Buying Guide: DTH

Helping you decide which DTH service is right for you.

There’s a full-fledged war on between DTH providers in India today. While TATA Sky and DishTV had the first movers’ advantage and signed up thousands of users when DTH was a completely new concept, newer players are rolling out tempting offers and schemes. Indian consumers are bust trying to prove that one is cheaper than another, or one has better picture quality. But on the bright side, consumers can choose and change their operators with minimal inconvenience, which has led to healthy competition and pricing.

Prices will be the same across most of the country, apart from local taxes, but the quality of service can vary wildly due to local contractors and other factors. Here are a few points to check out when deciding which operator to go with.

1. Number of channels: Check each DTH provider’s brochure or website check how many of the channels on offer are actually worth paying for. You might find that your favorite channels are spread across different bouquets. This would increase your monthly bill as you would need to buy the basic pack as well as add-on bouquets for each of your interests, i.e. sports and movies. Spend a little time and map your channels across the bouquets. You might find that the cost between operators varies dramatically. Beware of offers for free channels for limited periods of time. Check for language options too, if you don’t want pay for a certain channel and then discover you can watch it only in Hindi!

2. Broadcast Quality: Check with family or friends in the neighborhood who already have a DTH connection. See if you can get a personal demo of the quality of the picture and sound. You might even be able to get a demo at a retail outlet. Operators who use MPEG-4 compression imply that the quality is better, but this is not necessarily true. It only means the compression is better, allowing for them to deliver channels using less bandwidth.

3. Pre- and post-sales support: See if anyone you know has had problems while having the service installed or later on, but note that these experiences also depend on local contractors, so can’t always indicate problems with the provider itself. Ask around to see if anyone has had poor service or repeated downtime. Considering how difficult it can be to make time to be home for a technician to install the dish and STB, promptness on their part is important too. Our enquiries with subscribers revealed that TATA Sky is perceived to have the best after-sales support and prompt service, and problems during installation are rare.

4. Quality and user-friendliness of the STB: While getting your demos of each of the DTH services, try to spend some time using the STB’s interface. Check if it’s easy to switch channels, surf through the program guide, and navigate the menus. The remote control should also be comfortable, easy to use and have buttons for major functions rather than forcing you to go through menus. Check the feel of the buttons and make sure the remote is easy to hold. Some providers now offer “universal” remotes as a value-add, but these often control only two devices and are a bit clunky to use. Finally, see how easy it is to use the remote to set reminders and favorites. Sun Direct, Reliance and Dish TV let you save the largest number of favorite channels, while TATA has only 20 and Airtel is limited to 60.

5. Recharging options: One of the most important, yet easily overlooked aspects of a DTH service is the ease of recharging your account. Check for the available options—online transactions, prepaid vouchers, auto-debit, phone banking, etc are a few methods. Providers which offer more options will give you greater flexibility, and you really don’t need another line to stand in to pay another bill each month.

6. Interactive channels and services: These are important if you are looking for more than just channel surfing. Most DTH providers offer interactive channels for cooking, astrology, sports, shopping, news, investments, etc, which usually only offer a limited number of choices of segments that you can watch whenever you want. However there are some nice tricks, like monitoring multiple news channels at once, or seeing instant replays of sports matches on demand. Services are also catching on to the concept of widgets, which show constant little updates on things like the weather or news overlaid on your regular TV programming at all times. As for the video on demand services, check how many types of movies each provider offers, and what the difference in cost is between them. Some also let you watch the movie you’ve paid for any number of times in a 24-hour period, so you can pause it and resume if you get interrupted. You can even book travel tickets and pizzas from Airtel with the click of a button.

7. Hidden costs: Don’t finalize any deal without knowing the fine print. Most dealers usually don’t tell you the hidden costs incurred when buying a DTH service, which might include basics such as service tax, extra activation fees, installation charges, rental, etc. Check what belongs to you—only the STB or the dish as well—since this will determine whether or not you’ll get newer hardware in the future for free.

8. Future readiness: Check to see whether the STBs have all the audio and video output interfaces you need. With high-definition television sets already quite affordable, make sure you aren’t stuck with only composite output (single yellow video socket with two red and white audio sockets), which is the lowest quality output available, and which is used by most VCD players. When HD channels debut, older STBs won’t give you any noticeable improvement, and you’ll have to replace them at your own cost. Additionally, when services like digital video recording were rolled out, TATA Sky users who were willing to pay and upgrade their boxes also had to deal with additional wiring being laid from the dish to their TVs, which messed up some people’s interiors.

