Receiving 'Sky Digital'


Setting up the dish

In order to receive Sky Digital (by this I mean the Astra 2A and 2B and Eurobird satellites at 28.2°E and 28.5°E), you'll need to aim your dish towards the area of sky that would be 28.2° over the equator (i.e. sort-of towards Egypt). In actuality, for the United Kingdom, it will be around 32°E (east coast) to 42°E (west coast). I can't be more specific as it depends upon your geographical location.
This is perhaps easiest with a sat-meter to help you locate the satellites.

I'd like to take a moment here - your dish does not need to be mounted on your chimney. As long as it has an unobstructed view of the sky, it can be placed anywhere. All of my dishes (until recently) to date have been mounted on the ground, held in place by heavy rocks or the like. Yes, even for digital reception!
Or, to put it another way, a dish is not like a normal TV antenna. Height does not matter. The signal travels tens of thousands of kilometres to reach you, so the extra metres you add using a chimney are not going to improve matters unless there is something in the way lower down.
Besides, when I asked Sky's helpline about the location of the new satellites during the analogue-digital changeover, they refused to tell me - citing the incident of a 'famous' person (no name was given) who died falling from their chimney while trying to alter the dish position.
In reality (and thanks to cp..), it was Rod Hull of annoying-Emu-puppet fame who fell off of his roof while adjusting his television aerial - one might assume from this phrasing that it was 'twig' rather than 'dish'. (read more on Wiki).
In any case, for my own liability and a whole host of other reasons (most of which are just plain commonsense), I'm certainly not going to advocate you go climbing around your roof!

When you come to bolt your dish to the wall, provided your view of the sky is clear, you can do so at a height that can be comfortably reached by standing safely on a stool or a small ladder.
Remember - it's the view that counts, not the height...


At noon GMT (regardless of your local timezone), point the dish in the direction of the sun, but aimed lower down; most dish mounts have degrees on them. It's around the thirty degree up mark (southern England) or about five degrees (Scotland).

Move the dish to the left (east) slowly, hunting around for a signal. That's most likely to be Hotbird at 13°E. Move the dish a bit more to the left and down slightly. The next strong signal you hit is most likely to be the old Astra birds at 19.2°E. Moving left and down again, you'll encounter another signal. This is most likely to be Astra 2 / Eurobird at 28.2°E. If you don't find this last signal, go back to the one you did have.
Remember - these co-ordinates are relative to the equator!
Bolt the dish loosely on the strongest signal you can obtain, and go check that you have a signal.

If you have a strong signal and no lock, try to Add Channels with the following:

Frequency     11.778
Polarisation  V
Symbol Rate   27.5
FEC           3/4
This is the same as Sky's default, except the FEC is 3/4 instead of 2/3. If it locks in, and it gives you options such as CNN International, then you're aimed at 19.2°E, so left and down a little bit more!

If all is well, go back and tighten the bolts on the dish.

If you can see the TV, or arrange to see a TV, from where your dish is - the very best signal meter at your disposal is the one marked "Signal Quality", which may be found by pressing Services then 4 then 6 on the remote. The signal quality reflects how many reception errors the system is correcting. The higher that bar, the less errors, the better the reception.
What is very important to be aware of is that the signal quality meter is derived as a result of the digital processing that takes place within the receiver, so it is just under a second 'out' with respect to your movements of the dish. This time lag can be disconcerting and it can trick you, so best be aware of it now rather than finding out 'the hard way'.

It is worth checking a couple of transponders to ensure that your reception is good across the range, and not just a few channels. Remember, though, the signal strength and quality observations relate to my geographical location (Brittany, France) and your own results will differ!

Part of the reason for the variances in strength is that there are three 'beams' on the satellites at 28.2°E - a UK 'spot' beam, a beam for Northern Europe, and one for Southern Europe. This is discussed below...


Dish sizes and the BBC

A little map showing roughly where I live... It was reported a while back (2005) that the BBC moved to a group of transponders that more closely cover the UK. Well, I can report that I can receive BBC 1/2/THREE/FOUR (etc) using a bog-standard dual-band LNB and a regular 60cm metal mesh dish - as was common with the analogue Sky systems. I live between Rennes and Angers in north-west France, or the blue dot in the little map to the right...

I have also seen adverts for companies that will hook you up with boxes and cards to get the FTA/FreeView channels if you live in such sun-baked and luxurious places as Provence, Languedoc-Rousillon, etc. I would imagine a larger dish would be required, though it seems most of the 'el cheapo' kits on sale here in France supply larger solid dishes as standard.

