Satellite TV - Satellite TV Decoder Guide
Updated: March 19, 2016

Choosing your
Satellite TV Decoder / Receiver

Digital Satellite TV Systems

The first satellite TV decoders (or receivers), were nothing more than an almost dumb set-top-box that just allowed you to receive satellite television. However, over the years, satellite receivers have become a highly technical piece of gear loaded with all sort of features and options designed to make the whole satellite television viewing experience more complete.

Most of today's satellite TV receivers come with DVR support to record shows, while some models even allow simultaneous recording of multiple TV shows while you watch a different program. However, do not expect the more advanced receivers to come cheap; while a typical standard satellite TV receiver costs less than $70, a top-of-the-line model with HD and DVR support may easily exceed $250.

So... Which are the most important features you should you look for when selecting a satellite TV receiver? How should you go about choosing your satellite TV decoder?

DIRECTV HR24 High Definition DVR Satellite TV receiver (available from amazon)DirecTV HR24 HD DVR Satellite TV Receiver

This MPEG-2/MPEG-4 HD satellite TV decoder comes with DVR capabilities supporting up to 200 hours of SD programming or 50 hours of HD programming. You can also record two shows at once while watching another recording.

[A two-year service commitment may be required.]

Satellite Television Receiver Basics

Television signals feeding in from the satellite dish are in a format no TV can understand; you need a digital satellite TV decoder, more commonly referred to as satellite TV receiver. Yet, as we will explain further on, the satellite TV receiver has become more than a simple tuner/decoder box to receive the lower L-band frequencies coming from LNBs on the satellite dish.

The satellite TV signal is scrambled by satellite service providers from the time it leaves the systems of the satellite providers until it arrives in your home; this is done to prevent unauthorized use.

Satellite TV decoders de-scramble encrypted satellite TV signals and deliver them usable to satellite TV subscribers. For this purpose, satellite TV decoders incorporate a conditional access module (CAM) with a built-in card reader. This works in tandem with the programming card delivered by the service provider to enable subscribers to receiver locked/scrambled content and watch it on their TV. The programming card contains information pertaining to the subscriber service subscription, and therefore determines which channels to de-scramble for viewing and which to block. The process works by taking the seed key programmed on the card and combine it with the key sent with the encrypted video signal.

Satellite TV systems also require a landline phone connection for downloading periodic updates associated with the interactive on-screen program guide, as well as pay-per-view service information. In the case of pay-per-view, the phone connection is used to send purchase information from the satellite TV decoder to the satellite service provider for both service provisioning as well as for billing purposes.

A modem inside the satellite receiver makes a short duration toll-free call to the service provider computer system; this is generally programmed to take place during the night. In case the modem senses that the line is in use at the time it attempts to make the call, it will simply try again later.

The phone connection allows a subscriber to order Pay-Per-View movies, get popular sports, and special events subscriptions, by navigating an appropriate graphics interface with their remote control. The phone connection also enables subscribers to have their programming subscription as set through their Pay-Per-View service, mirrored over the other satellite TV receivers connected to the same telephone line.

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Choosing a Satellite TV Decoder

The Satellite TV decoder, receiver, or descrambler as sometimes it is called, forms an integral part of your digital satellite TV system setup; the latter also includes the outdoor satellite dish antenna, and equally important, a subscription to a satellite TV service provider to get access to the required satellite programming.

Therefore, a first step in choosing a satellite TV decoder is to choose your satellite provider. Currently, your choice is limited to DISH Network and DirecTV. This will definitely narrow the choice of satellite receivers you can opt for even though both DirecTV and DISH Network offer an extensive choice of models ranging from the basic standard set-top-boxes that costs less than $70, to high-end multi-tuner satellite TV receivers with HD support, built-in hard-drive, and a full range of digital video recording (DVR) features to record movies and TV shows.

In addition, both service providers constantly come up with various promo packages through which eligible customers may get a complete satellite TV system, including the satellite receivers for free. Generally, if the hardware on offer is not exactly what you want, there is always the option to upgrade to a receiver of your choice. Such free offers however are generally subject to a service commitment of between one and two years.

Regardless of how you get your satellite receiver, you always have a few decisions to make before proceeding with your purchase:

Choosing Your Satellite Receiver Options: Important features to look for

Pretty much everything you need to know about satellite TV decoders boils down to features since with the right receiver, you can do a lot more than just watch satellite TV programming. We therefore present you with a list of features worth considering when planning a satellite TV receiver purchase.

Once you decided on what you want, all you have to do is call the satellite TV service provider of your choice and proceed from there. Someone from the company will surely walk you through and explain the various options available. However, knowing beforehand the features to look for will put you in a better position to choose your satellite TV decoder.

The Basic Satellite TV Receiver

The basic receiver is the entry-level set-top-box that allows you to watch satellite TV programming - based on your subscription, in standard definition.

This type of satellite TV set-top-box comes with a comprehensive program guide to see everything scheduled on all channels for days at a time. Some basic receivers even come with built-in games that you can play on your TV.

