FreeSat: In Action

The Goodman's GFSAT100SD receiver and freesat in action

The box arrives...

It is a small cardboard box, a bit light on information on the outside, and roughly the same sort of size as a conventional video deck.

Upon opening the box, inside is a small receiver (about the size of a reasonable hardcover book - roughly 26cm × 4cm × 15cm) with fitted cable. It is a metal box with "Goodmans" and the freesat logo embossed into the top, as can be seen in the picture above (that's my PVR on top of it). There is also a SCART lead and an ugly-as-sin clunky remote controller that is easily the biggest that I have. Nicely, two AAA batteries are provided so you can get going right away. There is a pictoral Start here guide, and a basic handbook.

Two things of note... Firstly, the bit in the start guide about "Updating system software" may or may not happen. It depends what firmware is installed in your receiver, and what is available for download (via satellite).

[scanned from Goodmans Start here guide]

Secondly, the description of the EPG provided is for demonstration purposes. Contrary to that which may be indicated (see picture below)... until recently CNN was not part of the freesat lineup; though it is now available on channel 207.

[scanned from Goodmans Instruction Manual]

The front of the receiver is minimal. On the right is a four-way selection button with another button in the middle. It glows a nifty blue when the receiver is in standby, and goes out when the receiver is on (some sort of 'on' indicator would have been nice).

The back of the receiver is where all the connections are. Interestingly the tuner is provided with an output and the user guide mentions that it is a loop-through, but on my receiver it is capped off with a sticker saying "Please note the LNB OUT has no function and does not act as a loop through." - why have it if it doesn't work!? (I have not tried it to see if it really is disabled - I don't have any spare F-plugs)
There are two SCART sockets which can output composite video or RGB video, selectable in the system configuration.
There is a serial port that does not appear to have a function, perhaps a hack to allow the firmware to be upgraded? Perhaps some sort of future remote control system (like that distribution system used with the Sky receivers)?
Audio output is provided using phono sockets for left, right, and S/PDIF.
Finally, an ethernet socket (I would assume 100baseTX?) for future connection to an ADSL router to allow connection to services such as BBC iPlayer.

What is missing, sadly, are S-video and CVBS (composite) outputs.

[scanned from Goodmans Instruction Manual, and edited for size]



I already have a dish pointing to 28.2°E with the primary LNB on that bird - so installing my receiver was basically disconnecting the satellite lead from my SL65 and connecting it to my freesat box, and adding the SCART connection to my AV switcher.

For those without a suitable dish (an existing SkyDigital installation will work), you can either install the dish yourself, or you can purchase your freesat receiver with an installation.

If you have never dealt with satellite equipment before, it is strongly recommended that you purchase an installation. Think - you will need to mount your dish securely, you will need to aim it towards about 28.35°E with around 1° accuracy, and you may well need to do this in unfavourable (and potentially dangerous) conditions with little in the way to guide you. Note that this is a co-ordinate given relative to the equator. For you, you will be wanting a compass position looking south east between 135 and 150 degrees, depending where in the UK/western Europe you live. In addition, your distance (north) from the equator will determine how much you need to move the dish in the up/down sense. In the UK it is around 16 degrees (north Scotland) to 30 degrees (Isle of Wight-ish), and moreso for those living in France, etc... In technical terms, there are two satellite clusters. The Astra birds are at 28.2°E and the Eurobird satellite is at 28.5°E. This is close enough that to the dish they appear to be in about the same place, though there are hundreds of kilometres between each of them. They are around 40,000km straight up from the equator. As you can imagine, those of you in Norwich will be looking in a slightly different direction to those of you in Cardiff, likewise for those of you in Buckie, and so on. You can either do the heavy maths to locate exactly where to point the dish, or you can 'fiddle' and rely on lots of luck along with trial and error.
Don't forget, also, the satellite reception works on the principle of line-of-sight. This means your dish must have a clear and unobstructed 'view' of the bit of sky where the satellites are. You can't receive through trees, other buildings, and so forth.