Astra 2 has three 'beams': UK spot, North, and South...
The map diagrams are my representations and should not be taken as 'exact'. The dark red is the area of maximum coverage (~50cm dish) and the lighter red is about the limit attainable using a 120cm dish.

Of course, your milage will vary depending on the channel that you are interested in receiving, and what beam it is transmitting on. For example, a channel on the UK spot beam is unlikely to be received in Tallinn (unless your dish is approx. 4 metres!); while channels on the north or south beams will come through (dish approx. 60cm for north beam, 120cm for south beam).

Don't make a mistake with these sizes - a 2 metre dish will stand taller than you, and a 4 metre dish will be taller than the gutter-height of an average two-floor house. The maximum size that you are likely to find attached to a house is in the order of 1.5 metre; anything else is likely to need to be a free-standing structure. It may well require planning permission!
Incidentally, dishes of this size are usually completely circular with the LNB held in an apex over the central focal point; this is unlike the offset dishes that you will be used to seeing. This change in style is for structural reasons - not only is the dish large and tipped over at an angle, it has to act as a precise mirror. Offset dishes of this size may well deform or collapse. Circular centre-focus dishes can use struts and guys to stay in shape.


Sky Digital (as in the Murdoch service)

This information is outdated - check the Sky website. Recent TV advertising suggests the 'general pack' has been split into themes so you "only pay for the channels you want to watch". I wonder if subscribing to all is the same price as it used to be, or is this a way to make it cost more? Example? When I watched Sky (analogue days), I liked some of the stuff on The Disney Channel, I watched some of the natural history documentaries, and I watched Buffy on Sky1. That probably covers three 'categories' in the new scheme of things...
Anyway - check their website for specifics and current prices.

I guess it is only fair to mention the original purpose of the Sky Digibox... SkyDigital!

Full details may be found on their website -, but here's a brief résumé:

And, people, please stop asking about Sky hacks. I, personally, believe that the Sky card system has been broken - nothing is cryptographically secure. However, the person that has cracked it is keeping damn quiet about it - and I can't say I blame them. With recent weird alterations in the laws regarding data and IPR, a high-profiler like that is just too much heat.


I've found a really good price for a Grundig GDS200 on eBay!

Don't touch it with a bargepole! For some reason, this particular receiver has not had the firmware/EPG updates - so you will experience: These problems (except the last) may occur every few days, or they may occur every few hours; depending on what changes occur within the channels list.
In short, this receiver is not suitable for use with SkyDigital any more, so you'll find them turning up on eBay and for sale 'cheap' in other places.

If anybody has a Grundig GDS200 that they no longer want, could you consider posting it to me (north-western France)? It can be used to access Astra 19.2°E channels as the firmware predates the "Insert viewing card" lockout on the "Other channels" menu...
If not, you could always use it for sat-hunting yourself. A portable dish and a copy of the Lyngsat tables, and off you go! Outdated details here.

Panasonic iDTVs (TVs with a built-in Digibox) are suffering the same sorts of problems. This is possibly because Panasonic are no longer producing digital receivers for Sky, and thus feel no obligation to provide updated firmware for an obsolete product line.


Don't have a Digibox?

This information is outdated - the "Freesat" mentioned is now known as "FreesatfromSky", though it seems not to offer much over not having a card.
The BBC/ITV initiative (the "Freesat" now) offers an inexpensive box (with NO contract or requirement for it to 'phone home') with an EPG plus interactive facilities. Details, links, and info on this site.

In general, you can be assured that a Sky Digibox will offer you the 'FreeSat' option (if you can obtain a card), as well as the red button services.
Personally, I'd miss the red-button services. It is where I get my news from, and the winter Olympics without BBC's interactive would have been rather pitiful on BBC2. Instead, I could choose from four different events being given full coverage.
As for FreeSat (previously known as FreeView, the 'free' being somewhat ironic as the card is around £20 for two years), a friend and I are having difficulties over this. It appears that it gives you Channel 4, Channel 5, and Sky Three. Some Sky-bod tried to soft-sell the FreeSat card to me when I asked about THC's PIN access, and they said it would get the ITV channels, X news channels and Y children's channels. Well, at the time ITV had already gone FTA, and free-to-air gave me exactly X news channels and Y children's channels - yes, the same numbers (I just can't remember the numbers). I was also told that there were a hundred odd general entertainment channels. Well, not to be too cynical, but the BBC regions would account for a fair few 'channels', right? Anyway - it appears that if you live outside the UK and you can't get a FreeSat card, you probably aren't missing a lot!

