How to Choose Between Digital Cable and Satellite - dummies

How to Choose Between Digital Cable and Satellite

By Danny Briere, Pat Hurley

Should you choose digital cable or satellite for your home theater system? Both DSS and digital cable offer hundreds of channels, including countless movie channels and pay-per-view movies. The biggest competitor to the DSS companies comes from local cable companies, such as Time Warner, Comcast, and Cox Communications. Like DSS, digital cable includes a pretty onscreen interface that lets you browse through TV listings, set reminder timers, and more.

The way that digital cable connects to your A/V system is also similar to DSS. Digital cable requires a set-top box (equivalent to the DSS receiver) that converts these digitally compressed MPEG-2 channels into analog NTSC signals for your TV. And like DSS, if you want to get HDTV signals over digital cable, you need a special set-top box with HDTV capabilities and HDTV connectors on the back, such as HDMI or wideband component video.

Lots of people confuse digital cable with HDTV, but for the majority of channels, digital cable is not HDTV. Most cable companies offer a dozen or so channels of HDTV over their digital cable systems. But the rest is just digitally compressed and transmitted analog NTSC TV.

Consider the following differences between digital cable and DSS:

  • DSS gives you a choice of receivers (that you have to pay for), whereas digital cable gives you no choice. You rent the digital cable set-top box as part of your monthly service fee, and you get what the cable company gives you. The advantage of this approach is that the cable company has to fix or replace your set-top box if it stops working, but the disadvantage is that you can’t choose a set-top box that has the features you want.

  • Many cable companies compress the analog NTSC signals carried over digital cable more than the DSS providers do. Because MPEG-2 is a lossy compression technology, this extra compression means your picture is less sharp and detailed than it would be at a lower compression level.

It’s not all bad news, however. Going with digital cable over DSS has some major advantages:

  • Digital cable systems always carry all your local channels (they’re required to by law). You might even get local cable-only channels that you might never get over DSS (if you live in a rural area) or with a broadcast TV antenna.

  • Digital cable systems are two-way systems, communicating back to the cable company over the same line that carries your cable TV to you. So you don’t need a phone line (like you do with DSS), and you can do neat interactive TV stuff with digital cable. In many areas, you can do video-on-demand (or VoD) over a digital cable system.

  • Digital cable systems is generally immune to weather phenomena that can cause DSS services to freeze up or blur. Obviously, a big storm could blow over the poles that carry your cable signal into your home, but you won’t have to worry about heavy winds or rain affecting your signal as you do with satellite.

In some parts of the country, digital cable may not be available, or it may be in a primitive state (for example, no HDTV channels, no VoD, and fewer channels than DSS). In these cases, it helps to have either a good dealer or a lot of friends with home theaters so that you can judge different systems with your own eyes.