As cable and satellite providers promise to ramp up their high-definition offerings with more channels and programming, Cablevision's Voom satellite service has stepped in to fill the void for the increasingly HD-hungry public. Though Voom costs a bundle--$79.90 per month for the full programming package, plus hardware (see below)--the simple fact is that Voom currently delivers far more HD channels (over 35) than any other cable or satellite service provider, plus a healthy selection of more than 80 standard-definition (SD) channels. True, the actual programming on some of the HD channels is still rather slim, and Voom needs to add HDNet, as well as local sports channels, USA, and the Sci-Fi Channel. But there's still no question that Voom is the ultimate source for HDTV. Installation and setup for Voom is similar to that of DirecTV or Dish Network, except that the Voom 18-inch satellite dish is pointed at the southwestern instead of the southeastern sky. A second antenna--included in the installation--is needed to receive local terrestrial HD channels. In our tests in mid-Manhattan, two large skyscrapers block our view of the Empire State Building, from which local HD signals emanate. As a result, we received only the local CBS feed via terrestrial antenna. This is unlikely to be a problem in any other locale, however.
The slim, silver Voom box, a Motorola DSR-550, receives satellite SD and HD signals, as well as over-the-air HD signals. There's no display, but a single green LED indicates live service, while a red light means no reception. A series of orange lights flash to indicate the box is booting up. In case you're wondering, Voom announced that a HD DVR option, similar to the Dish DVR-921, will be available by the end of 2004.
We found operation to be exceptionally straightforward. The simple remote, which can be programmed to operate your TV, resembles a typical cable remote but with fewer and larger keys. Pressing the large Voom button brings up the main program guide on the bottom half of the screen. Programming can be delineated into 10 preset groups, including All Channels, All HD, Sports, Movies, and Family & Kids. There is also a Favorites choice, which lists channels you've selected as such. A window in the guide's upper-right corner continuously displays (in high resolution) whatever channel you're watching, while the program description appears in the upper-left corner. As noted, Voom offers a cornucopia of HD channels, with more planned. For example, in May, ESPN HD and TNT HD were added, and in June, Equator, an exclusive travel channel, came onboard. Two tiers of programming are available: the Voom Standard Package and Va Va Voom, which costs twice as much. Va Va Voom offers both SD and HD versions of the premium movie channels HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, Starz, and Encore, but otherwise, the two have the same lineup. We liked that Voom carried both east- and west-coast feeds of many of these premium channels--handy for either a Sunday afternoon viewing of The Sopranos on the west coast or a late Sunday night screening on the east.
Currently, Voom has more than 20 exclusive HD channels, such as the museum Gallery HD channel; MOOV HD, which shows abstract and avant-garde ambient HD music videos; the concert and HD music video Rave HD channel; the extreme sports Rush HD channel; the style and fashion Ultra HD channel; and the self-explanatory WorldSport HD.
Voom's major problem is a lack of extensive HD programming to fill these channels. There's a great deal of repetition, and during our test, we quickly got sick of Beyonce and Counting Crows concerts on Rave HD and that Real Madrid vs. Barcelona soccer game on WorldSport. The exclusive movie channels draw from a library of about 500 films. Each channel alternates between playing two films, and each has a theme, such as Monsters HD for horror movies, Gunslingers HD for Westerns, and Divine HD for gay-oriented titles. Programmers are in the process of doubling the size of the library over the next 18 months to cut down on repeats.
Some high-profile channels are missing, such as INHD and HDNet in HD, as well as the Sci-Fi Channel and USA from the SD lineup. Worse, there are no local sports channels. Voom programmers are in constant negotiations to fill in these holes, including the possible addition of some regional Fox Sports Net channels. In the meantime, sports junkies will likely want to maintain a cable subscription. We tested Voom using a Panasonic TH-42PHD6, a 42-inch, high-resolution plasma set. Video quality, especially on Voom's exclusive specialty channels, was stunning. Like those of any cable or satellite provider, all of Voom's HD channels look much, much better than any shows broadcast in standard definition. We compared its HBO HD channel to the one from Time Warner Cable New York, and Voom's looked somewhat sharper, delivering a bit more detail on extreme close-ups of faces and fine fabric textures, for example. However, the difference wasn't extreme. Keep in mind that HDTV image quality will vary slightly between different cable and satellite providers.
The quality on Voom's HD movie channels is more hit-or-miss than on its specialty channels. Some films look grainier than others, which may be more the fault of the original masters than Voom's HD conversion process.
Our biggest problem was that Voom's exclusive movie channels showed most films in full-frame 16:9, even if they were not originally shot at that aspect ratio. For example, the original Night of the Living Dead was filmed in the Academy ratio of 1.33:1, which should result in black bars on the left and right of the image on a wide-screen HDTV. On Voom, however, there are no bars. Dead's images are zoomed so that they fills the screen, with the top and bottom of the image cut off. To Voom's credit, some films shot in wider aspect ratios, such as the original Russian version of Solaris, shot in Sovscope (2.35:1), are shown letterboxed within the 16:9 frame, with thin black bars above and below the image to preserve the director's intent. The company is currently wrestling with how it will show older 4:3 films on its new Classics HD channel; we're hoping Voom opts not to zoom and crop to fill the screen.
Like most satellite systems, Voom is susceptible to weather vagaries. Severe thunderstorms knocked Voom off the air, due primarily to high levels of static electricity. Instead of the expected "acquiring signal" message, you get a black screen and a red light on the box. In one instance, service was disrupted for about 30 minutes, and we needed to reboot the box. Heavy rain caused minimal dropouts or delays of a couple of seconds.