It has been reported that a motorised Dreambox receiver with a harddisc (sounds nice, though I don't know this model) works with a FreeSat card, and with the growing acceptance of FreeSat (it isn't hard to purchase within the UK) we are likely to see more and more receivers capable of using the Sky encryption and the red button services. Note, however, that many of the cheaper receivers offer neither the card reader nor the interactive content, and as the Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) is 'proprietary' to Sky services, you'll be lucky if you can find any receiver that will tell you anything better than "now & next".

Furthermore - due to the disparity between the British receivers and everybody else, you simply will not find any box on sale in mainland Europe (excepting special UK exports) that supports Sky either with the cards or with the interactive 'red button' services (you can use such a box for the freebie channels such as THC and the BBC/ITV offerings). But take heart, the quality and compatibility of interactive content between major European operators is not that much better...
Thought: There is a CAM plug-in called a "Dragon" which pretends to be a Digibox environment. I'm not certain if this is 'the works' (EPG, interactive, etc) or 'just enough' to authorise viewing from a card? It'll need a valid Digibox serial number in order to work.

I have heard tales of some satellite equipment dealers offering to set you up with a box for receiving Astra 1 or Hotbird for the 'foreign' channels for £300 to £500!
A free-to-air box will set you back around about 40 quid for a basic model, extending into hundreds for ones that do everything for you. Lidl seem to occasionally sell 'Comag' receivers for around £70 for a complete kit (dish, wire, receiver)... and the best bit is that this type of receiver may have its firmware upgraded. Go Google, you'll see what I mean... :-)

The only things to keep in mind are that the Sky interactive content is peculiar to Sky, as is the complete TV listings for the next seven days. So all this 'red button' stuff and the 'EPG' is very unlikely to work on any other type of receiver.
Additionally, the encryption system is specific to Sky. A non-Digibox will only be able to accept a Sky card (either for Sky or for the FreeView service) with the aid of the 'Dragon'...

If you don't want Sky/FreeView and you don't want the red button stuff and you don't mind if the EPG is partial or missing, then a forty quid box will serve you well. Ironically despite the power and abilities of the Digibox, many of the cheaper receivers actually have more sensitive tuners than many Digiboxes! In essence this means when the weather is awful and the Digibox has thrown in the cards and decided there is no satellite out there, the cheap little receiver will still be showing you Alina Jenkins' weather report without even glitching!

Reminder: This information is outdated - numerous concerns raised here have been effectively answered by the BBC/ITV Freesat project.

On the other hand, a second-hand Digibox might be better for you? You will have trouble using it with non-Sky satellites these days, but at 28.2°E everything will work smoothly. There is a big disparity in prices of second-hand Digiboxes - I've heard that even broken ones sell for £30 on eBay (but, then, somebody tried selling Britney DNA on eBay - go figure!). I think a rough guide is if you are paying over £100, then the seller should provide a full guarantee! Though, check local newspapers and various newsgroups before you buy - prices do vary - dramatically.

There are certain type of Digiboxes that are worth paying a little bit extra for, and there are others you might wish to steer away from if you will be in a 'fringe' area or you cannot assure perfect reception for any other reasons. It comes down to the tuner. This is the part of the receiver that sorts out what you want to watch from all the rest. Some people may say that the boxes with the faster processor are preferable, but no matter how good the processing power is, it is worthless if the tuner has given up and said "nope, I can't make sense of this!". You'll find some suggestions here, based upon people's observations as reported on-line (Blogs, newsgroups, etc).

Outside of England, the situation is worse. Some may quote you around the £500 [POUNDS] mark to get the BBC. The truth is, if you can live without Channel 4, and Channel 5, you can put together your own system for around £100 tops. Sometimes you'll get a good service. I've heard of people paying '450' for the receiver, plus '50' for the dish, plus '150' for fitting and installation. The total, a mind-blowing 650. And reluctantly forking out 650 euros, our hapless friend was informed ... no, that is pounds. Which is over nine hundred euros. They didn't even get a FreeView card! Zoiks!

Reminder: This information is outdated - as long as you enter a valid UK postcode (selects your BBC/ITV region), you can use a Freesat receiver in Europe.

