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Star Choice HD

Star Choice and HD: Helping Push the Future of TV

By Les Enser

The Canadian satellite industry continues to make advances and offers many TV channels for just about any taste.

Canada has two satellite providers who are authorized by the CRTC, Star Choice and Bell ExpressVu.

Recently Star Choice offered us an opportunity to check out a new Motorola receiver that not only offers the regular channels but also an offering of HDTV channels. We immediately took up the challenge and since we happened to have an HDTV ready TV at our disposal, plugged it in with gusto. (editor’s note: we’ll be doing a similar feature on Bell ExpressVu’s model 6100 HD receiver soon as well)

After a bit of organizing of schedules we finally received the new Motorola DSR500 receiver along with a new oval dish. The receiver has the new “silver” look currently common in the electronics industry, along with a fascinating front panel light display. Once powered up the display danced its amber light show. Offering a large screen to indicate both channel and time, there was no missing of reading the display across the room. The Star Choice dish features a Quad LNB system, which allows you to connect up to 4 receivers.

Eagerly, I searched for the HDTV channels and found that six channels are currently being offered. The channels originate from Detroit, Seattle, and Boston. Fortunately, I was able to experience various channel themes from, NHL playoff hockey to Travel shows and of course various sitcoms and dramas. I quickly found out that the quality can vary from show to show. I was thoroughly impressed with the colors and detail of Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, while others were of lower or more inconsistent quality.

Star Choice picks and chooses what HD programming it offers on its HD channels, a little from one channel and a little from another, so your favorite shows may or may not be in HD on any particular night. Or that’s how it appeared. Most of the special event programming we wanted to see, however, such as major sports events, awards shows or the like, are broadcast in HD when available.

Once you experience HDTV you yearn for more. It truly sets itself apart from the regular channels. It reminded me of the difference of FM and AM radio in the seventies.

According to Star Choice, they’re planning more HD channels in the future, but as of this writing no confirmed date has been given as to when this expansion will take place. This currently leaves Star Choice in the dust as far as HD channels offered when compared with Bell ExpressVu, but on the other hand most of the HD channels aren’t broadcasting HD programming constantly anyway since the format is still young.

The Motorola receiver offers many features, from digital audio outputs, component TV outputs (for HD), and even a front panel connector to input various external sources such as a video camera. The system also features both infrared and radio frequency remote (RF). The latter offering operation virtually throughout the house.

Star Choice, along with the receiver itself, offers an new user interface that is bold and colorful. It even now offers a picture guide that allows you to keep an eye on your original program while searching for others. It took a little time to get used to the new interface since we have used the older interface for a number of years, but after a short time it became apparent the new “look” offers works better and is easier to read.

At first we found the tuning of channels took an extra couple of steps. Once you select a channel from the guide we had to scroll past “Reminder”, “Auto-tune”, and then to “Tuning”. However the selections are numbered and we found it faster to merely enter the corresponding number.

The Star Choice technical support staff for Star Choice was a pleasure to deal with. We had to consult with them a couple of times about questions we had, and they were fully knowledgeable about their products and offered helpful information to make for a pleasant experience. It’s nice to know that support like this is available, especially if one is new to satellite ownership.

Program packages range from the basic, to the “full meal deal”, along with a number of music channels for just about any taste and budget.

For the HDTV enthusiast Star Choice offers the following channels:

PBS Detroit, CBS, NBC, ABC, KING Seattle, and KAYU Seattle. Programming can vary from sports such as the 2004 Summer Olympics, Travel Show, to Jay Leno. At times, since these channels aren't dedicated to a single HD source, you can be in the middle of an HD program and then suddenly have it over ridden by Jay Leno in HD. So while it's nice to have the HD access,it's a little annoying when in the middle of another program you find yourself kicked out and watching something else.

At times we found a “lip synching” problem with the picture (more about this later) and discovered from Star Choice’s technical staff that HD requires a tremendous amount of processing and at times this can cause this problem. The equipment required to handle all of the HD signals may not always fully capable of processing all of the bandwidth required for flawless transmission right now, but as High Definition progresses so will the equipment and should eventually solve the lyp synch problem.

Eventually this will all come out of the wash once HD equipment gets better and becomes more commonplace in Canadian homes.

But on to our observations about HD itself!

The picture itself, when a channel is running a good HD signal, is stunning. There’s a depth to it that’s remarkable and the colors are rich and deep – it even makes sitcoms look outstanding! It’s so good it makes you notice the limitations of DVD’s and their lower, 480 pixel, resolution. And we love the widescreen, especially on sports events (where you can see more of the playing surface) and movies!

However all isn’t sweetness and light. We noticed sometimes that there could be issues, including that lack of synchronization between the audio and the video, making the program look like a badly dubbed Godzilla movie. We also noticed this on our ExpressVu test unit, so it isn’t just a Star Choice thing.

We also noticed some "digital breakup" in the background of fast-moving scenes such as Olympic diving (and this was also noticed on Bell ExpressVu's transmissions, so once again it appears to be the current nature of the beast). The divers would look great, but the scene behind them as they plummeted became digitized.

Star Choice transmits all its HD content in 1080i “since most TV's accept this format.” They don’t necessarily use the format (an increasing number of LCD and DLP TV’s accept 1080i, but display 720p). Star Choice's DSR can up or down convert the signal to 480i, 480p, and 1080i. There’s also a “native mode” that actually allows the signal to pass through the receiver and allow the TV to select the best format for itself.

This is a terrific idea because it means the user doesn’t have to worry about which format is best.

Our main complaint with the Star Choice HD service is that there isn’t enough HD. This is the same complaint we have with the Bell ExpressVu service, despite Bell ExpressVu offering far more dedicated HD channels. The problem is in programming content itself. While there’s more HD every week, it seems, most of the time the HD broadcasters are still merely offering simulcasts of their non-HD programming.

Commercials in HD are few and far between, too. Not that we advocate commercials, of course, but many are shot in widescreen and yet when it comes time to broadcast them they appear in a window in the middle of the screen, letterboxed and keyholed instead of filling the whole 16x9 wide screen the way they should.

Still, this will all sort itself out in time.

How about satellite TV in Canada in general, and Star Choice in particular? We've heard various rumors, some of which were conflicting, so we asked Peter Bissonette, President of Star Choice Communications, about the state of Star Choice in Canada.

"There is steady growth in the rural areas," Bissonette told TechnoFile, "and modest growth in urban areas. Rural areas do not have all of the choices available as in the urban areas.” Bissonette points out that Ontario and Quebec have seen strong growth over the years. “Our products are popular in those areas and we will continue to expand there."

As for Star Choice remaining a main player in this business, Bissonette says "Absolutely. With the launching of The Anik F2 satellite, Star Choice will be offering more unique services.” Bissonette says the company will be placing an emphasis on program bundling, which he says is an important part of their business. “We are planning on bundling Internet and digital telephone options,” he says, hinting that Star Choice will offer AOL across Canada, and he’s confident that will attract a number of potential new customers.

And as for the future of HD channels and Star Choice, Bissonette says “We are going to offer a 24 hour HD movie service along with a roll out of new PVRs (personal video recorders). Our PVRs will have the ability to record full HD programming.” Bissonette says the Star Choice HD PVRs will also be made by Motorola, and “we are working hard on adding more HD channels as they become available."

Bissonette advises HD-philes to “stay tuned,” saying that announcements will be made as more HD channels are fired up.

Sounds good to us! HD is the future of television, whether via satellite, cable, or (eventually) the Internet, and we can’t wait until it finally becomes ubiquitous.

 

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