Review: Bell ExpressVu satellite TV service

I recently subscribed to Bell Canada's ExpressVu satellite TV service. Here is my review for others who are considering doing this.

Summary: Once you get past the sticker shock and lousy installation, you will love the high quality audio and video, innovative receivers, and large channel selection.


Installation involves mounting an 18" satellite dish on an exterior south-facing wall of your house, running 4 cables (regardless of the number of actual receivers) from the dish to the interior of your house, feeding them into a multi-switch (a splitter will not work), and connecting the outputs of the switch into each receiver. Then the dish is aligned so that it is pointing directly at the Bell satellites, using the signal strength meter on a TV connected to a receiver. The final step is to phone Bell, choose your programming, and activate your receivers.

Installation is included with a two-year rental contract, or $99.00 with a one-year rental contract. If you are buying your receivers, which is more expensive up-front but much cheaper in the long run, you can install the dish yourself or hire an installer. The documentation is well-written and technical support is available by phone. If you are going to use multiple receivers, I highly recommend having Bell install the system because it includes the multi-switch (worth $150), up to 150 feet of RG-6 cable, and a 90-day warranty on the installation. Note that the installers are not Bell employees, but local independent contractors.

My own experience with installation was a major hassle. The installers were in a hurry and they left before fully testing the system. Unfortunately, the arm on the satellite dish was broken, causing a misalignment; it meant that I could pick up the channels from only one of Bell's two satellites. One of the ports on the SW-44 multi-switch was also defective, which caused frequent signal loss. One of the receivers did not work at all. It took many phone calls and two more on-site visits, over ten days, to resolve these problems. My wife was ready to cancel the service on the basis of installation problems alone. However, once the dish arm and multi-switch were eventually replaced, the signal has been coming in consistently off both satellites.

The initial installation team was in such a hurry that they did not take the time to figure out a problem preventing a signal from reaching the main floor TV, and instead moved it to a cable outlet in the other end of the room (in the middle of our baby's play area!); they could not figure out how to properly configure the HDTV receiver; they did not caulk the holes needed to bring in the 4 lines from the satellite dish, causing a cold draft in the basement; and they refused to fish new inside cables through walls, claiming a Bell policy against fishing cables, even though Bell's installation guide on their web site specifically offers this service at an additional cost that I was willing to pay.

They also ticked off "Yes" to a bunch of customer satisfaction survey questions that I had left blank, after I signed the work order but before giving me a copy. Sneaky.

Bell will also tell you that you need new RG-6 coax cable to carry the signal, rather than the lower-grade RG-59 coax cable that is typically run in existing homes. However, my experience is that the RG-59 present in my house works just fine. Your mileage may vary. One caveat is that you will need to remove ALL splitters from the signal path. The existence of a splitter buried deep in a wall turned out to be the reason why we could not get signal to the main floor TV. We did run new RG-6 cable in the basement, as there was no existing cable outlet there.

There was a $35.00 surcharge for using a total of 264 feet of RG-6 cable, because only 150 feet is included in the installation. This seemed reasonable, although I question whether 264 feet of cable were actually used; I estimated 175 to 200 feet total.

Resolving problems through Bell's customer service was hit and miss. I spoke with at least a dozen reps. The majority of them were well-trained, helpful, and polite. A couple of them were ignorant and rude.


Bell currently offers five receivers, manufactured by Echostar:

* 4100 (single tuner) for $2.50/month
* 5900 (single tuner, PVR) for $10.00/month
* 6100 (single-tuner, high definition) for $10.00/month
* 5200 (dual-tuner, PVR) for $20.00/month
* 9200 (dual-tuner, high definition, PVR) for $25.00/month

PVR means "Personal Video Recorder." PVR receivers have a built-in high-capacity hard drive that lets you record shows to watch later. They also let you pause and rewind live TV. This is hella cool, way more convenient than using a VCR or DVD recorder, and worth every penny of the additional cost.

The dual-tuner receivers can be used in single mode (picture-in-picture, or record one channel while watching another) or dual mode (connect to two TV sets, each with its own output). They include an infrared remote for the first TV set and a UHF remote for the second set, in case the second set is in another room. Note that even in dual mode, the 9200 can drive only one HDTV and one standard TV, not two HDTVs. My thinking on this is that it's not a serious limitation, because if you have two HDTVs in your house, you can probably afford an extra receiver!

