signals, thereís plenty of gain in reserve and it manages to produce a stable image from transmissions that the other two receivers gave up on. Drake claim their audio noise reduction is Panda compatible, the sound output was generally clean and background hiss levels on our sample were only very slightly up on the other two (Panda-equipped) receivers. No ifís or butís. Anyone even half serious about multi-satellite should check this one first, itís the business!


Features            800 channels, Videocrypt and D2MAC decoders, programmable bandwidth, programmable LNB selection, 4-event/14-day VCR timer, wireless and infra-red remote controls, software database update via PC or data transfer unit, multi-lingual on-screen displays, programmable video level and threshold extension

Sockets            3 x SCART AV, line audio, baseband and decoder video (phono), dish actuator and polariser (spring terminals)


Picture quality            *****

Sound quality              *****

Ease of use                 ***

Features                     *****

Value for money ****


Alston Barry UK Ltd., telephone (01353) 669009


Critical captions

Card slots all over the place,  MAC and Videocrypt are on the right side, the oneís on the left are blanked off, by a monster mains transformer


The large, easy to read alphanumeric display lets you know what the receiver is up to


No less than three remote controls! One is a normal IR button-box, the second is a wireless remote with a range of 150 feet, the third one is for the MAC decoder


No problems with connectivity, thereís three fully configured SCARTs plus two additional video outputs. The decoder output is user programmable, via the menu-driven on-screen display


NOKIA SAT 1800 SatScan

Nokia have always opted for a path of gentle evolution, rather than drastic revolution, which is one of the reasons why the SAT 1800 SatScan looks pretty much like every other Nokia satellite receiver of the last three or four years. However, SatScan is quite a big step forward for Nokia; until now theyíve mostly relied on supplying external antenna control units or ACUs, for those wishing to upgrade to motorised dish systems. This concept has stood them in good stead for many years, and it makes a lot of sense, but now, presumably in recognition of the fact that space is at a premium in many home entertainment systems, theyíve finally got around to designing and building a one-box, integrated receiver-positioner.


However, there is a catch. Unlike most other motorised systems, this one only works with a specially designed positioner. In order to use a standard actuator it has to be connected to Nokiaís matching antenna control unit (ACU 8152). Thatís because the on-board positioner powers and controls the motor mount, using the LNB feed cable. The voltage and current this cable can carry are limited, so the motor and gearbox has to be a very efficient design. This also restricts the size of the dish that can be used, to a maximum of 1.2 metres.


The rest of the SatScanís feature list should be reasonably familiar as it is based on the popular SAT 1800S receiver. Itís been around for a while now, since mid 1995 in fact, and it caused a quite a stir as it was the first satellite receiver to have a built-in Video Plus+ timer. This solved at a stroke the problem of making time-shift recordings of satellite programmes. The Video Plus+ timer on the SatScan has a built-in command library of infra-red commands covering almost 200 different brands of VCR. Once the Pluscode for the programme you want to tape has been entered, it will switch on the VCR, and set it to record for the duration of the show. It couldnít be easier.


The initial set-up is a breeze too. It needs to know the time and date, and the command code for the VCR (a list is provided). Normally the dish will be installed and aligned by an engineer; once it has been locked on to the first satellite, it automatically works out the positions of the rest. Thereís one new feature, and thatís IR link. Itís possible to control the receiver from another room using a special link cable, that also carries the RF picture and sound signal from the SatScan, to a second TV.


SatScanís multi-satellite capabilities are reasonably impressive. Around 400 of the available 500 channel memory slots are pre-programmed for 23 of the most accessible European satellites, including Astra and Hot Bird. Position information for a total of 31 satellites are stored in the receiverís memory. Channels are organised into five different lists. The main once includes all 500 slots; up to 18 channels can be assigned to the favourite list, and then there are three category lists, of 9 channels each. All channel allocations and tuning parameters can be edited using the easy to follow menu-driven on-screen displays.


Picture performance is good, noise levels are below average, colours are clean and vibrant. Multi-satellite operation is fast and accurate and whilst a lot will depends on the dish and the location, simulated reduction in signal strength showed the receiver to be more than adequately sensitive, with plenty of gain to spare.


This is a highly polished package, designed for the dedicated Astra watcher who fancies a spot of surfing. It should also appeal to ex-pats and those with a special interest, who want to be able to turn quickly and easily to other favourite channels on other satellites, without needing, or wanting to know how it all works.


