Voom Satellite Service Feeds Craving for High-definition Television (1 Viewer)

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Doug Bedell, 08.18.04, 11:32 AM ET

Voom's high-definition satellite service is like digital crack. For those who have already plunked down tidy sums for top-end televisions and just can't get enough HD, Voom feeds the craving as a tantalizing alternative to the relatively spare HD offerings available through cable or traditional satellite services.

It's not cheap ($79.90 per month for the full Va Va Voom package). Right now, there are holes in the programming that might not match your tastes (no Food Network, Discovery HD Theater, HDnet nor regional Fox sports telecasts). But there are some compelling plans for Voom's expansion that, if met, will make Voom irresistible for true high-def addicts.

Professional installation comes free with either of the set-top box options - purchase the special Motorola equipment, an 18-inch Voom dish and remote control for $500 or rent for $9.50 monthly.

You probably don't want to attempt an installation yourself. If you're switching from DirecTV or some other satellite service, existing cabling can be reused. Otherwise, the installer must run another set of cables from the dish to the entertainment center and, if you don't have one already, hook up an over-the-air antenna for receiving local digital broadcasts.

The set-top box downloads its four-day electronic programming guide (EPG) via the Voom satellite, which can take an hour or more. Initially, there were glitches with our installation. The Voom EPG, which blends the local over-the-air options with the service's custom lineup, got stuck showing only Channel 27 no matter what local station we attempted to view.

Customer service answered our call promptly that first night. The courteous attendant told us to turn the set-top box to standby for a software upgrade overnight. The next morning, everything worked fine, and there wasn't a glitch in the next two weeks of testing.

First impression: Even the standard-definition television programs shown in the regular 4:3 aspect ratio were noticeably crisper and more vivid than over the DirecTV HD system. Dennis Kron, special installations manager, said that's because Voom's satellite transmissions are less compressed. In other words, Voom devotes a much wider section of its bandwidth to each of its channels, whether high-def or standard.

Second impression: The EPG needs some tweaking. Although remarkably legible with its black lettering on vibrant backgrounds, the menu system always returns you to the Voom HD news station when you make selections. DirecTV's EPG, although much harder to read, functions much more intuitively.

Voom's constant return to Channel 100 creates headaches for navigation, and Mr. Kron says the company is considering a change in that operation.

That said, the EPG is thoughtfully organized. With a click on the remote, you view listings for all available channels, or you can limit the display to exclusively what's in HD. As you succumb to high-def's intoxication, that feature becomes increasingly important.

Basic service is available for about $40 monthly and includes Voom's exclusive HD channels and everything but premium packages such as HBO, Starz, Showtime and Cinemax. Adding in packages of premium channels - each of which includes at least one HD version - costs $15 apiece per month.

On its high-def channels, Voom runs a wide range of up-converted older movies as well as true high-def (1080i) specialty programs covering extreme sports, news, special concerts, fashion and travel. Most shows run in repeated cycles, but the variety is impressive. There is even a channel called Moov (Voom spelled backward) that features incredible high-def video art accompanied by soundtracks. Turn off the sound, and it becomes an entrancing, dynamic screen saver.

Sports programming is thin. ESPN in high-def has been added recently, but right now there's only one special high-def Voom sports channel, World Sport, which is dominated by foreign soccer.

The audio end of high-def telecasts is not ignored. Whenever possible, HD programming is accompanied by impeccable 5.1 surround-sound.

You're probably already seeing Voom in stores that offer high-def TVs. Demonstrations are much more impressive than over-the-air or cable feeds, making sets easier to sell. But it remains to be seen whether this company, Cablevision subsidiary Rainbow Media, can find a niche as the nation converts to all-digital programming.

Voom executives plan to have enough satellite capacity by the end of 2005 to broaden their lineup to 94 high-def channels and more than 300 in standard definition.
 

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