Bell ExpressVu receiver model 9200: First HD-ready PVR

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Bell Satellite
August 30th, 2005 • 10:17 am

Bell ExpressVu is one of the two satellite TV providers here in Canada. (The other one is Star Choice.)

I have been a Bell ExpressVu customer since 1998, i.e. since the very beginning. In fact, I was such an early adopter that the installer guy didn’t even know how to install the dish properly. He spent half a day in the middle of a snow storm trying to get the dish to work from the bottom of the roof, when in fact the trees around our house were so high that the dish actually had to be installed at the very top of the roof. But he was never able to figure this out, and, after much complaining on the phone with the company, we ended up getting another installer guy from elsewhere who finally did the job.

Since then, we’ve been through a lot with Bell ExpressVu: new satellite launches, defective receivers, endless reshuffling of programming options, etc. As far as I can tell, we’ve always lagged a bit behind the States in terms of the availability of the latest technologies. But it hasn’t been too bad, really. (I think most of the technology used by Bell ExpressVu is directly borrowed from the Dish Network, which is one of the satellite TV providers south of the border.)

The two major developments in recent years have been the PVR (Personal Video Recorder) and high definition TV (HDTV). Of course, as a computer geek and a movie buff, I’ve always been attracted to the idea of high definition TV. But HDTV has always been — and still is — more of a promise than a reality. The number of available HDTV channels is still fairly small, and HDTV sets are still rather expensive.

The PVR, on the other hand, has been a major revolution. Being able to record up to 60 hours of video on a hard drive on the fly in perfect quality, being able to pause live TV, being able to “rewind” live TV even when you are not recording, being able to start watching a show while it’s still recording, being able to skip commercials instantaneously by pressing a button — such features are incredibly liberating and improve the TV viewing experience immensely.

All this to say that, in this household, the PVR was adopted as soon as it became reasonably priced, in late 2003. HDTV, on the other hand, would have to wait. One of the major reasons, apart from the high price and limited programming options, was that you couldn’t have both. You had to choose: you could get either a PVR or a HD-capable receiver. Until now, PVR receivers couldn’t do HD.

The 9200 receiver recently launched by Bell ExpressVu changes this. It is a receiver that can record up to 180 hours of video in standard definition (SD) or up to 25 hours of video in high definition. As an added bonus, it also has comes with two tuners, which means that you can finally record two different live shows simultaneously (and still watch a third, pre-recorded show off your hard drive at the same time).

When I saw that in July, I knew we would have to have one. But that meant I would have to be an early adopter once again. I took the chance. I don’t regret it, but it was not exactly a smooth ride.

First of all, I elected to order it directly from Bell ExpressVu. I could probably have waited until it was available in our local electronics shop and get it installed by them, but I figured that it might take a while and they wouldn’t have any experience with it either. So I placed my order for it over the phone with Bell ExpressVu, and they set up an appointment for their installation service in the region to come and install the receiver on August 10. (The receiver requires a new switch on the satellite dish itself, and since it has two tuners it also requires an additional coaxial cable coming down from the dish.)

I got the package via Purolator on August 9. On August 10, I waited and waited, and no one ever showed up. (It’s a good thing I work at home. I really wonder what people with a regular 9-to-5 job in an office are supposed to do.) On August 11, I got on the phone, and was told that there was no trace of this August 10 appointment anywhere in their system. The only thing that they could offer was a new appointment on August 22, and a credit of one month of programming for my troubles.

When it comes to such situations, I am not much of a complainer. I just don’t have the energy to get angry at the hapless employee at the other end of the line, and tend to resign myself to my fate. Unlike my wife. She (rightly) thought that this was unacceptable, and asked to speak to a customer service person. She got a call back within a couple of hours, and after getting a polite, but stern talking-to, the Bell ExpressVu customer service representative managed to arrange for someone to come and install the thing on the very next day.

And sure enough, on August 12, a friendly young man showed up with his equipment. Of course, just to keep things interesting, it turned out that he only had white coaxial cable left in his van — and our house is painted dark brown with black trim. We had to go to the local electronics shop to get some black cable. (Bell ExpressVu agreed to reimburse us for it.) But within an hour the whole thing was set up and operational.

There was only one problem: This new receiver was incredibly noisy. Unlike the previous PVR unit that we had (a model 5800), this model 9200 stays “on” all the time, even when it’s off. There is a constant fan noise. But that wasn’t the problem. The fan noise itself, in truth, is pretty minimal and barely audible. The problem was that, on top of that fan noise, there was a cyclic high-pitched whine coming from the hard drive. (I could tell it was coming from the hard drive because it was cyclic and would always end with a little chirp typical of a hard drive.) The noise was more or less covered by the sound coming from the TV when it was on, but when the TV was off, it was very much there, and very annoying.

We just couldn’t see ourselves having to live with this constant noise in our living room. But at this stage, the concern was: What if this noise is a “normal” noise for this machine? What if all the new 9200 receivers have the same problem?

The only way to find out was to get a replacement receiver, and I was back on the phone with Bell ExpressVu. To their credit, they immediately accepted our complaint and offered to ship a replacement machine. The machine arrived within a few days, I took it out, plugged it in and, much to our relief, it didn’t make the same noise. There still is a constant fan noise that never stops, even when the machine is off, but the high-pitched whine is gone, and the fan noise itself is not really a problem. (You have to be pretty close to the machine to notice it, and that’s when there is no other background noise in the room.)

The moral of this story is quite clearly that all these new PVR machines that are hard-drive based are becoming more and more similar to computers, and that, as such, they are likely to have or develop the same problems that computers might have. You might get a defective hard drive, or hard drive corruption. You might get a machine with fan noise or other noise problems.

But that doesn’t mean that you have to accept these problems. If the noise that your receiver makes is too much for you, get it replaced. There is a good chance that the replacement receiver won’t make the same noise.

Another problem that is becoming more and more common with such machines is that, like computers, they are pieces of hardware that run software. And the software itself can be buggy. As regular Betalogue readers know, software flaws and bugs are one of my obsessions. They are, after all, the main reason for the very name of this blog. Here again, we have a kind of electronic equipment that seems to be stuck in some sort of permanent “beta” stage in its development.

Unfortunately, Bell ExpressVu’s 9200 receiver is no exception. It comes with its own set of software bugs and flaws. In all these years that I have been a Bell ExpressVu customer, I have never found a proper source of trouble-shooting tips or help anywhere on the web. There is the occasional forum with a section on Canadian satellite providers, but that’s not very useful.

Bell ExpressVu’s own web site is pretty hopeless. It’s part of the larger web site, and is woefully inadequate. For example, you’re supposed to be able to log in and make changes to your own programming options (without having to call the 1-800 number), but when you try to create your own user profile, the “Province” field only has four options: Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec! I guess Bell ExpressVu customers in the rest of Canada simply do not exist.

Since there is no valuable third-party site, and since Bell ExpressVu’s site is so bad, I figured I might as well start documenting the bugs and flaws that I encounter on my own web site. So I’ve added a new category (under “Technology”) to Betalogue, and I will try to post trouble-shooting tips and helpful hints in this new category from time to time.

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