Many STBs also have USB ports, which are currently not used for anything but which might be used to support additional features such as external hard drives in the future. No operator is willing to discuss plans to enable such features with a firmware upgrade in the future. BIG TV and Airtel are reported to have plans to introduce combined TV and Internet (and maybe also VoIP) offerings, but this isn’t being discussed either.

9. Recording: If you would like to pause live TV or record shows to watch later, opt for a service which offers a DVR (Digital Video Recorder) STB right from the beginning, since upgrading later will involve a lot of cost and inconvenience.

The deciding factors
Finally, don’t just pick up any one service by only looking at a brochure listing the features offered. Almost all have the same features, but with a little price variations here and there. And there will always be marketing gimmicks including gifts, discounts and even free holiday packages (or you might be offered the DTH service as a gift when buying an expensive TV!), so spend a little time evaluating which one offers better performance and after-sales service.

With the Diwali shopping season, don't be surprised to see lots of discounts and offers, as people are tempted to buy new LCD TVs.

Which one to choose?
To help make it easier to decide which DTH provider to go with, we've identified a few areas in which each one excels.

Kids: If you want a TV for your kids in their own room, opt for a package that include most of kiddies stuff such as cartoons, nature, education, etc. TATA Sky and Dish TV both offer more kids’ channels in the lower price bands. Also, all services offer parental locks on their STBs.

Tech freaks: For techies and enthusiasts who want to watch digh-def TV, BIG TV and Dish TV are most likely to launch HD channels soon (with Sun Direct for those who want Tamil or Telegu channels). Opt for STB hardware which is future ready—check for component or HDMI outputs which can give you a rich experience on your LCD HDTV.

Joint family: Most Indian families live jointly and have multiple TV sets in the house. Opting for a mega pack or packages that include almost all channels for the lowest possible price makes most sense. Many service providers offer schemes for additional STBs, but these keep varying making a recommendation difficult. TATA Sky seems to have the best price for its all-included package, but has fewer total channels than the others.

Frequent travelers: Those who spend a lot of time on the road or who travel a lot and do not wish to miss out on their favorite TV shows or sports matches can have a Dish TV connection installed in their cars. This is currently the only such option.

Movie buffs: Movie channels from different regions and pay-per-view subscriptions are great for those who love movies. Channels like MGM, TCM and The WB aren’t available on all providers. Dish TV and Airtel have more movie channels, while BIG has the advantage with pay-per-view movies.

Sports freaks: Sport channels are usually additional top-up packages marketed by DTH companies. If you are more into watching sports channels and rarely surf through the other genre, opt for a basic pack with a sports top-up. Airtel has the most flexible packages, with top-ups for individual channels or all sports channels at Rs 90 extra per month.

Working couples: An STB with a DVR (Digital video recorder) would benefit those who’d like to catch up on TV watching at their own convenience. One can set recording schedules and watch the recordings later during the day. TATA Sky+, BIG TV, and Sun Direct are the only options here.

Airtel DTH

Airtel offers an elegant looking set-top box with a universal remote to control both the set-top box and your TV. There are around 25 packages and 30 top-up packs which include 2-month to 12-month validity.

The STB has a composite video output with stereo audio out for connecting to a regular television set. The lack of component or HDMI outputs is a major drawback. A USB port does not currently do anything, but a source, on condition of anonymity, claims Airtel will soon be launching Internet services.
Though the quality of the broadcast is excellent, the overall interface is quite slow, especially the interactive services which feature options such as booking movie tickets, pizzas, shopping and travel.

Widgets (information applications) can also pop up on the screen to give you updates on traffic, weather, stock markets, cricket and news feeds. Though the widget window is informative, it is not translucent and blocks almost the entire right half of the screen—there is no option to position the widget window to a particular corner. The information bar on the bottom of the screen is a little difficult to read as it blends with the background.

The sales and service teams were unsatisfactory, and can make you dance from pillar to post in order to get the installation done. It takes you almost 10 minutes to get a customer service representative on the line and most often they are not helpful. Complaints such as the customer ID number not being displayed on the screen for almost a year now are plainly dismissed with a single stock answer that the technical team is presently working on the situation.

TATA SKY

One of the first DTH services in the market, TATA Sky took off with a big bang. People fed up with their cable operators demanding high prices for poor quality broadcasts were eager to switch to TATA Sky DTH which promised DVD quality picture and CD quality sound. Based on MPEG-2 technology, TATA Sky offers around 130 channels on their network in various bouquets.

The STB used by TATA Sky is very basic, with composite video and stereo AV outputs. The audio and video quality is great on most channels, but some users do complain about the degradation of video quality on certain channels. Also TATA sky had offered a few radio channels when they first launched, but they have now been pulled off the air with no reason or reduction in cost. The packages are very easy to choose from, but are a little pricier than some others.