A number of non-network freesat channels, plus the EPG data itself, is transmitted from the Eurobird satellite with a footprint that gives good coverage to north-west Europe, although it would seem from my experience that the broadcasts are slightly 'weaker' (this could be a problem in rainy conditions if your dish is not spot-on). The BBC channels are broadcast from the Astra 2D UK spot beam. This provides good coverage to the UK, but with a signal strength that rapidly diminishes the further away you are.
As a rule-of-thumb, those living above the Loire Valley in France should be able to get away with a 60cm dish and/or a standard Sky minidish. Those living between, say, the Loire and Bordeaux should be able to receive using an 80cm dish or one of the Scottish (larger) Sky minidishes. Beyond this point, your dish size will need to increase accordingly.
In essence, the generic blended 'footprint' (zone of coverage) of the signals used by the freesat transmissions cover the UK (obviously), Ireland, Iceland, France, Belgium, Holland, the far west of Germany... outside of this zone reception is not impossible, however you will be looking at professional round centre-mount dishes with sizes measured in metres. Estimate 1.5m for Switzerland, around 2.2m for southern Spain or central Italy, and about 1.8m for Mallorca. These are guestimates, conditions will vary, however I think it is fairly safe to say that a Sky minidish bolted to the side of your apartment on the Costa will be pretty ineffectual.

If you're now thinking "oh my God!", then it would be wise to pay that bit extra (around £80) to make it all somebody else's problem, and for you it will be a case of simply pressing the button.


Getting going

Powering up, I was greeted with:
Unlike the Digibox, the receiver started up in a matter of seconds. A strength of 63% is not as good as I'd have liked (I have since tweaked my dish alignment), but it will do for now. I pressed the OK button and the box said Scanning signal for a while, before reporting on the network ID (003b) and the transport ID (090b). For non-geeks, these values are in base 16, so it is network 59, transport 2315. I am surprised that a simple non-techie receiver displays it like this, instead of "Freesat service found" or some other more meaningful message?
I pressed OK again.

Next, to set up the receiver:

The postcode entered determines your BBC/ITV regions. I did not want to enter my postcode from when I lived in Ash as we were a transition area that leaned more towards London, and I wanted to watch BBC South/Meridian (or whatever it thinks it is nowadays), so I tried the postal code of my old nursing agency located on Fleet high street; and was told the postcode was invalid. Cheeky bugger!
So I had to enter my Ash postal code, and have the London ITV region.

If you happen to live in the catchment area of the Hannington transmitter for what used to be Meridian (Basingstoke); please email a postcode that should work. If you are too paranoid to send your own postcode, how about that of a local supermarket, corner shop, school, etc? Thanks!

Live in Europe? Can't think of a British postal code?
Try these. They are from adverts in RadioTimes: Large parts of the country are not covered, however there is no reason why you could not Google for, say, a plumber in Bedfordshire or a glazier in Padstow and use the postal code that you find...

The choice of television is for widescreen or regular TVs. At this stage don't get cocky and select 16:9 if you want a letterboxed picture. Just say what size your TV actually is. The receiver selects widescreen by default.

Once you OK this, the receiver will start scanning for services.

Previous versions of the receiver used to look for channels using the rather braindead approach of scanning through every channel looking for available services. Following the update of 2009/04/17, the scan takes but a few seconds. Much better.

It's great to see Zone Horror on the list, so I will have EPG information for that channel.

I will take a moment to mourn Bubble Hits. This independant Irish music channel had one primary feature that made it an extremely desirable way to watch more mainstream music. Namely that there was never more than a minute of advertising at any time. Okay, the advert breaks were more frequent - every three songs - however as the breaks were so short it was not a big intrusion... unlike the other channels which can run to four-five minutes of advertising (at which point I am prone to channel hop and may go off and watch something else).
This model really wouldn't suit television, in which case I liked the old (analogue) Sky Movies idea of showing a big chunk of advertising, then the film without interruption. However for music television, which is logically broken into 3-4 minute chunks by the length of the songs, it fit really well.
Unfortunately the economic situation in the world means that advertising budgets are cut back, and as a result of the lack of advertising revenue, Bubble Hits was not able to continue...


