Bell ExpressVu Ups its HDTV Ante
By Jim Bray
High definition TV is all the buzz in the consumer electronics world,
and justifiably so.
HDTV offers a spectacular widescreen picture that can make DVDs
look pale in comparison, as well as digital surround sound that can bring
the movie theater's audio experience into your home.
Alas, while you literally trip over HDTV-compatible television sets
when visiting your local electronics store these days, the amount of programming
doesn't match the amount of devices that can display it. This is changing,
of course, but it will take several more years until HDTV programming
Does that mean you should wait? Not necessarily. If you need a new TV
anyway, you can make the jump into HDTV right now and enjoy whatever HD
This also depends on your programming source. Cable operators and the
Canadian satellite providers offer varying amount of HD programming. Some
dedicate few channels to HD, mixing and matching HD programming from a
variety of network sources depending on the whims of the program provider
and the availability of programming. This is a lot better than nothing,
especially since most of the HD channels arent broadcasting HD 24
hours a day anyway.
At the other end of the spectrum is Canadian satellite operator Bell
ExpressVu, which offers an entire HD section in its lineup that transmits
dedicated HD channels regardless of whether they happen to be showing
something in HD at any particular time. This gives the user the freedom
to choose programming by program, channel, or time, rather than relying
on the wiles of the programming providers.
It also means you have a lot of non HD programming running on the HD
channels, but at least you're getting the unadulterated feed.
Bell ExpressVus current HDTV satellite receiver is the Model 6100,
accepts and displays both 720p and 1080i signals. It's available for about
$370 Canadian, installed, for a two year term (add about $100 for a one
year term) and adds new functionality over the old model 6000.
The 6100 offers enhanced security via its removable smart card (though
when I received my test unit it didnt have or need
a smart card), an electronic program guide that also lets you watch TV
while youre surfing and is compatible with interactive TV services.
Its also DVI-equipped.
The 6100s HD and traditional outputs are live all the time and
the signals can be up and down converted to show HD and/or SD channels
on the opposite type of TV. This is a nice touch for people who may want
to run the signal to more than one TV, one of which isnt HD-ready.
The 6100 also comes with a UHF remote control. This is also really handy
if youre feeding the signal from a single receiver throughout the
house. In my home, for example, I have an SD receiver in our laundry room,
where the cable from the dish comes into the house. This feeds TVs
in different rooms and, thanks to the UHF remote, I can control the receiver
from any of them (having extra UHF remotes makes this even better). The
downside to this is that all the TVs hooked into that receiver have
to watch the same program.
In use, I noticed that, as with its Star Choice competitor reviewed
here, the Bell ExpressVu receiver can
sometimes make an HD broadcast appear like one of those Godzilla or martial
arts movies where the action and the soundtrack are out of whack. I would
think some kind of fix is in the works, and since this problem hasnt
reared its ugly head nearly as much lately, if at all, it may have already
The high definition picture quality is very good, a quantum leap from
standard definition. Remembering that GIGA (garbage in, garbage
out) affects HD as well as anything else, with a good HD signal the colors
are rich and deep and the picture detail is incredible. It almost makes
sitcoms worth watching!
Theres a depth to the HD picture thats remarkable; its
so good it makes you notice the limitations of DVDs and their lower,
480 pixel (as opposed to HDs 720 or 1080 pixels), resolution. And
the widescreen aspect ratio is terrific, especially on sports events (where
you can see more of the playing surface in longer shots) and for movies.
I watched Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in HD on the Bell
ExpressVu 6120 and it was spectacular.
All isnt sweetness and light, however. Besides the lack of audio
synchronization at times, I also noticed some "digital breakup" in the
background of fast-moving scenes such as Olympic diving (this was on both
Star Choice and ExpressVu receivers, so it's undoubtedly the nature of
the current beast). The divers would look great, but the scene behind
them as they plummeted became digitized. On the other hand, you had to
look for it with a video snob's eye or you may not have noticed it.
I had other audio problems with the Bell ExpressVu unit, too. Periodically,
usually when the timing was the most annoying, the audio would fade out
completely to silence and the only way to get it back was to change channels
or bring up the programming guide and then return to the original channel.
It was quite annoying. And a few times the audio would disappear only
to be replaced with a horrible noise, fixed with the same solution as
the audio fade out.
The model 6100 needed to be rebooted a few times as well, which meant
I had to unplug it and plug it in again.
Fortunately, these were the exceptions rather than the rule, and I expect
software downloads will fix them.
The bottom line here is that this Bell ExpressVu HD receiver does an
excellent job and should serve you well.
Whats more important for your HD enjoyment is the programming,
and as of this writing Bell ExpressVu beats the Canadian competition hands
For example, while Star Choice currently offers six HD channels, they
pick and choose what HD programming is offered at any particular time,
a little from one channel and a little from another, so your favorite
shows may or may not be in HD. Most of the special event programming,
such as major sports events, awards shows or the like, are broadcast in
HD when available, however.
One real downside to this is that you can be watching an HD program
happily, only to discover that all of a sudden the powers that be have
deigned that a different show be broadcast and youll find yourself
kicked out of your HD heaven and forced into something else you may not
This doesn't happen with Bell ExpressVu.
Bell ExpressVu offers full time HD channels and theyre
up to about 20 of them now, not counting pay per view and occasional HD
feeds such as special "one time" events). The downside of this approach
is that there are plenty of times when you can surf through your HD channels
and find little, if anything, thats actually being broadcast in
HD. This isnt Bell ExpressVus fault, of course, but is thanks
to the fact that there just isnt enough HD programming yet.
Incidentally, what you get when a non-HD program is broadcast on the
HD channel is the old fashioned, squarish picture in the middle of the
screen, with black or grey bars to each side. This is no big deal if you
have an LCD or DLP television (except for the loss of the glorious HD
picture), but if your TV is traditional CRT or plasma you need to stretch
the picture to fill the whole screen or those bars will burn in permanently,
damaging your TV.
Anyway, Bell ExpressVu offers full time HD broadcasts of ABC, CBS, FOX,
NBC and PBS from the US, from both Boston and Seattle, as well as WGN
HD, and its Canadian offerings include 2 CTV feeds and CITY TV, along
with Sportsnet and a new feed from Global. There are about four HD PPV
channels and two HD movie channels as well.
For an extra premium of two bucks per month you can also access TSN
and Discovery Channel HD, but unfortunately their HD offerings are few
and far between and probably not worth the premium at this time. You can
apparently avoid the premium by subscribing to the non-HD packages in
which theyre bundled. Bell ExpressVus regular HD channel lineup
costs an extra $10 per month. This may seem a tad steep, but it becomes
a better value every month as more HD programs arrive.
CBC fires up an HD channel every few months, it seems, so they can force
us to watch Brian Williams massacring some sports event. It also did a
couple of HD specials in October, 2004, but their on-screen descriptions
made them look like typical CBC stuff so I didnt bother seeking
them out. Hey, as great as HD is, it wont make a silk purse out
of a sows ear!
Last year the CBC missed presenting the Grey Cup in HD, but managed
to mount an HD feed of the heritage hockey game from Edmonton the following
week. As someone who couldn't care less about hockey but who bleeds for the
CFL, I was PO'd.
So right now, Bell ExpressVu wins the HD programming title hands down.
But the technology and its broadcasting is still in its infancy, so its
inevitable that over time this will even out.
HD is definitely the future of television, whether transmitted via satellite,
cable, or (eventually) the Internet, and I cant wait until it finally
Unfortunately, its going to take years.
Tell us at TechnoFile what YOU think