Originally published in Personal Computer World
If you’ve not gone digital yet, you’ve only got a few years before it’s unavoidable. Nigel Whitfield explores the options for satellite TV on your PC.
TV on your PC isn’t anything new; there have been tuner cards around for years, allowing you to pick up analogue stations and record them on your hard drive. But broadcasting is changing to digital, and the existing analogue signal is set to switch off by 2012. There’ll be more channels, high definition and exciting new services.
While many people will just choose a set top box, digital TV and the PC are natural bedfellows, allowing you to use the PC to record programmes, and put it at the heart of an entertainment system. Take a look around the PC stores, though, and you’ll get the impression that where TV on your PC is concerned, terrestrial reception is the only game in town, with tuners for analogue or Freeview easily available. But what if you want channels that aren’t available on Freeview, or you can’t even get a signal? You could be forgiven for thinking that you can’t do satellite TV on your PC – but you’d be wrong. And in this article we’ll explain how you can tune in.
To many people in the UK, satellite is synonymous with Sky’s subscription package; in most of the rest of Europe, however, that’s not the case – in many countries, free satellite services are much better established, partly because there isn’t the extensive analogue terrestrial coverage that most people in the UK take for granted. And, even in the UK, a subscription isn’t a necessary part of satellite television. Both the BBC and ITV broadcast their channels ‘Free to air’ or FTA, which means there’s no encryption needed – and that includes the BBC’s HD trial channel, and the ‘extra’ digital channels like BBC3, BBC4 and CBBC.
And just as terrestrial broadcasting is a standard, so too is digital satellite, using a system known as DVB-S; so a DVB-S receiver, whether stand-alone or PC-based, is all you need to be able to pick up extra FTA channels. Why pay Sky then? They provide an electronic programme guide, and also ‘regionalisation,’ which ensures, for example, that people who watch ITV via Sky automatically see the correct version for their area on channel 103.
On a standard satellite receiver, not having a programme guide can be annoying – most channels simply broadcast Now and Next info – and it’s not always easy to move channels around. But on a PC, it’s much easier to overcome those issues; you can download programme information from the internet, organise channels how you like, and even record directly to the hard drive. So whether you can’t get Freeview, you want to sample the BBC’s HD service, or you just fancy a few extra channels, a satellite receiver for your PC could be the solution.
First, you need a dish; if there’s not one set up already, don’t despair – they’re actually quite simple to set up, with a compass and a £20 satellite finder, and you don’t even need to fit it to the side of your building; you can site a small dish on the patio if you like, as long as it faces in the right direction. Our sister magazine ActiveHome explained exactly how to install and align a dish – an article that I’ll be adding to GoneDigital soon; there are plenty of web sites that will help you calculate the alignment, such as www.satsig.net/ssazelm.htm. If you do have a dish, remember to check out ‘Satellite basics’ – it’s not as simple to share it between an existing receiver and your PC as you might think.
You’ll also need to decide what sort of receiver you want to use; although in our visits to retailers all we could find on the high street was a PCI satellite card, there are also receivers available that can connect via USB or FireWire, which may be easier for some installations, and essential if you’re using a laptop.
Choosing the right card or adaptor isn’t just a matter of deciding if you want internal or external, though – there are other things to bear in mind too. For example, some cards will come with a remote control, or with AV inputs, so that you can pass signals from a DVD player or VCR through them, giving your PC more of a media-centre feel.
There are also two other key factors. First is encryption – it’s used to protect pay channels, and in the satellite world, what looks like a PC card slot on a receiver or adaptor is known as a Common Interface slot; equipment with one of these can accept a CAM, or Conditional Access Module, into which the smart card for a subscription package works. It means, essentially, that you can pick the CAM for the service you want to subscribe to, and you’re not forced to buy a receiver from the TV company.
The big fly in the ointment – and a potential stumbling block for UK users – is Sky; there’s no official CAM available for Sky’s encryption, so you usually need to have one of their receivers and a card, even for free to view channels, like Channel 4 or five. We say ‘usually,’ because a programmable CAM, called the Dragon CAM, can emulate Sky’s encryption, but the card still needs to be put in a genuine Sky box from time to time for regular updates, even if it’s a free card. For most people in the UK, this really means that it’s best not to bother with a CI slot and CAM, and simply use satellite on your PC for Free To Air channels.
The second factor you need to consider is High Definition. We said earlier that the satellite standard is called DVB-S; that’s true, but only half the story. There’s a newer standard called DVB-S2, which is so far used by only a few channels, but is likely to be used by more in future, as they move to HD; the BBC’s HD service uses DVB-S right now, but may switch, so if you want to be futureproof, you should invest in a card or add-on receiver than supports DVB-S2.
