Hi-def television via satellite usually means investing in a Sky HD box, paying for installation, and forking out each month for the subscription, so there's definitely a demand for alternative, cheaper paths to HD satellite material.
You don't need to go the Sky route; a free-to-air (FTA) HD box will bring you the limited UK free-to-air HD satellite channels (ie BBC HD) and, with the right dish setup, European HD ones as well - not to mention access to all the FTA UK and European standard-definition channels, too.
For such 'independent' use in the UK and Europe, Fortec Star has joined Pace and Humax with an HD set-top box. While not a brand well known to most readers, the Canadian manufacturer has a history of producing respected, good value receivers.
This unassuming box is well made and quite tastefully styled, although the circular 'on' light à la Sky+ is a bit cheeky - suggesting PVR function when there isn't any. The remote looks cheap next to TV and DVD remotes from the Japanese multinationals, but it goes one better than Sky, doubling as a universal control for your TV, VCR and DVD player.
Also bettering any digibox, the front panel display names the channel tuned and provides other information, but the Passion is not strictly a rival to Sky's HD box. It can't be used for encrypted SkyHD channels; it hasn't the required Videoguard CAM (Conditional Access Module) and cannot take one because Sky only allows these within its own official digiboxes.
However, the Passion has two 'Common Interface' slots for plug-in CAMs for continental pay-TV broadcasters.
In the UK, you are restricted to FTA channels - that's BBC HD and FTA SD English-language channels (less enticing but plentiful).
This means pairing it with a dish (50cm across most of the UK) pointed at the Astra 2 satellites. Of course, if you do want to extend your viewing to other satellites, too - for SD or HD channels, free or pay-TV - you will need additional dishes, a multi-feed dish, or a motorised antenna.
Unlike a SkyHD box, the Passion can easily cope with all these possibilities - up to four satellites with its industry standard DiSEqC 1.0 switching system as well as DiSEqC 1.2 and USALS motorised dish systems.
Whatever, your dish system, the receiver is easy to set up (for a non-Sky box) as it includes a host of pre-loaded channels on four satellites including three packed with foreign channels (Astra 1, Hot Bird and Turksat) and Astra 2, where the UK digital channels broadcast, including BBC HD.
To check these satellites for recent additions (or for other satellites) the Passion can scan for active channels. It's rather slow at this (it takes about 5min to scan the Astra 2 satellites), but, cleverly, Fortec Star will scan the satellite it's receiving from overnight, leaving the receiver in standby for more than six hours and it updates in its own time.
The Passion will also cope with most TV screens. The main output for this HD receiver is the single HDMI socket and there are component video sockets too, so whatever the type and age of your HD screen, the Passion will feed it. There are also Scart connectors for older TVs and VCR or DVD recorders, as well as separate composite and S-video outputs.
Of course, HD channels are downscaled for these outputs, but they are useful for recording and distribution to secondary TV sets around the home.
One drawback is that the component output is only available when the TV Scart is switched to composite or S-video, so you can't use the superior RGB Scart and component for an HD TV at the same time.
The clear onscreen menus make channel selection and operation about as easy as it can be, but receiving, say, half a dozen satellites, you soon use up much of the Passion's 10,000-channel capacity (even with FTA channels only) and finding what you want can be a tricky business.
The Passion displays the channel list all in one, by satellite or sorted alphabetically, by encryption, parental lock, provider, theme (if programmed) or even SD/HD, and there are also seven favourite channels lists, which can be named by genre or family member to take any number of favourites.
Finding what's on isn't easy either. Sky's elegantly simple seven-day EPG system is a proprietary system and so pan-European receivers like this don't use it. This means that knowledge of what's on Sky channels (including BBC HD, or even Sky News or CNN) is restricted to now and next only.
The Passion will produce a full seven-day guide for several German channels (using the international EPG standard), but it's a bit slow and, because you can't get the same information for all the channels, you will have to resort to channel hopping to find programmes.
Images from BBC HD are stunning. The broadcaster knows a thing or two about good pictures, and the Passion reproduces every nuance with crystal clarity.
Documentaries such as India With Sanjeev Bhaskar and Planet Earth, and dramas like Heroes prove that splashing out on an HD screen is well worth it. Colours come to life and pictures are almost 3D. Some Spanish soccer on Pro7 is arguably more enjoyable than the real thing since it offers better views.
The Passion upscales SD broadcasts to produce better pictures on an HDTV than you'll get from other receivers.
The sound, too, is excellent. Digital sound from the electrical and optical outputs and through the HDMI connection shows what good HD satellite TV is capable of.
You can even use the front USB socket (mainly for upgrading software and channels lists) to playback MP3 songs through your TV or sound system.
The BBC HD channel is the only English HD available at present, but the Passion can also bring you several European HD offerings, a wealth of SD channels (including dozens in English) and best of all, more FTA English HD channels with Freesat around the corner.
Nevertheless, satellite HD scope is still limited at present, and the £200 price tag buys the Passion receiver alone. The full cost of your system will depend on your dish(es), and you will pay considerably more for a system that reaches all the Euro-channels the Passion can use.
Stick to a simple single dish setup for just the FTA UK channels and another satellite full of European ones, and you should be able to get the receiver and dish, installed, for around £300.
We're so used to subsidised Sky packages, paid for over time, that this all-up-front price seems heavy, even for a receiver that does such a good job. However, compare this cost to long-term SkyHD or even an HD DVD player and several discs and it looks more attractive.