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Bell ExperssVu HD

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 DVD’s 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 becomes ubiquitous.

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 there is.

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 aren’t 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 ExpressVu’s 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 didn’t have – or need – a smart card), an electronic program guide that also lets you watch TV while you’re surfing and is compatible with interactive TV services. It’s also DVI-equipped.

The 6100’s 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 isn’t HD-ready.

The 6100 also comes with a UHF remote control. This is also really handy if you’re 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 TV’s 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 TV’s hooked into that receiver have to watch the same program.

In use, I noticed that, as with its Star Choice competitor, 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 hasn’t reared its ugly head nearly as much lately, if at all, it may have already been done.

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!

There’s a depth to the HD picture that’s remarkable; it’s so good it makes you notice the limitations of DVD’s and their lower, 480 pixel (as opposed to HD’s 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 isn’t 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.

What’s more important for your HD enjoyment is the programming, and as of this writing Bell ExpressVu beats the Canadian competition hands down.

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 you’ll find yourself kicked out of your HD heaven and forced into something else you may not have chosen.

This doesn't happen with Bell ExpressVu.

Bell ExpressVu offers “full time” HD channels and they’re 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, that’s actually being broadcast in HD. This isn’t Bell ExpressVu’s fault, of course, but is thanks to the fact that there just isn’t 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 they’re bundled. Bell ExpressVu’s 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 didn’t bother seeking them out. Hey, as great as HD is, it won’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s 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 it’s 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 can’t wait until it finally becomes ubiquitous.

Unfortunately, it’s going to take years.


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