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An Audio Revolution How-To Dish Feature Print E-mail
Thursday, 13 December 2007
So you missed out on the $199 deals last fall for digital satellite video. You're increasingly frustrated by the noisy, poor quality signal your local cable system provides plus there are a couple channels you'd love to get but The Powers That Be force you to buy another $20-a-month "package" to get them. And to top it all off, now your cable provider is not only raising their rates again but lowering the picture quality even further. . . The Man's keepin' you down too, eh, buddy?

Well hold your head high and look to the sky in a South-Easterly direction, because about 22,300 miles away there is a little satellite that's going to send you more TV and music channels than you ever thought you needed plus another heaping helping of audio channels. It'll provide you with better sound and picture than you could get from cable systems, soon-to-be Dolby Digital surround sound, later on-full HDTV programming, and there is still a $199 deal around. On top of that, right now one can provide a Net connection for computers three times faster than ISDN (14x faster than 28.8) for about the same cost!

Two million new subscribers have dished themselves in each of the last two years for a total of around 8.5 million. Perhaps you're next. Here's how to get the most performance from your satellite investment.

Dish Decisions

First, the common handle for all of this satellite talk has been DSS, which is wrong. DSS is a licensed name by DirecTV and is also licensed to USSB and to the hardware makers of their particular satellite system. The proper generic name is DBS for video (Digital Broadcast Satellite).

There are three basic software services furnishing the programming, and two of these are receivable via dish/receiver gear from more than a single manufacturer. The first and biggest is DSS, originally a confederation of Thomson Electronics (RCA/ProScan/Magnavox/GE) with two program providers, DirecTV and USSB. Now Sony and others such as Toshiba, Hitachi, and Panasonic also offer the equipment in various versions.

The next largest is Primestar, which differs from the other two by employing a larger 2 1/4 to 3 foot wide dish which is provided by their programming service rather than purchased, as with the others' 18" dishes. Coming up fast is EchoStar with their DISH Network, which has different packages of channel availabilities than DirecTV and USSB or Primestar. Depending on various special features, the hardware can range from about $200 to about $500.

How the Hardware Works
The dish antenna is pointed at the satellite, concentrates the signal it picks up from outer space and focuses it on the small amplifier in front of it known as a Low Noise Block downconverter, or LNB. It also down-converts the received 12 GigaHertz signal to from 1 to 1.5 GigaHertz to feed down a standard 75-ohm coax cable to the digital integrated receiver/decoder (box) at your TV. This "box" separates out each channel you have subscribed to, decompresses and translates the digital signal to analog form to feed it into your TV monitor. It has a remote control, a timer on most models, and a switch to flip your set between the dish and an old-fashioned indoor or outdoor antenna. Once the dish is pointed correctly, everything feeds in from the same location in the sky and nothing has to be changed again. Among the options available are the ability to watch two different channels at the same time, simpler on-screen programming and timer operation, and infrared or radio frequency remote controls.

How To Put It Up
About 75 percent of purchasers of DBS hire professionals to mount their dish. You can try it yourself if you're not afraid of heights and ladders. A self-installation kit costs around $50 with most of the dishes. Actually, the height is not the important factor--it's getting a straight, uncluttered shot up into the sky. If tree branches are in the way, you may have to hire a tree service to do some trimming. Many installers will make a free survey of your site to advise you whether they can even guarantee a good dish installation.

You can even disguise your dish if you want, using special fake rocks and other tricks that obscure it but don't block the signal pickup seriously. Most dishes pick up about 80 percent of the original satellite signal, and it can be actually degraded to as little as 30 percent and still work. Very heavy snow is about all that can affect reception, and that is usually only for brief periods. Being digital, your signal is either there or it isn't. Period. There's no in between here. The Sony dish has an exclusive feature of a small LED on the dish that lights up when it is correctly aimed, so you don't have to have a second person in the house checking out the picture while you are dangling from the eaves. The going rate for professional installation is around $200 but varies based on installation complexity and geography. Other Tech Details You Should Know

The dish installation usually doesn't include the telephone line connection that is required for billing the pay-per-view channels, even if you don't subscribe to them. So you may have to hire a phone specialist to install an extension near your TV set. Most of the receivers offer a choice of S-Video, RCA-jack composite video and coax cable outputs to your set; that's in order of decreasing picture quality. (Remember that using a coaxial 75-ohm cable at this point rather than RCA patch cords prevents your getting stereo sound.) Some sets lack S-Video inputs, so you might want to invest in some high end cables for this; they are offered just as with every other sort of wire used in home theater today.

