Will satellite give me the same features as digital cable?
November 30, 2004 9:43 AM   Subscribe

Digital satellite? Digital cable? [mi]

I HATE Time Warner Cable. These are the most incompetent group of people that I've ever had to deal with. That said, I love digital cable itself. I particularly like the On Demand service and DVR boxes. Currently, I share the cable internet and digital service with the guys downstairs. It costs aprox. $185 pre mo. Unfortunately, the On Demand doesn't work most of the time and the boxes have to be constantly rebooted. I'm totally fed up.

Will satellite give me the same features as digital cable? Can I have DVR boxes and view different channels on different tvs at the same time? Is it more cost effective than cable? What about installation? Does satellite have On Demand?
posted by Juicylicious to Technology (25 answers total)
Had satellite (DirecTV), switched to digital cable (Optimum) when we moved a few months ago, and am seriously considering switching back to satellite at the new place.

My main issue with considering cable was the availability of network HDTV signals (ABC-HD, NBC-HD, etc.) over the cable line. With DirecTV, you can _some_ HD channels, like ESPNHD and maybe HBOHD, but you've still got to have an HD antenna to get "over-the-air" HD broadcasts of the major networks.

At this point, though, my crappy cable service is driving me so crazy I'm definitely thinking of switching back. The set-top boxes _suck_ (Scientific Atlanta), and regularly just shut off for no reason--we were gone for a week over Thanksgiving, and I carefully set up a Tivo schedule to catch all our shows, and everything after Wednesday is just a blank screen.

If you don't care about HD signals, and _especially_ if you want a Tivo (the DirecTV Tivo is the only one that has two tuners built-in), then I don't think there's any question. (I can't vouch for Dish, but even without the better Tivo, it's still got to be better than cable for basic service, I think.)

(On preview, I don't think the satellite services have "real-time" on-demand like cable does right now, but it's probably just a matter of time.)
posted by LairBob at 9:50 AM on November 30, 2004

I live in New England, so your weather may vary: But I lost satellite signal during most heavy precipitation. I've had minimal problems with digital cable, and they've been fixed quickly via remote.
posted by cribcage at 10:16 AM on November 30, 2004

DirecTV with TiVo -- there is no substitute. It's got two tuners, and it eliminates the extra digital-to-analog-to-digital step you'd have if you used a TiVo with another service.

That said, I actually like Dish Network's channel lineup better (DirecTV is heaven if you want sports, Dish has more premium movie channels) but their digital video gadget is certainly no TiVo.

With the TiVo, of course, every show is "on demand." Right now you can get a DirecTV TiVo receiver for $50 if you're a new subscriber.
posted by kindall at 10:23 AM on November 30, 2004

Response by poster: Ummm, what's the difference between a DVR and Tivo? My DVR allows me to record 40 hours of programs. I can set it up to record every episode of a program or just one ep. I use the electronic guide and when I find a program I may want to see, I click it and set to record.

This is different from On Demand, which is a HBO, Showtime, Movie Channel package where I can view their programming anytime. At least I can in theory since it never works through Time Warner, scum-sucking bastards that they are.

I don't watch sports. I stick with the netorks, Bravo, Comedy Central, HBO, CNN, TLC, A&E, IFC, BBCA, SciFi.
posted by Juicylicious at 10:31 AM on November 30, 2004

Can I have DVR boxes and view different channels on different tvs at the same time?

You require one satellite tuner per transponder. Each satellite has up to about 40 transponders for your signal band. Each transponder is usually given a bandwidth of about 20 mbits, minus the error correcting overhead (leaves about 16 2/3 mbits), which is enough for up to about 10 standard definition (PAL/NTSC) stations.

Now, that being said, 99% of the receivers out there are brain dead and are unable to output more than one channel to a TV at a time. So you will need one receiver per TV that you want to watch a different channel on. Or you can watch one channel on any TV in the house if you put a video splitter on your receiver.