The receiver in use

When the scan is complete, you are dumped into the first channel, which will be BBC One of your selected region.

[South Today on BBC One]
I think Sally Taylor must have made a pact with the devil or something, she's been on BBC's regional news ever since I remember. Think about it, where is Debbie Thrower (the girl that launched Meridian when it evolved from TVS) now?

[Debbie Thrower, outside Winchester Cathedral, presenting
Meridian's first minutes on air...
(00:00, 1993/01/01)]

First item of business, press MENU and go to the settings menu to alter the aspect to be letterboxed.
Alternatively, you could press the WIDE button a few times until it was the way you wanted.

[insert: South Today on BBC One]

That's better. I don't get those who moan about losing some of their picture. Okay, the picture on screen is smaller what with those black bars, however you see all of it instead of having the left and right brutally hacked off. A lot of television programming tries to keep the important things in the centre so it looks okay at 4:3, however the same cannot be said for films where the director is most interested in something that looks good on the cinema screen and gives scant regard to television. Thankfully now that most channels broadcast in 16:9 and let the receiver letterbox or whatever, we can wave goodbye to the artistic abortions that were a hack-up job of getting a wide aspect movie to fit in a 4:3 picture.

[South Today on BBC One]

Up until now we've not done anything that isn't possible with hundreds of digital satellite receivers...
So, remember that little indicator at the upper-right two pictures up? This fires off BBCi, so let's press red!

[insert: South Today on BBC One]

The BBC interactive service is quite zippy in use (though worryingly you can tap out a four-digit page reference before the receiver shows a response!). This is possibly due in part to it being rather reduced compared to the service I remember on the Digibox. freesat uses a fairly standard form of MHEG-5 for interactive content while the Digibox uses the proprietory OpenTV, so the services (and indeed the EPG) are broadcast in parallel to Sky's stuff. The two are not compatible with each other.
While the service is smaller, the important content is there - the "Sci/Tech news" (p154), the "10 Things We Didn't Know" (p125 on weekends), the UK (p1010), world (p1020), and regional (p1660 for south) news. You'll also find entertainment stuff on p500, but unlike the Digibox version, there is no video-magazine to watch.

Let's take a moment for a piece of history. Something foreseen by Hollywood (namely Morgan Freeman, of course...), but many wouldn't have believed until it became a reality:

[Channel 4 News on Channel 4]

Right, back again! There is also weather on page 400, and there are weather maps for British regions, with a 24 hour forecast and a 5 day forecast available:

You can also select to see a forecast for cities around the world, arranged by continent:

[insert: The One Show on BBC One]

Indeed, BBCi is a veritable mine of information. Some of it is depressing:

[insert: Animal Park on BBC Two]
Gee, thanks for giving us optimism.
And some things, well, when you have a state pension befitting that of a third-world country, a pension that is so terrible that pensioners from a bankrupt country send over sweaters to help us lot not die of the cold this winter... rates such as these are not what we want to see!