All of the receivers include an optical audio output for Dolby digital audio connection to a surround sound receiver. The 9200 also has a digital video output that can be connected to a digital TV's HDMI (audio/video) or DVI (video only) input. The cables are even included in the box. This means a 100% digital video connection that gets the most out of your high-definition TV.

(Note that signal degradation is fully corrected occur over a digital connection, so you don't need to buy a $100 "Monster" HDMI cable, unless you're too much of an impressionable idiot to question the guy at Future Shop who swears it improves picture quality. It doesn't. In fact, the cheapest HDMI or DVI cable will always outperform the most expensive set of component cables. Don't believe otherwise.)

We opted for a 9200 for the HDTV in the basement, a 5900 for the TV in the family room, and a 4100 for the TV in our bedroom. I would have liked an additional 4100 for the TV in the sunroom, but there is a limit of four receivers per dish/switch, and the dual-tuner 9200 counts as two receivers. This was not a real problem because I can share the output from the family room to the sunroom, as the two rooms are adjacent. If you require more than 4 receivers, it can be done; call Bell to arrange a different installation configuration.

All of the receivers include an on-screen program guide with episode information. I have found the contents to be accurate and up-to-date. You can lock out individual channels that you don't want to see displayed, such as pay-per-view channels, radio stations, channels you don't subscribe to, and descriptive video stations. You can also view an interactive program guide online at

The 9200 receiver is the "latest and greatest." The PVR functions (record/pause/rewind) are useful and easy to use, and they retain all the image quality of the original broadcast as it is all digital.

The 9200 will upsample or downsample all your progamming to your choice of 480i, 480p, 720p, or 1080i, regardless of the original broadcast source. This is useful if your TV's native resolution is one of the above. Unfortunately, there is no 1080p option, which is supported by my HDTV (a 45" LCD panel with a native resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels). Since my TV upsamples everything to 1080p internally anyway, I would have preferred the ability to retain the native broadcast resolution from the receiver and have my TV do the upsampling, rather than go through two transformations which could potentially affect image quality. I have not yet decided whether this is a legitimate beef or a nitpick. In all practicality, I am using 1080i from the receiver and the picture quality is great.

You can also set an option on the 9200 to automatically stretch or zoom standard definition channels from the 4:3 aspect ratio to better fit a 16:9 screen. This is a matter of personal taste, so there are several size options to choose from. You can cycle through the settings instantly, by pressing the Format button on the remote control.

I noticed a problem with the 9200 right away. After changing channels or using some PVR functions, the audio cuts out, starting about two seconds after making the selection and lasting about three seconds. This only occurs when using the HDMI output for audio. Bell is sending me a replacement receiver so that I can determine whether it is a recurring design flaw or a one-time manufacturing defect. They did not seem to understand or take this problem seriously, and it took several phone calls to their customer service centre to resolve it. (Update: This is a DHCP issue and you can get around it by using component out instead of HDMI.)

I often use closed captioning in order to keep the TV volume down while the baby is sleeping. The option to turn this on and off is inconveniently buried several menus deep. I would have liked to have a dedicated CC button on the remote control for this purpose. Otherwise, the remote control is very nicely laid out, and can be used to control your TV and VCR or DVD player as well. The power and volume buttons on the remote are automatically assigned to the TV without having to switch modes.


The wide selection of programming is probably the most compelling reason to subscribe to satellite TV service. We chose Bell ExpressVu over StarChoice, the other Canadian satellite provider, because Bell offers more high-definition channels. However, Bell also costs more. We didn't go with Rogers digital cable because there was no pricing information listed on their web site, and we felt that this basic lack of information did not foretell a positive customer experience. That said, in all fairness to Rogers, we would probably not have experienced the installation issues that we did with Bell, because there would not have been the defective dish or defective switch to deal with.

Like all Canadian television providers, Bell provides basic service at a fixed cost, then groups the remaining channels into "theme packs." The idea is that if you like the Independent Film Channel, you will also like Movieola, so they are both in the same theme pack. The more theme packs you want, the more expensive the service.

This works well in theory, but in practice the channels were not always grouped to my preference. For example, in order to get the Game Show Network (GSN), I also have to subscribe to three music channels, five radio stations, and two other channels, none of which I will ever watch. Some channels are available individually, but not GSN.

I would have preferred to do away with theme packs entirely and simply buy channels à la carte. The programming is not cheap, and the sometimes bizarre theme pack grouping forces you to subscribe to more channels than you really need to in order to get the channels you want.