A timer is built into all but the lowest-end receivers, and it can not only put programs you have selected on your screen when they are fed live, it can also control your VCR, bypassing its built-in timer. This neatly solves the problem of the technophobic, 40-percent-of-the-population whose VCR clocks may still be flashing high noon. The more advanced DISH models have three different Event Timers, one of which sends out a blast of infrared signal to start your VCR at the time you select, and later another to stop and rewind it so when you get home it is ready for your to see what you taped. Another timer gives a reminder on your screen when a selected program starts, if you are watching something else at the time.

An Economy System
The one $199 DBS system currently available is the DISH Model 3000, which lacks the built-in timer and can be used only with a single TV. However, this doesn't prevent you from taping shows, simply leave the satellite system on and set the timer in your VCR as required. But you couldn't tape a second program later if it was on a different channel. You still get an infrared remote and on-screen Program Guide with this model. Multiple Sets/Multiple Rooms?

Most users go for the Basic system which allows more than one TV in the house to be hooked up but they all view the same channel simultaneously. If you want to view different channels on different TVs you need the Deluxe models, which feed two separate signals from a pair of LNBs at the dish to two or more sets. The sets tuned to different channels simultaneously all need their own receivers, which are about $130.

How to Get Your Local Channels
The VW Beetle isn't the only retro thing appearing again, TV rabbit ears are another. The reason is that until recently none of the dish systems furnished local on-air TV stations. Those who can get decent reception from at least some of their local stations put up indoor antennas of varying degrees of complexity. They're not nearly as ugly as of yore, and many have amplifiers to furnish the monitor a stronger version of weak signals. The FM25 from Terk, for example, looks like a modern sculpture with two horizontal figure-eight metal bands which are tunable in a couple ways for best reception.

Both DirecTV and DISH systems have alternatives to giving up your reception of local stations. One is just to reduce your present cable service to the bare minimum of the main local stations; this normally costs much less than the standard service. Next is to subscribe to an inexpensive feed of out-of-market network affiliates offered by DirecTV (also called Distant Signal Package). They furnish the eight main networks, including Fox and PBS, for $5 to $7 per month. To qualify you must be unable to receive local stations offering these networks using rabbit ears or rooftop antenna, and you must not have had cable service for the past 90 days. If you can pick up some of the stations but not others, you can subscribe on a per-network basis of about $1.20 per month extra. There are also options for East Coast or West Coast feeds so that the times of programs can be more in sync with what appears in local printed TV schedules.

DISH systems has similar deals, with a choice of either East or West Coast network feeds at $4.99 or both for $7.99. Local reception will be provided as soon as their next satellite, Echo 4, is launched in late Spring. They hope to also offer feeds of many of the local stations in major cities. Atlanta is the first offering, and the cost is $4.99 for the local stations package there, but a second dish and receiver is required since the sources are carried on a different satellite.

The top-of-line DISH model (5000) has the Local Link feature which integrates the local stations, even when accessed from rabbit ears, into the Program Guide. It boasts an on-air TV tuner built into the satellite receiver for this purpose. Lacking this option, you can just turn off the DISH receiver when receiving local broadcast TV, and it will be bypassed.

The choices and different packages are almost mind-boggling. The combination of DirecTV and USSB has the edge with over 200 channels, Primestar is next with about 160 and DISH presently has around 135 channels and is somewhat deficient in sports compared to the other two. They also appear to offer the cheapest package: You choose your ten favorite cable channels (this doesn't include the network feeds or premium channels) and you pay only $15 a month. If you subscribe to the biggest DirecTV package, their Platinum, plus the package of 25 sports channels, you would be billed $87.98 monthly, and that still wouldn't give you the premium movies channels furnished by USSB, such as seven channels of HBO, five of Showtime, three of Cinemax, Two of The Movie Channel and Sundance - that's another $32.99 monthly, making a grand vidiot total of $120.97.

The pay-per-view movies are all $2.99 each except the Spice Channel at $5.99. The pay-per-view sports events often cost a great deal more. There are also various DirecTV sports subscription packages covering the NFL , NBA, NHL, ESPN etc. All the systems include a Program Guide on screen that is easy to use for either immediate viewing or for setting the timer to turn on, or even time-shift a favorite upcoming program. DISH Systems puts the local listings for the major networks right on the Program Guide along with the satellite channels, a convenience not offered by the others.

Music Programming on DBS
The audio music channels are furnished to DirecTV by Music Choice, with up to 31 different channels devoted to continuous unannounced music in most categories, though classical and jazz channels are somewhat meager. However, the on-screen Program Guide can display the selection, performer, CD, and even ordering information for every selection heard during the time it is being fed (but not before, so you can't program it to tape specific music). The budget program packages offer fewer channels to choose from. Primestar secures its audio-only channels from DMX, the service which also is fed via many cable systems. DISH Network uses Muzak as their audio-only source, and doesn't yet have on-screen display but is working on it. The digital quality on all of these is good and can be improved further by adding a good D-A processor if there is a digital out on the receiver.