Features            500 TV and 100 radio channels pre-programmed, 18 + 18 favourite channel memory with 3 category lists, Wegner Panda 1 noise reduction,  Videocrypt decoder, VideoPlus + timer, PIN protected parental lock, internal positioner, external IR link

Sockets            3 x SCART (2 AV, 1 decoder), 2 x LNB (F-connector), stereo line audio, DC and antenna control unit (phono), magnetic polariser and IR link (spring terminal), RF bypass (coaxial)


Picture quality            ***** 

Sound quality              ****

Ease of use                 ****

Features                     *****

Value for money *****


Nokia Multimedia Network Terminals, telephone (01793) 556032


Critical captions

A smooth, clutter-free fascia with only the three-digit channel and status display visible through the front panel.


Behind the drop-down flap thereís just three buttons, for on/standby and channel up down, plus a single smart-card slot


The handset couldnít be much simpler with large, well-spaced and easy to identify buttons


The three SCART sockets are for AV inputs and outputs for a TV and VCR, and external decoder. The spring terminals carry signals for  a magnetic polariser and extension IR receptor



In the fast-moving world of satellite TV technology the MSS508-IP almost qualifies as an antique. The MSS500 upon which it is based first saw light of day in early 1994, which in turn was a stripped-down version of the earlier MSS1000. To be fair quite a lot has changed since then. The MSS500 has grown up; channel capacity has been increased from a paltry 250 to a more useful 500, and it has been given an internal positioner, hence the ĎIPí designation in the model number.


Most of the original facilities remain the same though, starting with the very distinctive cabinet, excellent front-panel display and twin smart-card slots. The card holders are mounted on a sliding rail, that pops out when the central button is pressed. On the right side of the fascia thereís a small jog dial, this has a number of functions; by default itís a channel changer but press one of the buttons next to it and it becomes a volume control or selector for the sound shape system. This is actually nothing more than a glorified tone control, but itís a rare sight indeed on a satellite receiver, and genuinely useful on a multi-satellite model, where there can be big differences in audio equalisation across the channels. There are four pre-set sound shapes, each one can be altered and stored. 


Sound shape and volume settings are shown graphically on the front-panel display. Itís an alphanumeric type, that shows channel number as well as the name, plus a selection of mode and status indicators. Naturally it has an on-screen display system as well, and itís very easy to use, though the small remote handset, with its tightly packed buttons slows the whole business down as the keys are not that easy to tell apart.


Channels can be selected sequentially, by number or by Ďfavouriteí category. There are eight of them: films, sport, news, light entertainment, radio, children, general and custom. The receiver arrives with all of the categories pre-programmed, though itís a simple enough matter to shift and swap the channels to suit your own preferences. All tuning and mode settings can be changed, using the high-level menu commands, and if you get into real trouble the original factory settings can be restored.


Other facilities worth a mention include an 8-event/31-day VCR timer, PIN coded parental lock, sleep timer and a signal strength meter. The positioner is programmed with the names and tuning details of 34 satellites, their positions are stored during the initial set-up. Others can be added as and when they become operational. Finding a satellite is reasonably simple, and the positioner has an auto-focus mode, that automatically makes small corrections to the alignment, to ensure the strongest signal. Auto focus can be initiated at any time, to fine-tune the dish.  


Little appears to have changed since the MSS500, as far as audio and video performance are concerned. Thatís no bad thing, it was then, and remains one of the best receivers on the market. Sensitivity is good, well up to the demands of multi-satellite operations. Colours are clean and well defined, with relatively low levels of noise. Audio is crisp with lower than average amounts of background hiss. The positioner is accurate and responsive and the auto-focus system does a splendid job of optimising signal strength.


The MSS500 is a flexible mid-range design, that will appeal in equal measure to Astra fans looking to expand their horizons, and multi-satellite enthusiasts on a budget, seeking those elusive feeds and unscheduled broadcasts. It might be getting on a bit but the design, facilities and performance continue to hold up well.