Yes, there are plenty of DVRs for satellite TV. They are pricey, though, just like regular DVRs. You do have the benefit (if the DVR manufacturer takes advantage of it) of being able to record the satellite bitstream for *EXACT* quality playback, and again, possible playback of multiple channels at once (which *NO* DVR manufacturer has taken advantage of, sadly).

Is it more cost effective than cable?

From my experience, it will cost about the same price as cable. Cable service and satellite services, internally, have their own costs that probably equal out in the end (small outlay for few customers vs. EXTREMELY high outlaw for all customers). They are always competing, and I doubt you would find more than $10 difference between the two. I never did.

Since most cable services are now digital you will need a box per TV. Since these boxes are specialized, if your cable company makes you buy them, they are expensive. Satellite receivers, while specialized also, tend to be sold at cost, since the dish increases the price. Again, initial outlay for hardware will be similar.

What about installation?

Well, in the case of cable, clearly running the cable and hookup are things you will NOT be allowed to do, so you'll be paying someone for that unless it's included.

Sometimes satellite companies have offers where they will send someone to your house to install the dish and run the cable for free dependent on a certain minimum subscription time.

The one benefit with satellite is that you always have the choice of DIY. It isn't all that tough to install a satellite dish, really.

Does satellite have On Demand?

Well, unfortunately I'm in Canada where satellite service is about 5 years behind the US (which is about 10 years behind the rest of the world), so here, no. But, from my... uhh... "expereience" with US services, I think DishNetwork offers something like that, but I can't imagine it's particularly good considering the millions of subscribers all asking for different movies down the same tiny pipe.

I do know that the US services try to offer a *LOT* of Pay-Per-View stations (usually around 25) so that can offset the lack of On Demand video.

Will satellite give me the same features as digital cable?

Generally, yes. The basic idea is the same (digital downlink to a decoder box). Your big differences with digital cable, from the implementation standpoint, are:

- Faster upstream vs. Very slow (modem) or No upstream. This means highspeed internet and other interactive services work better on cable. If you just want it for TV, you'll notice no difference.

- Varied availability vs. More Bandwidth. Satellite TV generally has more bandwidth, so they can put on more stations if you're willing to put up more and more funky dishes that pick up multiple satellites. Cable, on the other hand, is limited to just one connection to your home, so they can only send you so many stations. However, Cable can be customized to your locality (read: No need to put on Houston, TX locals for someone in NYC).

So, for TV, generally yes, cable and satellite will be the same, although satellite wins by a bit. If you plan to use other services (ex: internet) cable is definately the better buy.
posted by shepd at 10:37 AM on November 30, 2004

cribcage -- Buy a bigger dish. :-)

If you put up a 1 meter dish (the maximum allowed by US law without worry about land-use agreements) for DishNetwork / DirecTV it would take nuclear fallout to stop you watching TV. :-D

Just to let you know, if you plan to get international TV at all, you should just go out right now and buy a DishNetwork system. They have HUNDREDS of channels from around the world available...
posted by shepd at 10:40 AM on November 30, 2004

Are there other cable providers in your city? One of my friends in the boonies can use either the local cable incumbent (which sucks) or the power company (which also sucks, but in different ways). Your telco mgiht offer cable service as well - out here, BellSouth offers it in some form or fashion.

I've had Dish, and it's great if you don't live in a place that gets a lot of heavy rains/thick clouds. On the same token, I also have Time Warner and I have very little bad things to say about them (other than the fact that their boxes do suck - mine doesn't do nearly what yours does though, I mostly bitch about it having to change the date every day [it never really turns off, why not change at 12?]). Evidently, though, TWC in the Midsouth/Memphis area is a singularity. Maybe you could wrangle a new box out of them if you haven't already?

DVRs don't compare to OnDemand until you build up a library (and that assumes you get the channels - DVR wouldn't work for Monty Python for me cuz I don't get BBCA, but I do get BBC On Demand).
posted by mrg at 10:41 AM on November 30, 2004

Tivo is essentially just a software package/UI for a DVR. I've never used any others, but I've been told that Tivo is by far the best, and my experience gives me no reason to doubt that. Having the dual tuners on DirectTV is a huge bonus as well.