How is the Picture & Sound Quality?
If you're close enough to your local stations to receive their signal on rabbit ears without noise, you're still going to have to deal with ghosting. It's almost impossible to avoid on at least some stations. Most cable systems start with a really good signal at their head end, but by the time it reaches your set it has gone through so many circuits, cables and amplifiers that it has picked up all sorts of noise, both visually and on the sound portion. With digital conversion and compression that cable systems are now using to fit many channels where one analog channel was before, picture quality suffers even more.

Programming comes into the particular uplink center in the central part of the U.S. Some of it is standard analog but an increasing amount is provided in digital form already, thus maintaining better image quality. Both are compressed and fed into the satellite system at the center. Much of the satellite movie programming comes from compressed digital videotapes with 600 lines vertical resolution. Your NTSC TV can only show 425 lines even when adjusted to its maximum resolution quality (which few are). So this is basically what you see on your set via the digital dish transmissions. The broadcast tuner built into your set and VCR can only receive about 350 lines vertical resolution, so when watching via rabbit ears or cable you cannot possibly get more than that.

As these numbers suggest, the DBS picture is a great improvement over anything you would get via cable or VHS tape; nearly as good as laserdisc or DVD most of the time and often their equal or better. There is no noise or ghosting and the scanning lines, being free of noise, seem to blend together for a more seamless image on the screen. The primary occasional artifact on certain sports and action movies is "pixellation" in certain areas, where tiny rectangles briefly appear and disappear. And don't forget the sound is digital too and less affected by hum, noise, and annoying sync buzz that can happen when some areas of the image are overly bright. Shows with Dolby Surround Sound come through with improved clarity of the surround field. Letterboxed Movies

Most videophiles, especially Laserdisc collectors, demand letterbox display of widescreen (16x9 aspect ratio) movies. In other words, if the director shot them widescreen they want to view them roughly the same way, with black bars above and below the image. This is the alternative to pan and scan, in which most network widescreen movies are manipulated by panning and cropping to fit the 4 X 3 ratio standard screen--losing about 30 percent of the movie!

Ever notice a nose on the left edge of your screen conversing with a nose on the right edge? That's pan and scan. The video converter, which is 4 X 3, can only select that portion of the image, and it can't image two different places on the original film frame at once. It could either pan over to the entire face on the left or the other on the right, but not show both if they are widely separated.

While the premium movie channels show most films as pan and scan, the pay-per-view offerings frequently have several different starting times available, and the film you can chose at one of those starting times is often provided letterboxed, at the same $2.99. For example, this month on Direct Ticket from DirecTV, the letterbox offerings include Air Force One, GI Jane, and The Edge.

Dish Systems
Digital VHS VCRs are here! They use standard VHS blank tape but tape digitally for even better picture and sound than the premium S-VHS format, especially at the slow speeds. There's really no loss of image quality at all, making time-shifting or building a library of shows and movies a pleasure for the videophile.

JVC and DISH Network have cooperated on the first combination satellite receiver and D-VHS recorder, the HM-DSR 100DU. The combined receiver and VCR means one less black box in the home theater cabinet, and hooking up to tape off the dish is simplified. Only the dish-fed digital signal may be recorded digitally; over-the-air telecasts must be recorded as standard analog VHS, which it also plays back. (Look for a complete review of this setup in The Audio Revolution soon)

Internet Service
Another combo act is Hughes' DirecDuo system, offered by many DSS dealers, which accesses both DirecTV/USSB and a very speedy Internet service provider--both from a single dish. The disc is larger than the standard 18" "pizza" dish, with an oval shape of 21 by 36 inches. The LRB has two receptors - one for DSS and the other for data transmission. This is only a receive "Turbo InterNet" connection; you still have to retain your modem for uploading to the Net. But the speed (400 Kbps) is about three times that of already fast ISDN connection, at about the same overall cost. (That also makes it 14 times as fast as a 28.8 modem.) The user does have to have a special ISA card installed in a free slot in their PC, so far not available for Mac fans. One really standout feature of the DirecDuo system, as I'm sure any couch potato will agree, is a backlit remote control. The whole kielbasa, with the ISA card for your computer, runs about $800 and the usual monthly costs are either $40 or $60 depending on the amount of on-line use.

No matter how you cut it Satellite TV provides more programming with higher quality for your theater system. With new "birds" being shot into space we can expect to see send and receive internet service, 5.1 soundtracks for movies and TV, HDTV or D-TV high resolution broadcasts and more. With the cost of entry well under $1000 for the equipment and monthly service plans comparable with cable, it is hard to argue why one wouldn't invest in a good satellite package.

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