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. (editors
note: well be doing a similar feature on Bell ExpressVus 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 Lenos
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 thats
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, theyre 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 arent 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
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
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. Its 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.
Theres a depth to it thats remarkable and the colors are rich
and deep it even makes sitcoms look outstanding! Its so good
it makes you notice the limitations of DVDs 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 isnt 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 isnt
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 dont necessarily use the format (an
increasing number of LCD and DLP TVs accept 1080i, but display 720p).
Star Choice's DSR can up or down convert the signal to 480i, 480p, and
1080i. Theres 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 doesnt have
to worry about which format is best.
Our main complaint with the Star Choice HD service is that there isnt
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 theres 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 hes 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 cant wait until it finally