The first choice you may face, then, is whether you should purchase an analogue or digital receiver. The dealer will tell you that analogue is old and out; digital is new and in. To a large extent that is true. Any new user should be recommended to choose a digital receiver, however, those who already have analogue equipment may have some years' value left from it. It must be added, however, that digital TV is still is in its infancy and does have some childhood illnesses, both technically and commercially. While digital is to be recommended, it may be worth it to look at what it means, and what kind of restrictions or problems either option will imply.

- What do these terms mean in the first place? Basically, analogue and digital are two completely different ways of transmitting TV. Both use satellites, both come through a receiver; a box attached to your TV tuned to some frequency. But there the similarly mostly ends. While the equipment in the satellite dish outside on the wall is often the same either way (so you do not need to get a new dish if you switch from analogue to digital), the interior of the receiver is completely different. You cannot receive analogue channels on a digital receiver, or digital channels on an analogue receiver - the digital is not a 'decoder' you can attach to your old analogue setup if you have one: You must choose either one or the other.

-- To understand the difference, you can think of your regular TV as a kind of radio with pictures. It uses the same type of technology as your FM/AM radio, and behind the "preset programmes" on your remote control, there is for each a particular frequency, similar to those on your radio's tuning display. While the radio receives sound that is sent on these frequencies (radio waves), the TV receives picture signals on the same radio waves. Analogue satellite works basically the same way as a earthbound ('terrestial') TV; except that because of the enormous distance to the satellite, it must use extremely short radio waves, 'micro-waves'. That apart, the analogue satellite receiver is a fairly regular TV tuner without a screen; like the VCR, it passes the sound and picture to your regular TV for display. Digital satellite also receives radio micro-waves, but what is transmitted on these waves are computer signals, the '0s and 1s' that your PC also uses. A digital satellite receiver is in fact a single-purpose computer, and if you are used to PCs it is helpful to think of it as such: it is limited by installed computer memory, it has an operating system, and its software may have bugs and need to be reset like any computer: pull out the power plug. --

What does digital bring to you above analogue, apart from the number of channels?

  • The ads will tell you 'crystal-clear pictures'. Actually, that needs to be qualfied: You won't get digital pictures on your screen, because the TV set itself is analogue. True digital TV sets will not come into use in Europe for another decade, as they are very expensive to make. It is the transmission to your home that is digital. The satelite receiver transforms the digital signal to analogue and passes it along a cable to your TV and VCR. In reality, the quality you see will be about the same as you get from cable or good over-the-air reception.
    How good the digital picture is also depends on how many channels the sender squeezes into each frequency; if too many channels are transmitted together, the digital quality may not be much above that of a VHS video.
  • More to the point is how sensitive the signal is to bad reception conditions (snow, heavy rain, weak satellite). By their nature, digital channels never get "sparklies", white or black dots that you may see on weak analogue channels. Digital is on or off; either you get a signal as good as it gets, or you get nothing; a black screen. Exactly how sensitive it is depends on your equipment. My own experience is however that if you get a level of sparklies that is annoying, but not destructive, on analogue (60-70 per cent of full strength, perhaps) the digital channels will remain perfect and you will not notice that conditions are bad. If you go much below that however (40 per cent or so?), you will get nothing in digital, while you may still discern picture and sound on analogue channels.
  • Those who sell subscription TV will tell you that digital gives many new services; like on-line shopping, pay-per-view films, different views of football matches etc. Most of these cost extra; others do not exist yet. A major hindrance for these 'interactive services' is that they require your receiver to have special software or be especially adapted to their service, or often be one rented out or sold by the TV channel. A different receiver you buy in the shop may be fully able to receive both free and subscription channels, but not these 'interactive' extras. As the development of the software required as well as the services is still going on and will change over the next year or two, I would not give them much weight at this point.
  • Much the same can be said for the 'electronic program guide' or EPG, which tells you on-screen what programs are shown on different channels. It is certainly useful if you can get it, but not all receivers can display the information (and not all channels send it), depending on software. Base your choice primarily on the ability to actually see the channels you want, not these so far rather primitive extras.
-- I said above that you 'can't have both' analogue and digital. In fact that is not quite true. There are a few combined analogue and digital receivers on the market. These are however two receivers in one box, with separate hardware (and software) for receiving digital and analogue channels. Thus, they come at a price; and for some of them the combination appears partly as a gimmick; the integration between the two parts may leave things to be desired. A few, however, are very good, so look carefully before you buy. Evidently, they belong to the upper end of the price range. - Another option is to have two separate receivers, one analogue and one digital box, and run a cable from one to the other. It requires a bit of adaptation (only one of them can 'govern' the dish at any time), but it may be done; in particular if you already have an analogue receiver and wish to retain access to those channels that are not available in digital. -- So why the push to digital? From the channels' point of view, it is quite simply much cheaper. Satellite space costs money (to the tune of 4-5 million Euro per channel per year), and they can send five to ten digital channels for the same price as one analogue. That is the primary reason why they want us to change all at the same time, to be able to shut down costly analogue services. From the user's point of view, improved reception quality is certainly a plus, but the main argument is what channels you can watch in either system.