In our case, we chose the Max Value Combo, which includes the standard channels, 12 theme packs (out of 15), and The Movie Network for $88.00/month. Adding high-definition channels is an extra $10.00/month. The total bill, including rental of the receivers and PST/GST, works out to $155.82/month - yikes!

You can add even more specialty, adult, and foreign channels. There is also a wide selection of pay-per-view movies and sporting events available, some in high definition. I haven't yet tasted the forbidden fruit that is high-definition pr0n, but I'm sure it's all there.

Obviously, this is a major expense - more than double what we were paying with Look TV. Still, basic programming can start at $27.00/month, although you need to maintain a minimum programming level of $47.00/month in order to qualify for any of the incentives that go with a two-year receiver rental commitment. These incentives totaled $225.00 in our case. (Don't be fooled by the advertised incentive of $274.99 which includes a bogus $49.99 "activation fee" that gets waived, but don't get me started on bogus fees, which with Bell are legendary.)

What their web site doesn't point out is that if you rent more than one receiver, you still get only one set of incentives ("bill credits"), i.e. you can't get the HDTV credit on the 9200 and the PPV credit on the 5900. Only one. Just choose whichever one is worth the most. (Unfortunately, you can't get the 9200 today and the 5900 next week and get the incentives all over again, because then you'll be an existing customer and the incentives apply to new customers only. And you can't cancel and re-subscribe just for the incentives; a new customer is defined as one who has not been a customer for the past 6 months. I checked!)

All in all, I am very happy with the system - now that it's working - at least until I get my bill.


Installation: 2/10 (I'm being generous)
Equipment: 10/10 (Love that 9200 HD-PVR!)
Image quality: 9/10 (Would be 10/10, for lack of 1080p output)
Programming: 10/10 (No lack of choice here)
Value: 3/10 (Expensive)

Overall: 6.8/10

Adjusted for bullshit-hassle factor (-2.0) and technology-coolness factor (+3.5): 8.3/10


Anonymous said…
BEV rentals have higher programming 'minimum subscriptions' that run the life of the contract. Basic install of 1st RENTED Receiver includes up to 150 ft. of RG6 cable (dual tuner is 300 ft. of cable). Basic install of 1st PURCHASED Receiver includes up to 75 ft. of RG6 cable (dual tuner is 150 ft. of cable).
Sassan Sanei said…
Thanks for your comment. However either your information is wrong, or was not applied correctly in my case. It may also be a change in policy since my installation in January 2006. I am renting three receivers (one of them being a dual-tuner 9200) and was told that only 150 feet of cable was included in the installation. Since they had to run 4 lines from the satellite to the house, I was charged an additional $35 for using a total of 264 feet, and I have the canceled cheque to prove it.

As an update to this article, a number of unbelievable billing errors were made in the first five months of my contract. The errors amounted to hundreds of dollars in overcharges. The mistakes ranged from double-billing for my 9200 receiver ($50/month instead of $25/month), to an unexpected and incorrect "labour charge" of $120, to not getting the monthly promotional credits that I was offered in exchange for committing to a 2-year contract. I spent several hours on the phone with Bell's billing department to get it sorted out. Each representative would promise to fix the problem on my next bill, then my next bill would show up with new problems. Ultimately they credited an amount that was deemed to be more or less accurate for past billing errors, and my current monthly bills are correct, but I'm still pretty peeved about the whole thing. They didn't hold up their end of the bargain. Would they have been as understanding if I didn't hold up mine, i.e. didn't pay my bill canceled my service? Plus the receiver software is buggy, but don't even get me started on that, fortunately it does work as expected most of the time.
dont use bell said…
please be carefull with Bell express vu.
i subscribed with them five years ago and had so many disconects and attempts to chisel money out of me to have my connection reconnected it was sickening. as soon as my contract was up i got rid of them, two years ago, and i am still having problems with them!!
even tho i was paid up and sent back my equipment theyve tried to get money out of me. as it turns out they misplaced, haha, my equipment and told me they never received it and when i proved them wrong and they found it they STILL sent a claim to collectors and damaged my credit. now over the two years ive got it fixed "7" times only to have it resurface 3 or 4 months later and the collectors harrassing me all over again. today is nov 10 2010 and i just got off a 2 hr phone call with them clearing it up once again...i wonder for how long this time!!!
i suggest not getting involved with them
Terry Armstrong said…
Huh, that's weird. Maybe it was just the area you were in that caused the poor connection? Looking on their page here (, I noticed that they have a two month free thing, so I could see how they might not want to let you go after that, but my service from them has been great so far....

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