Despite the rise in popularity of IPTV services and streaming, plus the on-going competition from Freeview, the world of satellite broadcasting is very much alive and well.
In fact, with the rise of Ultra HD satellite services are viable ways of getting broadcast 4K content in to the home. It’s not all about Sky, although they do undoubtedly dominate the dish market, there are many other platforms and possibilities when you’re receiving transmissions from ‘Space’. We’re going to walk you through some of the basics you need to know and look at some of the possibilities for the future.
Let’s start with the basics; you’re not going to get very far if you have no means of receiving satellite broadcasts, so you’re going to need a dish. There are several main categories of satellite dish that fall in to the following categories:
Fixed/Stationary Satellite DishAs the name would suggest, this kind doesn’t move by any electro-mechanical means so it has to be manually aligned to a satellite so that it can ‘see’ its signal. The larger the dish, the greater number of signals it is able to receive but static dishes are, by nature, limited to only receiving signals from satellites that are grouped closely together. If you’re just looking at Freesat, you don’t need anything grandiose but if you want to be able to receive from two satellites, you’ll need one 80cm in diameter.
Motorised Satellite DishYou guessed it; a motorised satellite dish has a little motor built-in, allowing it to be positioned to pick up a wider array of signals. It might surprise you to learn that there are around a thousand free signals out there and the majority of satellite receivers are able to control them, and even some TVs. By nature – not least because of the motor - they tend to be larger than stationary ones with diameters of anything up to 1.5m, although you should get by with something smaller.
LNB (Low Noise Block downconverter)This is the little ‘arm’ you can see coming out from the side of the dish and it impacts on the number of rooms/devices to which you can distribute the signal, as well as the number of signals able to be received. The curve of the dish ‘focuses’ the signals to the LNB, which then converts them to a format the receiving equipment can deal with and distributes them down the cables.
Broadly speaking, there are four main types:
Sky Universal LNB – designed for Sky dishes and able to distribute to two zones.
Single-line LNB – these receive only one signal and can only send it on to a single device
Dual Band LNB – Able to receive multiple signals
Multi-LNB – Capable of receiving multiple signals and distributing them to multiple receivers
If you’re a home with just the one telly, a Single-line LNB will be sufficient else you need to go Multi.
Zone 1 or Zone 2 Dish?Where you are located in the UK governs how good (strong) a satellite signal you will receive with the basic rule of thumb being England and Wales get a better deal than Scotland and Ireland. In theory this means you’ll want Zone 1 for England & Wales and Zone 2 otherwise. That said, a Zone 2 dish offers better protection from weather and tropospheric conditions that adversely affect satellite signals (AKA better rain margin) and, let’s face it, if you live in North Wales or the North West of England, you’re not unfamiliar with the sight of rain. You should get some information from a local installer as to what works best where you are. Naturally a Zone 1 dish is smaller and more discrete than a Zone 2.
Dish MountingDish mounting is almost a whole new subject in itself and covers such areas as bolts, chimney mounting equipment, wall mounting brackets, ground mountings, tripod assemblies, angled brackets, protective rubber feet for LNB F connectors and more. The circumstances of your installation will govern the specific items you are going to need but you can almost stake the house that if you have an issue, there will be a solution out there to solve it.
SkyWe’re not here to sell you a Sky contract but they do, arguably, offer the most diverse range of channels in the UK and definitely the widest array of HD channels. Sky Sports are readying themselves for UHD broadcasting, although it is yet unclear when they will deliver it as they have concerns over the abilities of the existing 4K TVs technology in being able to deliver it smoothly. Sky uses the Astra (28.2 degrees east) and Eulesat's (28.5 degrees east) satellites.
FreesatFreesat uses the exact same satellite setup as Sky, so you can receive all of its transmissions without changing your dish alignment, or even your Sky box, but if you want some of the nifty Freesat features like Freetime, you’ll need a Freesat certified receiver or TV. There are only a couple of TV manufacturers supporting the platform now and you’ll need to look at the higher-end Samsung and Panasonic TVs if you want built-in compatibility.
InternationalWith the appropriate equipment, i.e. a large motorised dish and the appropriate viewing card, it’s possible to view channels from all around the globe. It is easiest to get the European channels but you can search further afield however keeping up with what’s on when can then become a bit of a minefield. In fact, we’d go as far as saying it’s a hobbyist’s pursuit and you can find lots of great information from our members in our Satellite Forum. It takes research to know which satellite(s) a particular broadcaster uses and then you have to get everything else in alignment; in fact, we’re only scraping the surface here.
Receivers & Recorders
We’re assuming AVForums readers are only going to be interested in satellite receivers with HD capability but you can pick up SD only versions, if you wish. Obviously, if your TV isn’t HD capable, you’ll have to go down that route but surely there aren’t many reading this who don’t own one. It’s also useful to consider how much recording you’re actually going to do; or if you’re going to do any at all. For those with no recording needs, again in the minority, a simple receiving box will do. If you need to record you’re going to need a PVR (Personal Video Recorder)/ DVR (Digital Video Recorder) type.