Yes, Tivo and DVRs are different from On Demand, but if you get a good sized box (at least 80 hours), spend a half hour going through the guide for HBO, etc. and setting it to record everything you might be interested in, then wait a week or two, you will have about the same amount of content available as you would from On Demand. Also, DirectTV does have their own line up of Pay Per View Channels, and though they aren't "On Demand", they often show the same movie on a variety of channels with staggered start times, and with the built in Tivo you can record, pause, rewind, etc.

As for HD, DirectTV has gotten much better recently - my parents have it, and they get all of the same channels that I do on digital cable (Comcast, San Jose) - i.e. all networks except Fox (our local affiliate doesn't offer HD yet), HBO, Bravo, Discovery, and ESPN. There might be one or two others, can't remember off the top of my head. Oh, and so far DirectTV is (to my knowledge) the only service with an HD Tivo available, although it ain't cheap.
posted by rorycberger at 10:53 AM on November 30, 2004

Response by poster: Having the dual tuners on DirectTV is a huge bonus as well.

What does that mean? Seriously.

What's a transponder?

Can I watch one channel, while recording another?
posted by Juicylicious at 10:56 AM on November 30, 2004

Being a Time Warner subscriber myself, your main problem really is the Scientific Atlanta boxes. They are absolute crap. I've gone through three or four models, and finally have a DVR that works most of the time, although it still has issues sometimes. I have the Explorer 8000.

Tivo (IMO) is a lot more feature rich, and has fewer glitches, which is what seems to be your frustration. I would first suggest getting a new box from Time Warner, and see if that doesn't fix your problem. Otherwise, sattelite will be just as enjoyable, if not more.

Also, I can't believe your cable bill is that much. My cable bill for digital cable, dvr rental, cable modem, and all of the movie channels was around $120.

On preview: Yes, dual tuners means you can watch one show while recording another.
posted by stovenator at 11:15 AM on November 30, 2004

You can also record two shows while watching a third (previously recorded) show.

And to echo kindall, for a new DirecTV subscriber the Tivo box is going to be basically free. There may be a minimal charge upfront, but ask and they'll almost always credit that back to you over a few months of service.

Another datapoint on the impact of weather - in the Philly area we've never seen any weather-related interruptions.

And finally, the difference between the generic DVRs and TiVo is huge. TiVo's interface is much more intuitive, TiVo offers more features (for instance, you can type in "goodfellas," and the next time that's shown, on whatever channel, it gets recorded, even if three months later. Also, you can do keyword searches (find me everything with KEANU; find me SPORTS programs featuring the PACKERS). The box is much more stable (basically, it never crashes) and very easily hackable (adding bigger drives, for instance, is trivial thanks to very good instructions posted around the web.)
posted by luser at 11:38 AM on November 30, 2004

Response by poster: I have the Explorer 8000 box. My problem is not so much with the box itself, but with the poor customer service and tech support. Although the box does crash a lot.

For example, the On Demand feature rarely works. When I call TW's tech support all they do is tell me to reboot the box, which I've already done. I try to give them the error code, but they don't know how to interpret the codes. A few weeks ago I called to once again report On Demand not working and was told (after being on hold for 58 minutes) that a tech had to come out, which means that I have to sit around the house waiting for hours for a guy to show up who won't fix anything. I explain that the problem is not with the box, but with the feed to the box(es). They insist a tech come out. When the tech finally shows up he tells me (what I already knew) that there was some problem with the hub and On Demand had been out in my area for several days. Why couldn't TW's telephone tech support tell me that?

I called to get a credit for the On Demand and was told they would only credit me for days that I called, which I rarely do because they are incompetant and it drives me crazy to talk to them.

Anyway, there is no other cable service in Minneapolis that I know of. I think that I'll have to go to satellite. But, I want BBC (not BBCA) and other international channels that only seem to be available on Dish.
posted by Juicylicious at 11:49 AM on November 30, 2004

Ummm, what's the difference between a DVR and Tivo?