HD-enabled Receivers

With the advent of digital TV and the increasing presence of high definition plasma and LED/LCD HDTV sets in the home, HDTV programming is becoming more popular than ever. And the latest MPEG-4 AVC encoding used by the TV broadcast industry means even more local and national HD channel programming.

However, to receive high definition satellite TV programming, you need an HD-capable MPEG-4 compatible satellite TV decoder. This will then present the incoming satellite HD programming to the TV in either 720p or 1080i.

As indicated in our introduction to digital satellite television, you will still be able to receive the present lineup of MPEG-2 HD channels with your older HD receiver, but you need to upgrade to an MPEG-4 compatible satellite TV decoder if you want to watch new local and national HD channels. Both DISH Network and DirecTV offer discounts on HD upgrade bundles to make the transition less painful.

All entry-level satellite HD-receivers include a standard definition tuner to handle channels not broadcasting in high definition.

Equally important, some satellite set-top-boxes include a built-in ATSC tuner to receive local network content already broadcasting in HD via a rooftop TV antenna. Normally, the built-in program guide in these hybrid satellite TV receivers would integrate the information for over-the-air and satellite TV programs, for seamless switching back and forth from satellite to over-the-air TV channels.

Note: You will gain nothing with an HDTV capable digital satellite TV decoder unless it is connected to an HDTV set. However, if you are in the process of upgrading to a new HDTV set, then you should always get an HDTV MPEG-4 enabled satellite TV receiver.

DVR Option

Dish Network VIP 722K Dual Tuner HD DVR (available from amazon)Satellite TV receivers equipped with a digital video recording (DVR) option like DirecTV HR24 featured at the top of this page and the DISH Network ViP722K HD receiver featured on the left, allow you to capture your favorite movies and sporting events on a digital drive to view later at your convenience.

Although you can certainly add your own dedicated DVR to your home entertainment system, the integration of a built-in DVR with a satellite TV decoder certainly brings in a few significant advantages over the two-piece setup apart from saving valuable space in your equipment rack.

While an integrated DVR would not have all of the functionality of an advanced dedicated recording system, a satellite TV decoder with an integrated DVR still allows you to pause, rewind and fast-forward live TV.

More important however, is that with an integrated DVR, the functionality of the satellite receiver electronic program guide (EPG) would be well-integrated into the DVR's recording menu/scheduling system, thus making recording of future shows quick and easy.

Some of the more advanced DVR-equipped satellite TV decoders would even follow your viewing pattern to predict and tag for you, shows through the receiver EPG, that are similar in nature, to make it easier for you to either watch these live, or have the receiver record these for you.

One final advantage of an integrated DVR-satellite TV receiver is that thanks to the different offers by both DirecTV and Dish Network, an integrated solution comes for significantly less than you would have to pay for a stand-alone DVR from TiVo.


Any digital satellite TV receiver can be used in a home theater setup. However, some of the cheaper satellite TV decoders lack the necessary audio and video connections on the back of the unit to support the highest quality home theater experience.

For the latter to be possible, your digital satellite TV receiver should at least include an S-video output for standard definition, and component video or preferably an HDMI connection for HD programming. It should also incorporate a digital audio connection for Dolby Digital Surround if it does not include an HDMI output.

Additional Basic Features and Conveniences

It is worth having a Picture-in-Picture (PIP) viewing option as the PIP feature found on most HDTVs today comes with extremely limited functionality. Most TV PIP features would only allow you to view TV channels from the TV tuner on the PIP screen (sub-picture) while the main TV picture is from an external device; it would not work the other way round meaning that in the case of a satellite TV decoder box setup, the TV PIP feature would practically become useless.

Instead, having a picture-in-picture viewing option on the set-top-box will come in handy when surfing different satellite TV channels.

Parental Control is another feature you should look into if you want to keep your kids from watching staff you do not want them.

And a convenient accessory to your satellite TV decoder is an RF Remote Control to control your satellite receiver without the need for a direct line-of-sight with the receiver. Both DirecTV and Dish offer universal RF remotes for their satellite TV receivers.  

Using an RF remote would allow you to control your receiver from another room, ideal if you are sharing your satellite TV receiver with a second TV set. If you prefer to watch your TV in a darkened room, look for a satellite TV receiver IR/RF remote control with illuminated keys.

Shopping Around

As expressed in this article, satellite TV receivers are available directly from DISH Network and DirecTV as part of a satellite TV system package, as well as through their numerous online resellers.

However, if you are in the market for a satellite TV receiver, it may be worth timing your purchase with promotional specials often run by these satellite TV service providers; promos generally include free HD satellite receivers and DVR upgrades for eligible customers subject to a service commitment over a period of time.

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 Article Content

Issues discussed in this article:

Blue bullet  The Satellite Television Receiver: Basic functionality explained

Blue bullet  Satellite TV Decoder Choice: Important features to look for when selecting your satellite receiver

Blue bullet  Shopping Around for your satellite TV decoder

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