Features            500 channels, 8 favourite channel categories, sound shape (tone control) facility, sleep timer, 8-event/31 day VCR timer, twin smart-card slots, PIN coded parental lock, auto focus positioner, Wegner Panda 1 noise reduction

Sockets            4 x SCART (3 x AV, 1 x decoder), 2 x LNB (F-connector), RF bypass (coaxial), stereo line out (phono), dish actuator and polariser (spring terminal)


Picture quality            *****

Sound quality              *****

Ease of use                 ***

Features                     ****

Value for money ****


Pace Mirco Technology plc., telephone (01274) 532000


Critical captions

Pressing the button below the main display opens the flap covering the twin smart card slots


The multi-function alphanumeric display is very informative, showing both channel number and name, it also has graphical displays for the sound-shape facility and signal strength


The jog dial on the right side of the front panel is used to change channel, set volume, and the sound shape


A very busy backside with no less than four SCART sockets. AV2 is set aside for an external decoder, the other three are for connection to a TV and VCR and other AV component, if required



No doubt about it, if youíve got the money, the room for a good-sized dish, and no social life to speak of then the Drake ESR800XT has to be the receiver of choice for the discerning satellite watcher. Compared with the other two it looks expensive but when you take into account the vast channel memory, MAC decoder, neat touches like the wireless remote, superb AV performance and the very flexible positioner it starts to look like a bargain. It might even save you a bob or two; PC connectivity makes it virtually future-proof -- at least until digital services begin -- this could be the last analogue receiver you will ever need.


Thereís not a lot to choose between the other two when it comes to picture and sound quality. Theyíre both good, and easily qualify as home cinema components. However, in the end the SatScan just nudges ahead by a whisker, with the very useful VideoPlus+ timer, compact dish mechanics and slightly simpler installation earning it extra points. Donít dismiss the Pace 508 though, and the facility to work with a wider range of actuators could be important, particularly if it is going to be used with a larger or heavier dish. 




Make/model                           ££s            Chs            Sats                 VC            MAC  A/V

Drake ESR-800XT             1250            800            all of them!   yes            yes            3+1

Nokia SAT 1800 SatScan            530            500            31                    yes            no            2+1

Pace MSS508-IP                 550            500            64                    yes            no            3+1


Notes: ££s = typical retail price, including 0.8 or 1-metre dish, LNB and motorised mount; Sats = number of stored satellite positions; VC = built-in Videocrypt smart-card reader; MAC = D2MAC decoder; AV = number of SCART AV input and output sockets, and decoder loop-though connections





* Itís a great way to stay in touch with the old country, if your roots lie in other parts of Europe, the middle and Far East. At the last count there were almost 400 TV channels, broadcasting from more than 50 satellites, receivable from the UK.


* If youíre learning a language thereís no better way than to watch and hear it being spoken in a contemporary context. You can pick up more from a half-hour soap or news programme than a stack of textbooks. Currently you can receive programmes in almost thirty different languages.


* Although British TV news has a fairly good reputation for overseas coverage, thereís a lot to be said for seeing the world  from another perspective. Itís interesting to see how others see us. Occasionally you may come across news items concerning the UK, that for one reason or another, are not covered here.


* A motorised dish will give you access to a multitude of unscheduled transmissions. These include feeds from news agencies and organisations around the world, live and unedited reports from foreign correspondents, you may even stumble across weird stuff, like video conferences, auctions, maybe even ET phoning home...


* If your tastes in televisual entertainment go beyond the mainstream then youíll certainly benefit from a motorised dish. The whole world is out there, from the relatively straightforward weirdness of other countryís game shows, to more exotic channels, that give the nations nannies and moral watchdogs so much to talk about...






An angle of horizontal rotation -- usually measured with respect to magnetic North -- that describes an arc between the horizon and the sky, passing through the point at which geostationary satellites are located


Clarke Belt

The orbital path used by geosyncronous satellites, first proposed by Arthur C Clarke in 1945. Satellites 36,000 km above the equator, travelling at 11,000 kilometres per hour in the same direction of the earth, will appear from the ground to remain stationary, at a fixed point above the earthís surface



The offset angle of a dish antenna, in relation to its own horizontal plane, used to align motorised dish antennas as they track the curved Clarke belt across the sky



The angle or tilt in a dish antenna, in relation to the horizon. For example, an antenna pointing directly upwards would have an elevation of 90 degrees



Low-noise block-converter, the widget stuck out on the arm in front of the dish. Its job is to amplify and convert the extremely weak microwave signals from the satellite into a lower, more manageable frequency, before being sent by coaxial cable to the receiver


Polar Mount

Sometimes called an equatorial mount. This is the type of mounting system used on a motorised dish, that will allow the antenna to accurately track the curved Clark Belt, extending from the Eastern to Western horizons



” R. Maybury 1997 1505



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