The remote is neatly designed buttons on the remote control which match the interface on the screen. Browsing through the menus is easy enough for any first time user to follow.

TATA Sky offers existing users a good deal for upgrading to the TATA Sky+ STB which enables time-shifting and recording. The only problem is that the TATA Sky+ box requires an additional cable from the dish antenna which can ruin your interiors if you have concealed wiring. One nice touch is that when you purchase the DTH service, the dealer will arrange with the company to have the installation done at your premises.

Overall, TATA Sky is a great DTH service with exceptional after sales service, but for more channels in the future, users of the older MPEG-2 boxes would need to upgrade once that bandwidth capacity is reached.

Dish TV

DISH TV was first launched in the south. It was only when TATA Sky started advertising its own DTH services in India, that DISH TV became more vocal about their existence. The regular STB is based on MPEG-2 technology and has only composite video and stereo audio outputs. It looks presentable and the remote control is quite slim and light. The user interface is a little sluggish and seems to be a little complicated to follow for first time users. Setting up the favorites lists also is not an intuitive process. In some cases, when channels flipped rapidly using the remote control, the box refuses to respond and you need to type in a channel number to change channels. Hopefully a firmware update in the next version can fix this bug.

A major setback noted by some Dish TV DTH users was that transmission is disrupted for a few minutes at a time when there are heavy clouds or gusty winds. The customer service desk is easy to get through to and information provided by the help desk is fairly helpful.

Dish TV has various options for their STB hardware. The standard definition STBs can be used for a regular TV set, and there’s another version for use on a computer in which the VGA STB uses your computer’s monitor as a TV. The Mobile STB from Dish is the only mobile DTH service offered in India, which means the STB and antenna can be mounted to an automobile and be used for watching TV anywhere in India.

The organization of bouquets was lousy when Dish TV first started, but these are now easier to follow. The channels are neatly categorized in different packs ranging from Rs 113 per month to Rs 3,617 annually and including up to 188 channels.

BIG TV

BIG TV, from one of India’s major industrial houses, Reliance, made its entry into the DTH industry with a big bang. Announcing that BIG TV is going to have a whopping 350 channels on its network by the end of the year 2009, BIG TV seems to be gunning for the leading position of the DTH war in India.

BIG TV uses MPEG-4 technology which enables it to add in more channels on present STBs. The STB installed at the customer end is of a higher class and is presently HD ready with component outputs for richer video quality and ready for future HD broadcasts. The user interface is very intuitive and simple and ends up being a lot more user-friendly because of its computer-style interface. The EPG is quite impressive making it the only DTH service presently letting you watch a mosaic of 12 simultaneous channel previews on the screen. The favorite channels can be assigned as eight personalized category lists with unlimited favorites per list. The only drawback we found here is that the BIG TV logo was quite disturbing because it is not translucent. The remote is similar to the TATA sky remote, but is comparatively smaller than the latter.

BIG TV has the largest channel listing with over 25 channels dedicated for VOD services. Movies are available on a pay-per-view basis or monthly subscription, and are comparatively cheap with new movies added every two weeks. BIG TV has a backup for their Mumbai uplink placed in Bangalore, thus when it rains very heavily in Mumbai, the Bangalore uplink takes over for uninterrupted service.
BIG TV wins our Recommended award for its features, service and future upgrade prospects.

Sun Direct

The most recent addition to the existing DTH competition in India, Sun Direct DTH is one of the first to start HD broadcast services in India with one channel each in Telegu and Tamil already on air. Aimed more towards the south of India with numerous southern-language channels, it also caters to the rest of the country quite well with fairly decent channel packages and extremely reasonable pricing.

The website is quite straightforward and the packages are easy to choose from, but what can get a little confusing is the number of a-la-carte packs which are designed to let you pay for only what you want. Channels, especially cartoon and English movie ones, are sorted into overlapping bouquets and the combinations are such that you might wind up paying extra for channels you already have just to get one or two more which are also in the same bouquet. You'll need to make a checklist of exactly what you want before choosing your scheme!

The STB is based on MPEG-4 technology and Sun is presently streaming over 170 channels and 31 radio stations. The outputs are limited to composite video and stereo audio, but the HD version has a component video output for higher video quality. The STB and remote are not aesthetically pleasing at all, but the at least the remote is comparatively slim and easy to use. Channel listings and guides are decent, but sadly there are very few value added services such as interactive TV. The mosaic visual program guide feature is available here as well, and one can view eight live channels at a time on the screen. These are neatly categorized into sections such as kids, sports, movies, news, Tamil, and so on.

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