It’s also worth considering the software you want to use on your PC – we’ll look at some of the options later. But for now, keep in mind that if you want to use a particular piece of software, rather than just accepting what comes with a satellite card or adaptor, check the compatibility list first – some programs are very picky, and having the ‘BDA’ drivers necessary for Windows Media Centre is no guarantee that a card will work with other software. In many cases, it may be best to decide which software you want to use and choose a card or external satellite adaptor that’s known to be compatible.
If you want to watch HD channels, remember that you’ll also need a codec that understands the H.264 MPEG4/AVC format used on many of them; and that goes hand in hand with a powerful PC. It’s hard to give a definite figure for how powerful a PC you’ll need – it will depend on the satellite card you have, and the graphics card – but it’s likely you’ll need at least a 3Ghz Pentium 4 for smooth playback; dual core machines will perform better.
There are three main choices of codec for playing back the HD streams – CoreAVC (www.coreavc.com), Cyberlink’s H.264 codec, included with PowerDVD 7 (www.cyberlink.com), and Elecard’s Moonlight H.264 (www.elecard.com); expect to pay around £30 for a codec if you don’t have one already – if you’ve already equipped your computer for playback of HD discs, it should be capable of managing satellite, since the broadcast bit rate is lower than you’ll find on a disc; August’s Hands On Hardware and Performance columns cover the requirements for HD in more detail.
Turn on, tune in
If you just want to dip your toe in the waters with satellite TV, without worrying about HD – or you plan to upgrade to a graphics card that will do it justice later – you don’t need to worry about a codec; you just need software that will tune in your satellite card or adaptor, and play the MPEG2 video streams, and maybe record them on your hard drive.
We experimented with the Kworld DVB-S 100 card, available from Maplin (www.maplin.co.uk) for around £60. Other manufacturers making cards and adaptors include ElGato, Hauppage, Technisat and TwinHan. The Kworld is a basic card which comes with its own software and a copy of CyberLink’s PowerCinema 5, which effectively turns your PC into a media centre, so you can record from satellite, and play back music, video and photos on the PC, without needing Microsoft’s Media Centre.
In use, however, we found configuration a nightmare; to successfully scan all the channels, it was necessary to power the computer off completely if an error occurred – otherwise PowerCinema would claim to find over 200 channels, but actually duplicate the first nine many times! We had better luck with ProgDVB (www.progdvb.com), which can be downloaded free, though it’s a more bare-bones application, without the slick interface of PowerCinema – but it can still record shows, display TV full screen, and will decode HD streams, as long as you have a suitable codec installed; Elecard will sell you a version bundled with a H.264 codec for
Setup is a little bewildering for newcomers; you need to use the Diseqc settings screen to specify what sort of LNB you have – the defaults should be ok for the UK – and which satellite it’s pointing at, before you can scan for channels. Diseqc is a satellite standard that’s used to select between multiple LNBs, or control movable dishes; for a single-dish setup, you’ll typically choose ‘None’ for the Diseqc option, then add an LNB pointing at the Astra 2 satellites, at 28.2 East.
Another solution is the $99 (£50) TS Reader (www.coolstf.com) which is notable for its ability to stream a channel to the VLC media player (www.videolan.org); that opens up the possibility of having the satellite card on one system, and watching a channel on laptop elsewhere in your house – but it’s a much more technical application; for a free media-centre type system, check out GBPVR (www.gbpvr.com), though as with other packages, you’ll find limited compatibility with satellite cards.
All this, of course, is largely academic if you want to watch channels that are Free To View on Sky’s system; by the time you’ve obtained a Dragon CAM, and paid for a satellite PCI card or adaptor with a CI slot, the costs will soon be mounting up – and you still won’t have a programme guide without hunting around on the net. One alternative, if you do want to be able to record from channel’s on Sky’s system is CielPlus (www.cielplus.com), and add-on card for some Sky boxes that provides a USB port and lets you access the data using TS Reader – and even schedule recordings via the Sky programme guide.
Ultimately, of course, the big question is “Is it worth it?” And there’s no clear answer to that – for a future-proof card that can receive DVB-S2, you could pay over £100, plus the cost of your dish and LNB. And you still won’t be able to receive Channel 4 and five easily; but on the other hand, if you simply want HD, and have a powerful enough PC, or would like access to a range of foreign TV stations, using your PC to record satellite TV is likely to be cheaper than buying a stand-alone satellite PVR – and potentially a lot more flexible.