The primary difference between the DVR you have now and a TiVo is that the DVR, as you say, needs to be rebooted constantly, and the TiVo does not. I have additionally heard that the user experience on most of the cable DVRs is truly craptacular compared to TiVo, although I have personal experience only with the Dish PVR. TiVo also has features such as wishlists, suggestions, and season passes that cable-provided DVRs may not have. You can tell it to record all Stanley Kubrick films or all films with Jackie Chan in them, or all episodes of "Monk," or whatever. TiVo schedules recordings as shows, not as time/channel -- if you tell your DVR to record a show that airs at 9 PM on Friday, and the network decides to move it to 8 PM on Tuesday, you don't have to reschedule the recording; TiVo will do this automatically. TiVo can also be set to record or not to record reruns, and it's generally smart enough not to record multiple copies of a show that runs repeatedly during a short period. You can tell it how many episodes of a show to keep around, too.

DirecTV does offer a service called Starz On Demand through the TiVo. Basically, once a week in the dead of night, your TiVo will record the latest Starz premieres, so you can watch them any time you want thereafter. But really, I never watch live TV anymore, so all my shows are watched whenever I want. TiVo's suggestion feature (which automatically records shows it thinks you might like, based on your ratings of other shows -- don't worry, it'll never skip or delete a recording you specifically asked for to record a suggestion) will give you something pretty close to "on demand" for anything you might want to watch. It can't offer everything, but its guesses are eerily accurate sometimes. The more disk space you have, of course, the better this works.

Another nice thing about DirecTV TiVos is that they are Linux boxes and there is a hacking community that has figured out how to get them to do quite amazing things. For example, it is possible to upgrade the software on certain models of DirecTV TiVos to 4.0 (which DirecTV won't give you) and give the TiVo the ability to play music from your computer over your network and watch shows on one TiVo from another TiVo in your home. Other hacks permanently enable the 30-second skip, disable encryption (so the programs recorded on the TiVo can be transferred to your computer and burned to DVD), and install a Web interface on the TiVo so you can schedule recordings from anywhere. It is also pretty easy to upgrade the hard disk, and a DirecTV TiVo with a pair of 250 GB hard disks in it will hold nearly 500 hours of programming. I'm doing some hacking myself on a Hughes HDVR2 I recently bought on eBay. With the right searches on eDonkey, you can even find and download pre-hacked TiVo software -- all you have to do is install it, which is pretty easy using a bootable Linux CD-ROM put together by a fellow called Sleeper.
posted by kindall at 11:49 AM on November 30, 2004

See also: PVR Comparisons [via Matt's PVR Blog]
posted by rorycberger at 12:16 PM on November 30, 2004

I'll throw in my $.02 for DirecTiVo. The dual tuner alone is worth it. I have so many shows that I watch, I typically end up at least 3-4 times a week where both tuners are recording while I am catching up on something else.

Also, here at least, our digital cable was actually analog for all the regular channels (all the ones you mentioned except HBO) and digital only for the "premium" channels. With DirecTV, everything is digitial.
posted by ..ooOOoo....ooOOoo.. at 12:36 PM on November 30, 2004

Juicylicious: But, I want BBC (not BBCA) and other international channels that only seem to be available on Dish.

I believe the only BBC you can get on Dishnetwork is BBCA.

By the way, I switched from Time Warner digital to Dish a few years ago the video quality is better for me on Dish - I believe our TW system wasn't appropriating enough bandwidth to their digital signal. YMMV. I have the PVR on one set and a non-recording box on the other. They now charge a monthly fee for PVR ($5, I think) plus the cost of the box, but it's drop down easy to use. You can generally get the boxes for free or next to it on available promotions.
posted by SteveInMaine at 2:07 PM on November 30, 2004

Surprisingly, no one has mentioned contracts or equipment problems in conjunction with satellite TV. So I will.

I liked Dish Network when I had it. Then I tried to move when I had a couple of months left on my contract, and I couldn't bring the dish with me to my new location. So, I ended up paying for two months I didn't use (rather than eating the multi-hundred contract breaking fee) and requested that they end my service exactly a year from activation. Instead, they ended it a exactly one day short of a year.

