Things have never looked rosier for hi-def enthusiasts looking beyond Sky for their HDTV fix.  

One of the latest boxes with the all-important support for DVB-S2 and H.264 is the Vantage HD-7100S – the first HD satellite receiver with blind search that we’ve seen.  

Don't be limited to Sky

All the rage a few years ago, this feature seems to have slipped off  the spec lists of late. Odd, given its benefits – especially if your hobby is feed-hunting.

Other noteworthy features include HDMI and component hi-def outputs (to 1080i, with upscaling of standard-def ), two-slot CAM emulation, two CI slots, Ethernet and PVR upgradability via  USB or Serial-ATA (SATA).

A version with DTT is available and a twin-tuner PVR model is in the pipeline.

Simple layout

This one of the best-looking satellite receivers we’ve seen, with its glossy piano-black finish, informative 13-character fluorescent display and copious red illumination.

The entire front-panel hinges downwards to expose the CI and card slots (as supplied, Conax is emulated). Its control buttons – standby, menu-access, volume and channel-change – can be operated when the ‘drawbridge’ is open or closed.

The remote is solidly built, but the labelling is poor. Its ‘coloured’ buttons, frequently used for sub-menu access, aren’t themselves coloured. Instead, the surrounding bezel area is thinly outlined with the appropriate colour. The rear panel is well-stocked with connectors.

A powerful receiver

In addition to the usual LNB input/output are SATA and USB ports for PVR upgrades – also present are Ethernet and RS232 ports for updating firmware and exchanging databases.

The HDMI port and component ports are complemented by Scarts for TV and VCR, plus composite/ S-video outputs and analogue/digital audio outputs.  Regrettably, all standard-def outputs are disabled when the receiver is set to hi-def.

Internal construction – which partners a Samsung tuner with the capabilities of the STi7101 chipset – is neat; the beefy power supply is more than capable of driving DiSEqC dishes, and running temperatures are acceptable.

Straightforward installation

The main menus are fairly well-organised, although some  are confusing – a case in point being the powerful but  unintuitively laid-out one that configures DiSEqC motors  (1.3/USALS and 1.2 mounts and positioners are supported,  as well as simpler 1.0/1.1 ‘switchboxes’).

You’ll find this in the ‘installation’ menu, where you’ll configure your LNB/dish settings and scan for channels – manually, automatically or ‘blindly’. For auto-scanning you can specify all or just FTA channels – network searches are also permitted.  

If you opt for the manual search, entry of frequency/ polarity/symbol rate is possible – as is the ability to specify PIDs. To find everything, especially on a new satellite, the blind search is the best, albeit slowest option.  

Scanning satellites

Blind search can concentrate on four (presettable) symbol rates, but there’s also an ‘auto’ option that looks for everything. The downside with the latter is that it’s tediously slow and can take several hours.

This, according to Satellite Superstore, is because blind search is implemented via software rather than hardware.  Searching multiple satellites, motorised dishes automatically moving when appropriate, is also possible – regrettably without the option of blind search.

But at least scanning doesn’t start until the dish has arrived at the relevant satellite, ensuring that nothing is missed.

Other sub-menus look after system configuration, channel organisation, parental lock, a Tetris game, the conditional access hardware and ‘multimedia’ (USB/SATA and network configuration, among other things).

Updating firmware

Within the system-configuration group are language options, AV settings (TV system, aspect ratio and timeshifting – if you’re using an external hard drive), the clock and timer. From the channel organiser, radio and TV services can be deleted or edited – favourites can also be defined from here.

Even with the very latest firmware, the DHCP (auto network-configuration) settings of the review sample didn’t work, an invalid IP address being allocated.  After making the necessary changes manually, entering the receiver’s IP address into a web browser yielded a ‘page not found’ error.

But then again, the HD-7100S is not Linux- based and so functionality like web control and FTP access is unlikely. We were, however, able to use the receiver’s ‘FTP Browser’, found alongside the IP settings, to download newer firmware from Vantage’s server.

The details of an alternative FTP site can also be entered, which could prove useful for third-party support.  Satellite Superstore admitted that it normally takes several months for firmware to reach a stable condition – the HD-7100S is very new.

Future PVR functionality

Just before deadline we were e- mailed a new and more stable version that adds, among  other features, a standard-def component output option  and the ability to record one channel while viewing  another carried via the same transponder.