Satellite RecordersAre you a hoarder or archiver requiring loads of hard drive space – and remember HD programmes take up around 4x the space SD do – or are you more of a catch-up type who just uses it to catch up with their favourite shows and then deletes? Kids can also be a factor with their multiple series recordings, so the bigger the family you have, the more hard drive (HDD) space you’re likely to need. The amount of space a PVR will have will be labelled in either GB (Gigabytes) or for those with really large capacity in TB (Terabytes); a TB is equivalent to 1000GB and will give you approximately 250 hrs of HD recording capacity.
High Definition Receivers and RecordersThe vast majority of recorders out there are HD capable and can record signals up to 1080p. Some, notably Sky boxes, are even 3D capable although it is possible to get 3D broadcast content from elsewhere. There are also some that offer Smart TV features, mostly media playback over network or USB but a few now include app stores – notably Humax – opening up the possibilities that bit more. A minority of satellite recorders allow you to archive your recordings in a number of ways, including to a USB HDD, over the network or even to the cloud.
Ultra HD Satellite Receivers & RecordersAs you would expect, Ultra HD satellite receiving equipment is very scarce at the moment and you’ll need to be careful in the early stages of the format’s life. You will want a box with HDMI 2.0/HDCP 2.2 compatibility, or you’ll not be future-proofed, and of course you’re going to need a very large hard drive as the programmes will take up an awful lot of space. Even with the new, and highly efficient, HEVC encoding/decoding method, a UHD show will take up 3-4 the space of the HD equivalent.
FreetimeFreesat’s Freetime service launched in 2012 and has gone from strength to strength since. In fact, it’s not actually exclusive to Freesat as Freeview is now supported but you don’t see as many Freetime capable devices on the Freeview platform. Too many Frees? It provides features including a Roll Back TV guide that lets you ‘turn back time’ to watch programmes that have already been on, ‘Showcase’ providing daily TV recommendations and enhanced On-Demand and if you’ve any experience of YouView, you’ll already be quite familiar with what’s on offer.
Accessories & peripherals
ConnectorsGetting a good quality signal through to your receiving device is crucial and there are a few key elements to consider. Ideally, what is known as F connector is fitted on a lead from a satellite dish and it screws into the appropriate socket of the receiver. If you’re going to be regularly connecting and disconnecting, you might want to consider a ‘quick push’ adapter that converts a screw on F connector into a push fit connector. There are a two types of F Connector and it’s debatable which works best; do you crimp on or screw on? Well, some insist that crimping is the way to go but other than proving a slightly more secure connection, there should be no difference from a signal quality perspective. Some equipment only has Coaxial connections, however, and in these cases you will need an F to Co-ax adapter. It is also advisable to avoid using wall/surface plates when hooking up your dish, as they can degrade the signal, but if you do want to keep things nice and tidy, so long as you use a good quality screened non-isolated type, you should be OK. In an ideal world you would not want to break the cable connection between the dish and receiver but some installation situations means it does have to happen. In this instance, you will need a back to back connector to bridge the cables and then that can be covered by good quality amalgamating tape.
CableThere are three main types of coaxial cabling used to run from your dish to your receiver. Low loss co-ax offers a long life expectancy but has questions over its screening capabilities; the alloy foil type has much better screening but doesn’t last as long; the copper foil type offers the best screening and the longest life although, of course, that makes it the most expensive. A Single coaxial cable is used with basic receivers but any receiver with twin tuners – or more - and multiple-LNB setups will need double (sometimes known as shotgun or twinsat) or multiple-style cables.
Alignment ToolsIt is usually easy enough to mount a normal TV aerial to be aligned with your nearest TV transmitter by eye and compass but a dish needs more precision. It needs to be exactly aligned to a particular heading and elevation so it is focussed on the correct satellite (or group of satellites). To do this you will need a signal finder – which attaches to the LNB – and will display what quality of signal is being received from a particular alignment and when you have it in the right place.. You can pick these up for yourself quite cheaply but a quick hint is – check out how other dishes in your street are aligned and try and mimic those for a good starting point.
Satellite Combiners/Splitters/MultiswitchersIf you’re a real satellite TV fiend, you may find the need to combine the signals of multiple dishes or LNBs to one receiver. Or, you may want to feed the signal from one dish in to more than one receiver. It is important to consider the ideas of strength versus quality here and it’s more important that you get high quality over high strength. If the quality of signal your dish is receiving is both good and strong then you may be able to use simple (and cheap) two way splitting devices. To distribute a signal from a dish to multiple receivers, requires a Quattro LNB with a multiswitch. This is something that people often like to do with their Sky connections as it means you’ll only need one box, provided you’re happy that all your TVs will be showing the same programme. That does call in to question how you are going to operate the box from a room remote to it but, once again, solutions exist in the form of Digi Link amps which can send the infra-red signal from the remote around the home. Multiswitchers allow for the connection of multiple dishes and/or LNBs to multiple receivers and are generally not inexpensive.
As we said above, we're just getting you started here but hopefully you feel you have sufficient grounding to begin your satellite TV odyssey, but if you have any questions, please don't hesitate to use the discussion tabs above and below.
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