It is bad to have to say this sort of thing, and no doubt some overseas installers are a little bit miffed about this, but for everybody who advertises legally there are a couple of a-friend-of-a-friend types just waiting for you to throw money at them. And as for those who advertise in the magazines, I have my doubts about some of those prices. It is a captive market, given that there is no Sky support at all outside of the UK. And, remember, always always make sure you are both speaking the same currency, and using a reasonable exchange rate. Agree on a price and in which currency to pay before anything is done.
In France, if you are asking for a quote or a installation price, be certain to ask for a "devis" ("deh-vee", quotation) which should be headed and signed. It is an offense to provide such a quotation and then charge something different. Other countries may provide similar concepts. If you are buying then and there, ask for a receipt before handing over your cash; and ensure the receipt carries at least the name, date, equipment sold, and a price. Preferably signed (a lot of French sign receipts, on the whole they like paperwork!). Whether or not it carries much weight is between you and your avocat, however it is useful to have so if you walk away with a dud box the seller can't say "never met this person before in my life".
This all may sound way heavy. Remember. It's your money you are paying...
Of course, things in moderation. If you're getting a Digibox for €20, it may be prudent to forgo the receipt. You can probably stand to lose twenty, as you could - equally - gain a lot more value than a piece of blue paper with '20' written on it!

A good place to find addresses of suppliers (for France) is "French Property News" (a magazine). Don't be afraid to shop around and ask questions. Several of the suppliers have websites.
Obviously, if you live elsewhere (Germany, Italy, Spain...) then you'll need to look for a magazine suitable to your needs, or alternatively to ask Google for useful links ('sky digibox liguria genova' for example).


Using the Digibox

From this point onwards, simply switch the box out of standby and prepare to be blown away by the EPG! The programme guide contains details of every programme on pretty much every channel for an entire week - and many such programmes contain additional synopsis information, and you can set reminders for things you'd like to see. It is quite something...


Firmware updates

Whether or not you update your firmware as soon as you hook up your Digibox depends upon what you feel. Be aware that updates can be sent to your box from the Sky satellites at 28.2E. If your box suddenly reboots in the middle of a programme that you were watching - your firmware was probably updated...

The System Details page. This is useful if reporting a fault, or registering a freeview card.

To update your firmware, you must ensure that you have a VERY GOOD signal. A weak signal and/or corrupted upgrade can render your Digibox a little lump of scrap metal...

The procedure is as follows:

  1. Unplug the box. Count to thirty.
  2. Press and hold down the back up button on the front panel (not the remote control).
  3. Plug the box back in, with back up still held.
  4. After a few moments all four of the indicators will light up.
  5. You can let go of the 'back up' button now. :-)
  6. The upgrade process is 'expected' to take around fifteen minutes. It took me just six, but maybe that was good luck.
    Seriously, don't touch it, don't alter anything, don't unplug it, and if you get a power failure - you're probably buggered.
  7. When the upgrade is complete, the indicators will return to the normal 'standby' mode. Personally I'd have liked the box to switch itself on and go to the system information screen or something, but I guess that is too much like being useful...

I do not know exactly how/when the critical part of the upgrade takes place. It would seem sensible to build the FlashROM image in system memory, check it, and then commit it to FlashROM in one go. This means the critical part of the upgrade would actually only be about ten seconds (the FlashROM programming time). I've heard it suggested that the FlashROM is programmed block by block - which seems to me to be entirely silly (but, perhaps, not as silly as not having a little bit of boot load ROM that is capable of reflashing the box if the FlashROM is corrupt?).
As you can imagine, I'm not going to abort the firmware upgrade at various points in order to report on what is safe and what isn't!

If anybody has experience with aborted upgrades, or if you happen to work for Pace (or another of the Digibox manufacturers), I would appreciate it if you could email me and clarify the procedure regarding firmware upgrades...


More thoughts on this

The firmware is provided as a compressed file, about 960K-ish. This is decompressed using an unusual algorithm to be about 1.5Mb of data. This 1.5Mb is then committed to FlashROM in one go, as far as I can tell.
There appears to be 128K of boot ROM, but I do not currently know if this is capable of restoring a damaged firmware upgrade.
Several sources indicate that a Digibox, once manually instructed to update its firmware, will keep trying until it succeeds.