While the news does seem to obsess over those in misery and pain, there are occasional gems that slip through, like the first steam train seen on Britain's rail network since before I was born, cash raised and engine built by enthusiasts. That's pretty awesome, and a nice story in amongst all the stories of if Islamic fundamentalists don't kill us, the over-bonused bankers will do it. I guess that's a lesson the media will never learn. If the world is sliding into hell, ignorance is bliss. Why d'you think I get my news fix from BBCi and teletext? No gory pictures and I can choose what stories to ignore - which is, frankly, the majority - I much prefer BBCi's Sci-Tech news (p154)!
I'll give you an example. 9/11. We found out when going to the supermarket the following day, it was front-page news everywhere, plus being played ad nauseum on the demo TVs. My mom and I were probably the last people in a civilised country to know about it. It isn't that I am out of touch, it's that I am sickened to turn on the TV and see pictures of dead bodies floating in the remains of New Orleans. For ****s sake, that is somebody's relative, there is no need to zoom in so we can practically try to identify the corpse.
...and people complain about violence in movies and on television. At least the balanced rational members of the public can rationalise that zombies and vampires are hokum, and everybody got paid for that slaughterfest which they performed as a job and it was all convincingly put together by a special effects team and inspired directing, not to mention a truckload of red sauce.
Now tell me what we are supposed to rationalise with the news? Those are real dead bodies, not actors, and - vampires and zombies aside - there's nothing they can do in Hollywood that can't be done a lot worse in real life by the sort of sick bastard that thinks walking into a classroom with a semi-automatic is a good idea...
So, yes, I am very pro-BBCi and I am mourning the demise of teletext. I can choose my own stories of interest, ignore the perpetual conflicts taking parts in certain troublespots, and I can do it all a lot faster than a rolling news feed.

Sometimes BBCi doesn't work entirely as expected, and you will see something like this:

This could be because of a genuine technical problem, but such things are usually fairly transient so it is my guess that it is a request for something that is in the process of being updated and I just happened to request that article in that short period...

What is worth pointing out is that if you never think you'll remember to press YELLOW to go back in the BBCi service, you'll perhaps be pleased to know that there is a logical alternative - the BACK key!


When you change channel, a translucent banner briefly appears telling you what is on now and what will be on afterwards:

[Channel 4 News on Channel 4]

You can press INFO at any time to see what is on now:

[Channel 4 News on Channel 4]

Press Right to see what will be on next, or INFO once more for a description:

[Channel 4 News on Channel 4]
You can see little 'buttons' (lower right of the info) saying "SUB" and "TXT". This shows that stream subtitles are available (via the SUB key), and additionally subtitles are available on teletext (p888 by convention), though the freesat receiver does not provide its own teletext facilities.


There is a status display telling you all you need to know about your receiver, though I think the signal strength/quality is broken as it always seems to read 100%. There does not appear to be any 'hidden' menu for setting up special functions (such as whether or not the LNB is to be powered). If there is, I've not found it yet...
My receiver was purchased and sent with the v1.2.16 firmware. On 2009/02/17 this was updated over-the-air to the following:


When you select a channel that has an interactive service (in other words, a BBC channel...), the banner will appear after about 10-15 seconds, and it will go away after a brief time.

[Jo Kent presenting the BBC One South news update]
Note that on programmes with a play along service, such as the National Lottery programme, the announcer will say that Sky and Freeview viewers can press the red button to play along. This does not include freesat viewers. Hopefully this will change as more people take the freesat route. The number of freesat receivers sold is steaming past the quarter million mark, which isn't bad...
I reckon what is helping freesat along no end is the availability of HD services (unlike digital terrestrial), the range of channels, and the fact that outside of strong reception areas, digital terrestrial is prone to signal corruption and/or loss.
There is another fine co-incidence for freesat. Sky is unrolling a new generation of viewing card for April 2009. New cards are already on the way for SkyDigital and FreesatfromSky subscribers; however those from the earlier freeview (satellite) scheme (i.e. cards over three years old) will not be replaced. Those people will need to sign up for FreesatfromSky and make a payment of £20 for a new viewing card.
Here's what you get for your twenty quid: A bigger BBCi service (via the Digibox), ITV's icky red button service, a more feature-laden ITV teletext, and the channels Fiver, Five US, Sky 3, and Setanta Sports News...
That's it. Is it worth twenty pounds? For only twice that (check on-line, prices vary widely) you can get a freesat receiver and go that way. There's no viewing card slot, so nobody will sneak in a subscription-based system or require a replacement viewing card.
(if you don't mind it being slightly more complicated and you don't want BBCi or the EPG; you can probably get a basic digital satellite receiver for around £30; you'll be able to watch all the freesat channels, and more... I do!)