Proceed to multi-hundred contract fee, much time phone-haggling, massive Dish indifference, and abysmal service all the way around that only got resolved after at least one hour aggregate of my life spent listening to "The Girl from Ipanema." Oh, and if you live where there's a lot of poor weather, your service can go out quite frequently, and usually when you most want to see what the Weather Channel has to say about your situation.

I hate cable too -- hate hate hate, for most of your reasons -- but the equipment/contract/service issues mean that I will never try satellite service again, unless I go to live on the steppes.
posted by melissa may at 2:09 PM on November 30, 2004

What's a transponder?

A transponder is an actual sending/receiving antenna up at the satellite in the sky. Each satellite will have many transponders, and each transponder broadcasts on a slightly different frequency. Together, these signals are a "bouquet".

Your satellite receiver is able to lock onto an individual transponder at a time and it receives all data from this transponder. It then selects which data stream (channel) it is interested in and converts it to a video signal for you to watch.

A "smart" receiver would separate all data streams and have multiple decoders (not multiple tuners) that would allow you to watch the other stations on that transponder.


Melissa may, again, you have too small a dish if your signal is fading during bad weather. You're probably wondering why they would be packing dishes in that are too small. Basically, it's simple. Consumers argued for years that satellite dishes were too big and ugly. So now companies make sure they give you the smallest one necessary to pick up any signal at all. The worst offenders are the Dish 500 dishes that pick up 2 satellites at once. These dishes are equivalent to two 16" dishes. The minimum standard for DBS is 18"!

There's also one slightly hidden reason, and that is that the smaller a dish is the easier it is to point. I could get into details as to why, but this isn't the place for that.

If you want DBS service that works during everything except weather you shouldn't be watching TV in at all (because your house is probably going to collapse) you should be using a 24" or larger dish.

I can say right now I have a 30" dish on our shop roof which goes out for up to 5 minutes during the absolute worst weather (the kind where the place makes creaking noises).
posted by shepd at 3:54 PM on November 30, 2004

Well, shepd, I'm sure you are right, but that was the satellite size Dish offered with the "free" set-up and equipment. No one at the company said a word about poor signal related to its size. More salient, to me, were the contract issues. I would never get a dish again unless I knew I was permanently rooted in my space -- a luxury many people can't count on.
posted by melissa may at 4:12 PM on November 30, 2004

Okay, one last question!

STiM, a cable co has a single cable coming into your house of varying quality. Generally, the maximum frequency this cable can handle will about about 1400 Mhz (2200 Mhz if you are using really high quality cable, but the cable co has to support people using cheap cable too). The cable company could use all the cable for digital signals, but they usually also carry analog channels, limiting them to about 450 - 1400 Mhz available on the cable (950 Mhz total).

Satellite bandwidth is about 500 Mhz per satellite (Much more in Europe with extended 22 Khz switching mode). Forward error correction (FEC) eats about 1/6 of that, leaving about 416 2/6 Mhz. However, most companies run multiple satellites. For example, DishNetwork, for TV service, presently runs 6 satellites (7 if you include the testing satellite for Hawaii, and 8 if you included the one that blew up a few days ago). That's 3000 Mhz total bandwidth, or more than 3 times what your cable provider does.

So, with that extra bandwidth, DishNetwork can offer a lesser compressed signal, but at the same time, must force people to install more dishes (or more complicated single dishes). Or they can pack more in on one satellite and just make customers install one dish, but at poor quality... Tradeoffs, tradeoffs.

FYI, DishNetwork stations usually run at about 2 - 3 Mbits, which is plenty for a decent MPEG-2 NTSC stream (DVD runs at 10 Mbits max, and usually about 5 Mbits average).