Multiple-satellite blind search isn’t included. We hope that it is added later so that the long process can be conducted overnight. Even with the latest firmware, one of the HD-7100S’s key features – PVR operation – didn’t work with our Archos USB drive.

Although it was correctly formatted (FAT32), trying to make a recording crashed the receiver. Satellite Superstore sent us a hard drive known to work with the HD-7100S (a 300GB 3.5in Samsung PATA drive), and it did.  

Accessing HD channels

Pressing the ‘enter’ button accesses the channel list. This can be sorted alphabetically or by provider, frequency or HD/H.264 status. The list of HD channels was short, and it soon became clear why. They were mostly DVB-S, whereas most of the services available employ DVB-S2.

The reason is that blind search is incompatible with DVB-S2 channels – the HD-7100S will only find them with an automatic scan if the relevant transponders are in the receiver’s databases.

If you want services carried by redeployed transponders or new satellites the only option is manual searching done on a transponder-by-transponder basis. To achieve this you have to switch the FEC between DVB-S and DVB-S2.

Select your favourites

A nice touch is the remote’s ‘satellite’ button, which lists  of all of the channels available from a specific satellite –  motorised dishes will move if needed. The icon denoting an encrypted channel isn’t always a reliable indication.

Often we selected a supposedly free channel, only to find that it was encrypted. The database is then ‘updated’. The ability to sort channels by encryption status is conspicuous by its absence. Up to nine favourite groups are available but are not presented in list form.

Favourites are defined via the channel setup menu rather than the channel list. Pressing the remote’s timeshift button starts recording to an external hard drive – pressing it again initiates the Vantage Media Player, from which playback can be started.  

Copy recordings to your PC

The buffer, which resides in a ‘timeshift’ folder, is retained until timeshift is restarted, thereby wiping out the previous buffer.

So if you would like to keep the recording, it can be moved to a different location on the drive using a PC (the HD-7100S’s file-management stops at delete and rename).  

Recording is in transport-stream form – the files have a .trp extension. If they’re renamed with a .ts extension many PC- based transport stream players can play them. It’s easy to copy recordings across the USB link to your PC.

Timers and EPG

There’s no OTR for manual recording, but useful features it does have are a versatile zoom, freeze, dedicated radio  mode, onboard teletext, a ‘mosaic’ of four or six adjacent  channels and a seven-day EPG.

The 20-event/1-year timer can be directly scheduled from here. If you don’t have suitable storage the receiver will switch to the channel at the appropriate time. Then there’s the media player, which has its own shortcut key.

This was compatible with Xvid and MPEG video sourced from a PC. MP3 tracks can also be played, but uncompressed audio WAV files (surprisingly) and JPEG images are not even listed!  

Excellent standard-def upscaling

With HD sources like BBC HD and the Astra test service, picture quality is excellent. A direct comparison using the BBC channel demonstrates little discernible difference between this receiver and a Sky HD box.

The HD-7100S also does an above-average job of ‘upscaling’ standard-def channels to hi-def. But we would have liked the ability to pass standard-def video to the HDMI port in 576i form – some TVs have excellent onboard scalers.

Under these circumstances the HDMI port would only yield 1080i or 720p when a hi-def channel is being viewed. The analogue ports are also good, as high-quality live transmissions from the high-bitrate German channels prove.  

Pictures from these are rock-solid and detailed, while colours are naturally rendered. Channels of lesser quality are, however, less appealing (especially when viewed on HD-Ready displays) because blockiness and other artefacts are only too apparent.

Some noisy pictures

Some kind of noise-reduction system certainly wouldn’t go amiss. In hi-def mode the component output fares well – although the HDMI output is obviously more ‘transparent’.

‘Standard’ automatic and manual searches are blisteringly fast; a sweep of the Astra 1x cluster took two minutes. But blind searches are slow, even with the four preset symbol rates a scan of the Hot  Birds took almost an hour.

In terms of sensitivity the HD- 7100S seems to be better than average if our positive experiences of Thor and Sirius are anything to go by.

Vantage create a very likeable receiver

There’s a lot to like about the PVR-upgradable HD-7100S.  Picture and sound quality from standard-def and hi-def channels alike are of a high standard, and features are  plentiful. Some of them – the ability to play Xvid and MP3 files on external storage devices – aren’t even documented.  

Many of the bugs encountered were diligently rectified during the review period. By the time you read this the 015515 firmware (dated March 1) or something even more recent – editing of recordings is planned – should be as standard.

We eagerly await the twin-tuner PVR model, which promises much faster hardware-powered blind searches.