Like the old days of the Digibox, the channels are assigned three digit numbers, roughly: And, also as with the Digibox, the ITV regional channels are not available. They can be added, but as non-freesat channels; and sadly the handling of non-freesat channels is basic:

[oMusic TV]

Pressing CH LIST will display a list of channels:

[insert: EastEnders on BBC One]
You can move up and down the list, and switch to FTA channels if you have added any. You can also set up a smallish (about 25?) list of 'favourite' channels; though with a channel list as small as it currently is, it is probably not worth the bother.
You cannot restrict the EPG to displaying only your favourite channels which does rather limit the usefulness of this feature.



The other big selling point of freesat is the 7-day EPG. See what is on any freesat channel at any time in the next seven days; complete with descriptions:

You can set reminders for things you want to see, and the receiver will notify you if there is a clash in your selected programming (this appears to be buggy at the moment):

Bizarrely, there is no way to call up a list of programmes that you have scheduled with a reminder; the only option is to move through the EPG looking for clock logos and the grey 'highlight'. If you are a night owl, you might find my TeleGuide useful? ☺

While the EPG is a very good addition to the receiver featureset, it is blessed with a number of implementation bugs - especially a tendency to 'forget' information; however the EPG is a lot better that it was prior to the firmware update...

Pay attention to how many "No Information Available" messages there are. The EPG is full of them, however if you leave it for a minute or two the information should be received and displayed for you.


Oh, and as a suggestion to the FreeSat people - some background music (even if only that beep-beep-beep BBC news theme) would be good. Actually, how about some of that nice music that used to accompany late-night test card and teletext pages on BBC 2 (Syd Dale?)?
Actually, there's an idea. Stick a 'radio' stream on the EPG transponder. When you are looking at the EPG it will play the music to you as you browse. And when you don't want to look at channel information but would like the music, it's a radio channel called "BBC Relax". There, sorted! ☺
(and as an in-joke for the people-in-the-know, the 'logo' for BBC Relax could be test card F)


Radio channels

If you are listening to one of the main BBC radio channels, you will see a display with the station logo and an optional screensaver:

Pressing GREEN will switch to:

The caption moves around every so often. It's a shame it does not include programming information, for example:
This is BBC Radio 4 LW: The Six O'Clock News
To deactivate screensaver, press GREEN
This would mean you can see at a glance what is on... It is rather odd, actually, that the main radio display shows the logo but not what is on. For that, you have to call up the info:
Incidentally, all of the status 'buttons' are visible. Is "RD" radio? Shouldn't this be 'lit'? I presume the "TXT" is because of the logo display? On this receiver, we won't ever be seeing "HD" (high-def), and probably not "DD" (Dolby Digital, usu. for 5.1 audio).

Things are less exciting for the other radio channels. You will see the standard "What's on" banner. No logo, no info, no screensaver.


The remote control

Is huge. Unweildly. You could use it as a weapon against a potential burglar. There are numerous buttons which, while possibly useful, could easily be pushed into menus - indeed some of the functionality (such as the WIDE button) are duplicated in menus. While you might argue that others - such as SUB and AD are necessary, the Sky Digibox method is to use one of the colour buttons to pop up an on-screen menu for subtitles and narrative, which is flexible without requiring additional buttons; and if you think that sounds like too many button presses, you have to press INFO twice just to get a description of what's on now...
There are other small issues, such as the MENU key being so close to 0 - easy to press by mistake. Does the TV/DTV do anything? If it simply asserts a logic level on one of the SCART pins to say "I'm on", can't this be controlled by whether the receiver is on or off? [with the Sky controller, the TV button had a special purpose in the controller could actually double-up as a controller for many brands of television]

Here is a scan from the Goodman's Instruction Manual:


ITV teletext

The prime competitor to BBCi is ITV's Teletext service. On a Digibox, this is available by pressing Text (don't bother with ITV's red button). ITV teletext had been unavailable on freesat until recently.
I don't know if this is how the service will work, or if it is "in testing" like this...

