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Which is better, HDTV Digital Cable or HDTV Satellite
Benjamin J. Higginbotham
We are trying to build the ultimate HDTV media center.  Part of this process involves getting live HDTV content, meaning over-the-air, cable or satellite.  About a week ago we got digital cable and tonight we just finished deploying DirectTV satellite.  So how do they compare?  One word:  MAH!

HDTV Digital Cable
Before I start on cable, please remember that each provider is completely different.  What is offered in Minneapolis, MN may not be what is offered in your neck of the woods.  Check with your local provider to see what they can provide.  That being said, we’re on a Time Warner circuit that uses the Scientific Atlanta (Cisco) 8300HD DVRs running the SARA operating system.  From a features standpoint the cable system is truly awesome.  I have on-demand media allowing me to purchase a SD or HD movie (many SD selections, almost no HD selections) and watch it with full transport control (meaning play, pause, fast forward, etc.)  I can expand the storage of the box by adding a SATA drive to the back of the unit, and the system has dual tuners built in allowing me to plug ONE coax cable into the box and record two channels at the same time while viewing a third pre-recorded show.  Feature wise cable kicks butt.  Actual usage wise, it’s a bit lacking.  The DVR software is very basic, it’s not very pretty and not very feature rich.  There’s no 30-second advance, there’s no ‘record this program on any channel at any time’ feature…  It’s a bare bones DVR.  No frills, no fun.  Want to have the DVR look at your viewing habits and suggest shows?  No chance.  Want to exclude channels from the electronic program guide (EPG)? No way.  You see all of the channels, even if you don’t subscribe to them.  The software needs a major overhaul as it’s missing many, many features; however, the system works and it works well.  I can watch an HDTV show while recording another, or watch a recorded HDTV show while recording two other HDTV shows.  The EPG is very, very fast allowing me to scan through all 1000 channels in very little time.  While there are no frills and the interface is the opposite of sexy, it works.



DirecTV HDTV package
Then there’s DirecTV’s HDTV offerings.  Just as many HDTV channels as our cable system (over 20),  Tivo DVR, and local channels available.  Great.  I have been a cable subscriber for many years since my apartment faces north and I simply can’t get satellite here.  Now that I get to help install satellite service (in a friends house)  I’m really excited to see what satellite can do.  I love playing with new things and trying out different stuff. Besides, it simply CAN’T be worse than cable.  I mean come on!  Look at that DVR menu!!!  Scroll back up and look at it. Yeah.

The satellite installer comes out with the DirecTV HD10-250 system in hand and preps for install.  Turns out that unlike cable satellite has a limit as to how many boxes can be placed on a triple LNB system.  I have 4 available tuners to work with.  If I want the boxes to be dual tuner like my cable system, I can only have 2 boxes on that dish.  We currently have 6 satellite boxes installed on the DirectTV SD system so moving to the HD means we would have to eliminate 2 boxes and run single tuner for all systems, or install a whole new dish, leave the old SD system in place, and run the new system as dual tuner, which is what we opted to do.  Unfortunately in our area there was no way to add a second dish to the part of the house that is in the right position, so we were forced to add a freaking ugly dish to the front yard on an even uglier 5’ pole.  This is probably the ugliest thing I have ever seen.  So we didn’t start on a strong note, but I figured it was a minor problem and it should be clear sailing from here.  Wrong.  The entertainment center we have the HDTV in only has one coax cable run to it, and the installer does not want to run a second cable for us.  This means that the new HDTV system can only watch one channel at a time while viewing a recorded one.  I can not record two shows and I can’t record a show while watching another live show.  ONE tuner until I run another cable and running another cable will cost us $$. I asked if I could simply split the coax cable at the box, but apparently the line carries power which gets killed if I use a splitter.  Great.  So now I have this ugly dish in the front yard with a DVR that is ½ as powerful as the cable system.  Ok, fine, it MUST get better from here.  Nope.  After struggling with the phone settings… actually, let me pause for a moment and touch on that.  The satellite system's DVR *requires* that a POTS phone be plugged into the box for, well, I don’t know what.  Why they can’t just program everything over the satellites is beyond me.  Welcome to 1998 DirecTV.  I finally get the phone working which unlocks the DVR, and I’m ready to be blown away with what Tivo can do vs. my cable box.  While Tivo looks prettier and has a few other nice features such as 30-second skip, it’s really not that much better.  In addition to Tivo being only a fraction better than cable, the EPG on the system is painfully slow.  Now I know why DirecTV offers the ability to remove channels from the EPG, it’s so slow one HAS to remove channels just so you can get through the guide!  I went though hours of installer fun, dealing with DirecTV tech support, and now have a f’ugly dish in the front yard for a marginal increase in DVR functionality with a decrease in viewing options? I'm not happy.


I realize that not all installations are like this, some may go very smooth…  Frankly even if we did have a smooth install and the dish was exactly where I wanted it to be, I feel like I’m very limited by what satellite can do.  I can place a cable box on any TV that has a coax jack next to it, but with satellite I’m limited by the LNB bandwidth.  With cable I have 2-way communication allowing for on-demand media and some really cool channel options.  With satellite I have highly compressed MPEG 2 (although they are moving to h.264) and with cable I have not quite as highly compressed MPEG 2 (with no h.264 in sight).  With satellite I have a pretty looking Tivo interface, but with cable I can record multiple channels just by running one cable.  Frankly I think both solutions suck, but if I had to pick my poison, I would absolutely stick with cable.  While DirecTV has a better interface, cable simply has more options available that I use on a daily basis.  I can’t imagine cutting out ½ of my viewing capabilities and loosing ¼ of the image quality just to have a big ugly dish sitting atop my house.  I have not even touched on rain fade, trees or the wind affecting the satellite signal whereas cable has none of those problems.  In my humble opinion, both systems suck, but cable sucks less.