If you have the older firmware, you may be used to the Digibox messing up channel updates so that programme information appears to go 'missing' as well as entire channels (including those you were just watching) becoming 'unavailable' when you try to select them, and also the box getting stuck 'Searching for listings' when you try to view the EPG.
All of these problems appear to have been cured in the newer firmware! Yay!
If you are not certain that your signal is good enough, just hook up your box and watch TV. You may discover at some stage the box will reset itself (typically in the middle of something you're watching! A quick flick to the system status and you'll see the new firmware has been installed 'in the background'. For me, the update occurred while watching the Doctor Who documentary on BBC THREE - it is possible that part of the firmware was also broadcast in itty-bitty pieces during Doctor Who on BBC 1?
[I don't switch my box to standby at night]


What no annoying message?

I devised the fake phone line twiddle (on the hardware hacks page) in order to work around an annoying message that is supposed to appear when you first switch on from a power-up. Well... there is no such message on my 2500B!
On the other hand, a friend has a standard Amstrad Digibox and it does show the message!


To power down or not

Some people believe that you should never unplug a Digibox, only switch it in and out of standby.
I do not have this option. When we go out, or when thunderstorms get too close, my bedroom is physically disconnected at the fusebox - I throw the trip switch. Furthermore, because I believe that lightning that travels a couple of miles to earth won't have difficulty in jumping the few millimetres gap inside the trip switch, I unplug the multi-way sockets from the wall.

Paranoid? Maybe. My Digibox may retire early due to thermal stresses, but I have seen the remains of a computer after a lightning strike. The only thing that was salvageable was the floppy disc drive. The rest was toast.
And given that we are at the end of overhead power lines (thus seem to be statistically more likely to be hit - can anybody explain how that works?) I am taking no chances.

Thunderstorms in northern France bite, thunderstorms in southern France chew chunks out of things. By contrast, thunderstorms in England nibble timidly. It's your Digibox - it's your choice.


Which aspect ratio?

The Digibox offers you three different aspect ratios. Here they are, as they would appear on a regular television. These pictures were taken back in the Dark Ages when the BBC weather maps actually made sense...

4:3 (pan and scan)

The BBC weather in 4:3 pan and scan mode.

There are, sadly, a large number of people who whinge and whine about having black bars on their screen. They are only making noise because they consider letterboxing to waste space, but more importantly - not having directly compared widescreen with pan&scan, they don't realise that by making the picture smaller, they are gaining a lot.
Well, here is the 4:3 version. The BBC channels support full pan&scan. I'm not aware of anybody else doing this.

16:9L (letterboxed widescreen)

The same broadcast as above, this time is 16:9 letterboxed mode.

This is how it should look. Yes, it will have black bars on a normal TV, but look at how much nicer the picture is! It isn't all squished into the screen space. It has room. This may not matter so much with the BBC weather as the BBC are smart enough to position everything so the pan and scan can work. You will notice it in productions that are made with widescreen in mind, and movies which will be made to fill the cinema screen.
Given a choice, even on a 14" TV, I would always choose widescreen. I prefer to lose some of the picture 'size' in order to retain the picture as it is supposed to look.

16:9 (anamorphic widescreen as output by the Digibox, on 4:3 aspect)

If you have a widescreen TV, you will want the 16:9 anamorphic mode for best results.

And for those with widescreen TVs, the Digibox can output an anamorphic picture to help increase the picture resolution. Your widescreen TV, being rectangular instead of mostly-square, will stretch this image into the correct proportions. It is a shame that supermarkets and DIY shops selling widescreen TVs don't bother to read the instructions - rarely have I seen a widescreen TV set up to correctly show a 4:3 ratio picture. Normally the pictures are stretched out to the 16:9 frame size... Imagine Julia Roberts' smile then! :-)
BTW, the day caption is clipped because my frame grabber is a little bit 'eccentric' with what it considers to be a TV frame. You get the idea anyway.

16:9 (anamorphic widescreen on a widescreen TV)

This is what you can expect a widescreen picture to look like on a widescreen TV.

For reference, this is the sort of thing you should expect to see on a widescreen TV. Nifty, huh?


A guide to the EPG symbols

Adding programmes and movies to your Personal Planner. You can review what a movie is about at any time by highlighting it and then pressing 'i'.
As you can see from the picture above, most of the movies are given a rating. The two with the rating are rated 18, while Entrapment is not shown with a rating.

The ratings follow the BBFC standard:

But, then, I'm not the one making up these rules. And, anyway, this is more guidance than law...

You may see other codes in the title...

There are also apparently 'content codes' but I've not seen these. I would imagine the ratings give you an idea of the content. Anyway, here they are in case you come across them. Notice that they are in lower case.


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Copyright © 2007 (2009) Richard Murray