Select channel 986. You will may briefly see:

in amongst the black, until a few seconds later the screen will clear to be:

Upon pressing Text, the service will load quickly. The service is, like the freesat version of BBCi, much reduced from it's Sky counterpart. In a way this is a shame - my favourite parts were the "viewer's letters", both on topical events and on entertainment subjects. I hope ITV considers introducing these to the freesat service soon.

The main menu will appear:

In essence this all looks and feels a lot like BBCi. However it retains one important element of teletext - namely that all pages can be accessed by using a page number; this is only partly so in the case of BBCi - p154 will take you to the Sci-Tech news, but there is no actual number for the third story. If you want to view the third news article on ITV Teletext, it's p304. Additionally, like teletext of old, all pages are three digits long, and searching for a page begins as soon as the third digit has been entered. Thankfully, however, you no longer have to wait for rolling page refreshes. If you choose a page with subpages, such as p149 for horoscopes, the Up and Down buttons will permit you to choose exactly which subpage to read. Are you Sagitarius? Taurus? Or maybe you don't believe in divining the future from star patterns (especially as star patterns can be accurately plotted using computer software so one could surmise that a person's entire life could be mapped out from the moment of their conception...?), mmm, I'm not sure there is an "I don't believe page", so look at Gemini instead. ☺

This is what a news story looks like:

It 'feels' about the same degree of terseness as BBCi; condensing a story down to two or three short paragraphs. Just enough news to be informed, not so much it gets boring. I quite like how the entire story is visible at once; though I also like BBC's overlay. I guess each service has its attributes.

If you look in the index (p103), it is quite clear where Teletext's priorities are. There is just under one page listing the general user content, and just over five pages listing the Teletext Holidays content. This isn't such a bad thing, for the holidays will be bringing in money which will help fund the teletext service itself. It is my hope that it works well enough that they can invest some of the profits back into the teletext service to make the freesat version more like it's big brother over on Sky... In fact, I will tell Teletext right here that, for the period that my Digibox was working, I had a preference for ITV teletext because of the feedback/viewer's comments. After all, every news service will be providing the same basic news. It is useful to see what people think of an event, like, independently of the pre-digested news bulletins.


Other stuff

There is no support for teletext, however most subtitles (on the public service channels) are also available as in-vision captioning. The SUB button switches this on and off:
As with the Digibox, the subtitles are text on a chunky black background. Not aethetically pleasing. Really, people, you ought to look at a DVD player sometime!

A number of programmes on the public service channels are also offered with narrative, which was renamed Audio Description for those too thick to figure out what narrative meant - which is why the AD button exists!

This is probably the first digital television unit I have seen which actually provides a button for switching aspect ratio. This is unlikely to be something that you'd want to do too often, which is why such options are usually stuck in some sort of setup menu. On the Goodman's freesat box? Just play with the WIDE button until you are bored or throw up, whichever is first! ☺

Energy consumption is minimal. Unlike the early Sky receivers, this is a modern receiver with remarkably little hardware inside.


Bugs and quirks

The usefulness of any equipment is not judged by what it can do, but rather by what it cannot do or does incorrectly. For example my PVR (read my b.log entry 2009/01/18) can record TV programmes and the colours are nice, but it records at 30fps (from a 25fps PAL source!), it outputs in NTSC (!), and the audio is overcompressed.

To this end, here is a buglist for the freesat receiver. Some may be faults of the freesat service and/or specification, while others will be peculiar to the Goodmans receiver.


Return to Digibox main index

Copyright © 2009 Rick Murray