What I would love to see is Time Warner Minnesota deploy a system that uses a fantastic DVR that has sexy looking menus, is very fast, has 2 to 4 tuners built in (4 would be better), 100hours of HD recording with expansion, commercial skipping, channel deletion from the EPG, and a better UI for interfacing with the box. ALL channels would be digital h.264 compressed and preferably in HD... If a cable company could do most of that (the HD is a ways away yet), it would destroy satellite once and for all. Until then I'll stick with my crummy UI for now.

I'm curious though, how was your satellite or cable install? If you have satellite and HATE cable, why? What is it about satellite that I'm missing? What great feature does it have that blows cable away?


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1. Posted by: JMN on May 5, 2006 3:03 PM:

Moral of the story.. do your homework before installing DTV or cable!

2. Posted by: J. Chuan on June 5, 2006 12:16 PM:

Why couldn't you use a digital multi-switch. I have a tripple LNB dish that I use with a total 7 tuners 5 receivers - 2 of them are dual tuner TIVO DirecTV DVRs?

3. Posted by: Scott Orlowe on June 25, 2006 4:25 PM:

Hello, your experience with satellite has been horrible because......... Your sat. installer either was ignorant of the facts or just flat out lying, "maybe both". For example..You can run 100 tuners off of a single dish if you want to. All you have to do is "cascade multiswitches". You said the installer didnt want to run the extra lines for the tuners without charging you?? Installers MUST install as many lines as needed for a given installation at NO cost to you.
The odds are that when you were installed.... Your tech did not have on his truck the correct equipment. And DTV Insists that ALL installs routed for a given day go in. What probably happened was that the tech didn't have the correct e.q. on the truck. Bt he was still pressured by the office to do the install. All techs and contractors are paid by the job, not the hour. This has led to a vicious cycle of "get it in reguardless NOW" and we'll do damage control afterwards.
Rain fade??? Wind problems???? Those are FAULTY installation probems. NOT inherent problems in the system, since 2000. Line of sight can be a problem with tree's but the system should NOT be installed if there is going to BE that problem....
I first worked for Primestar satelite 15 years ago and have since worked for DTV and Dish and cable. 5 years ago I switched trades. I am now an electrician so i feel I'm unbiased about sat vs. cable. one more thing..and this has ALWAYS been a problem with DTV. the Tech support teams to help customers,are in no way,shape or form "Technicions". They have not a clue about how or why a sat. system works...

4. Posted by: Rodney Bachtel on December 29, 2006 3:52 PM:

You asked about why a person would choose one over the other. For me, choosing Directv satellite over cable was an easy decision. I was tired of Time Warner's poor channel selection (no fiber optics in my area), poor signal quality (even the cable guy was embarassed about the poor signal strength), and the fact that the cable would go offline day or night, rain or shine, without as much as an apology or 'we're experiencing problems'. The customer service folks (and it really pains me to use customer and service in the same sentence when talking about Time Warner) were totally clueless. So, I installed my own 24 inch dish, bought all of my equipment, and never looked back. That was in January, 1999. I am now researching upgrading everything to HD, (expense, what I will need to do, cables, etc.) and I appreciate your first hand experience with both.
I will say that after watching a satellite digital signal for the past 8 years, it pains me to go watch tv at a friend's house when I know all they have to offer is cable tv.

5. Posted by: Simon on May 5, 2007 11:33 AM:

I went with TiVo series 3 on cable and it beats my local sattelite hands down. Especially, since the sattelite in my area no longer uses TiVo. The PVR interface and ease of install is everything in my household.

6. Posted by: Jon Sonntag on June 2, 2007 3:48 PM:

Mr Orlowe may know what the official rules are for the DirecTV installer, but he evidently is not familiar with the way all of the local installers ignore them. I had DirecTV for 10 years. Loved it. Better picture in the Chicago bubs than cable. Tried to upgrade to HD. Was told I needed a 3 LNB dish, so I bought that too only to find out that the new Mpeg4 requires a different dish that had to be installed by an official installer. What a load of @#$%. I bought the receiver anyway on 12/15 and scheduled the "official" install - for 4 weeks later!!! They guy never showed up. Tried again, waited another 2 weeks and he never showed up. After the third day off work and two more weeks gone by waiting once again for no one to show up, I cancelled and switched to Comcast Cable who were out to do the install the next day. Now that the 12 month cable trial period is over and the cost is double that of satellite again, so I'm switching to Dish. I'll never go back to DirecTV even if they would offer it for free.

7. Posted by: bigguy2468 on March 21, 2008 5:23 PM:

I think think you should do your homework before commenting on satellite. The telephone line you refer to is not for programming the satellite receiver, but for PPV movies, etc. Your receiver "is" programmed through the satellite.

8. Posted by: Tim on December 10, 2009 12:59 PM:

Direct TV has the worst customer service I've ever encountered. They bounce you around until you give up. They unhooked my internet during the install but didn't tell me, so we went back and forth with our internet provider until we found out the issue. Then they refused to give me my rebate because they never received it, and when I finally called them to check on the status, they claimed it was past 90 days, so I was no longer eligible. Keep in mind they say it takes 6-8 weeks for the rebate to kick in. Not much of a window to realize there is an issue. "Award winning customer service"... not so much.

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