Melissa May, don't think I'm defending DishNetwork! Far from it, actually... Their service is outlawed in Canada, so there's no point for me to reccomend/not reccomend them. Considering the history of the DishNetwork company (from when they were just Echostar) it's no surprise at all that their service is crap, though.
posted by shepd at 4:31 PM on November 30, 2004

Response by poster: I just spent quite some time talking to both Dish & Direct customer services. Plus, I talked to local guys that sell both systems.

As for dish size - I was told that Direct's dish has a 3 somethingorotherthingamajiggy that allows it to get signals from 3 satellites. I was also told that it's not the size of the dish, but snow build up that I have to worry about. Dish recommended that I have a dish mounted on a pole in my yard. That just ain't going to happen. Both local guys I talked to told me that the way the dishes are mounted/tilted snow buildup is very rare and the only time there is signal degration is during very heavy blizzards and then only for a few minutes. Further, neither Dish, nor Direct will give me a larger dish. Period.

Dish has free installation ($49 that's refunded) and will give me a 3-room system that includes 2 DVRs, one of which will control the 3rd TV independantly. Both DVRs are dual tuner. The cost of the DVRs is $4.99 ea per mo. I can get 120 channels, inc. local + HBO for 68.94 per mo. I can pay $5.99 per mo for a service contract, but I still would have to pay $29 for a house call. The best part - NO CONTRACT !!!

Direct's installation = $19.95. I can get a 3-room system, incl. 2 DVRs/TIVO and 1 reg receiver. Both Tivos cost $4.99 per mo. Plus, I have to pay $99 for each of them upfront ($49.99 will be rebated). Still they cost $50 out of pocket, but then I own them. I'd get 125 channels, inc. local + HBO for $61.93 per mo. I can pay $7.99 per mo for a service contract and house calls are free. However, there is a one year contract.

I'm still confused, but I'm leaning toward DISH mainly because I don't have to sign a contract.
posted by Juicylicious at 4:39 PM on November 30, 2004

Have you ever used a Tivo, Jl? Seriously, there's a big difference between a Tivo and most other DVRs--definitely worth at least taking a look at a Best Buy or something before you make up your mind.

(And BTW, when I moved and had to cut off my DirecTV contract, I had no problem at all. That may have just been lucky, but the contract isn't necessarily a huge deal.)

[Not that I work for Direct or anything, 'cuz I don't...]
posted by LairBob at 5:30 PM on November 30, 2004

Further, neither Dish, nor Direct will give me a larger dish. Period.

So... Don't buy it from them! Go to whatever company in your area used to install TV Antennas, or one that (gasp!) advertises C-Band or other large dish services and buy one! :-D

Honestly, myself, I'd just be satisfied with an 18" dish most of the time. I can handle not watching TV for up to 8 or 9 hours a year. :LOL: But, if you're all that worried, a bigger dish will mostly solve the problem (if it's a total whiteout, you're just screwed, that's physics for you).

Snow buildup can cause problems, but I have never, ever seen that happen. And I've dealt with a *LOT* of satellite dishes. And I'm in Canada.

Those prices look great, Juicylicious! Satellite companies in Canada then to charge cost on the receivers, rather than losing gobs of cash like that. A PVR here runs something like $300 - $400. Wow! Nice!
posted by shepd at 5:35 PM on November 30, 2004

I loved TWC, but that was in New York. I guess it's different service in different towns. Up here in Cambridge, I wanted a dish, but I didn't have my landlord's permission, so I got Comcast. Boo. The box crashes all the time, and as much as I love Motorola, their boxes stink. I'd pay big bucks to have a SciAtl 8000 again.

Go with Dish. DirecTV is owned by News Corp. Evil. And they're pushing out Tivo anyway.
posted by sachinag at 7:59 PM on November 30, 2004

I wanted a dish, but I didn't have my landlord's permission

In the United States, you don't need permission from your landlord to put up a dish as long as you don't need to modify the property to do so. If you have a porch/balcony exclusively for your use, you can put the dish there on a tripod or something of that nature, and the landlord can't do a thing about it.

DirecTV is ... pushing out Tivo anyway.

All the more reason to get one now before they stop providing them.
posted by kindall at 8:30 PM on November 30, 2004

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