Words and pics Andrew Harris
Ever since Aussies could pack the box alongside the kitchen sink, television has been an almost indispensable element of the RV lifestyle. The sets themselves, though, haven't always been so happy to travel. The cathode ray tubes (CRTs) in standard television sets are heavy and cumbersome, and have been known to blow in the event of a heavy on-road knock. That's why, come this early stage of the 21st century, liquid crystal display televisions (LCDs) are taking over, with DVDs, digital TVs and satellite services all important players in the game.
FROM TUBE TO FLATSCREEN
Old-school CRT televisions comprise a glass vacuum tube: at the point end are the cathode filament and anode, and at the opposite end is the screen. The filament is heated, causing electrons to stream off it into the vacuum in the direction of the anode towards the screen. Minute green, red and blue phosphor dots coating the inside of the screen glow when the electron beam hits them, forming the image.
LCDs consist of two pieces of polarised glass with a thin film of liquid crystal between them. The liquid crystal responds to changes to electrical current applied to it, and when a light is shone through the rear layer of glass, the image is revealed. As you may already know, the picture is often clearer than a CRT display, with none of the eye-tiring flickering. They also use significantly less power, don't heat up as much, and take up less space.
In addition to LCD and CRT technologies are the much-vaunted plasma screens. "Plasma" refers to the same gas that lights your fluorescent bulbs. Plasma displays contain tiny fluorescent lights, in sets of three, red, green and blue, which act in concert with one another to produce an image. Picture quality is great, but power consumption is high, and plasma displays are too delicate for RV travel.
IN THE MARKETPLACE
Rod Francis, managing director of Award RV Superstore in Ferntree Gully, Vic, says that consumers have all but abandoned CRT technology, and a 15in Xien LCD model with a built-in digital tuner is his bestseller. It also features an anti-corrosive internal coating and a three-year warranty. "They're probably the best on the market," he says. "Orion (Japan) used to be, but they don't bring them in (to Australia) any more."
Most RV-specific LCDs available here are imported from China. This doesn't mean a compromise in quality, though. As far as the Xien units go, Rod says: "They've used the best components they can get to put it together."
Canterbury Caravans in Bayswater, Vic, sells Soniq, Toyoda and Yess monitors in diagonal sizes anywhere from 14in to 19in. Service manager Mal Sadler says that the Soniq screens are commonly factory installed in new vans, whereas the others are more popular as retrofitted additions.
What you'll notice when shopping around is that LCD TVs intended for mobile use are more expensive than comparable models at discount electrical retailers. This is essentially for the same reason a 12V fridge is dear in contrast to a similar size domestic upright: there's simply no economy of scale in the mobile market, and goods can't be produced as cheaply. Some travellers have successfully installed and use domestic LCD units in their vans. Nonetheless, there are some solid reasons for choosing RV-specific. The three main issues to consider here are power supply, warranty and durability.
Many domestic-use small screens require a 240V power supply. This is fine when you're all plugged in, but is limiting otherwise. And if you do manage to find a unit with built-in dual-voltage capacity not dedicated for RV use, it may be too hungry to run efficiently on battery power when you might really feel like some telly.
Warranties provided by regular electronics makers might not cover the same sort of 'normal' use as a mobile electronics maker. The rigors of life on the road are a different world to the sedentary existence of a living-room set.
And finally, if you're out the back of Bourke, and your telly fails, regardless of whether it's covered by the warranty, you're not going to be too happy. This sad scenario is far less likely if your unit has been built for rough riding.
BRACKETS AND STORAGE
Television mounts are available from all good RV accessories stores and come in all shapes and sizes, one of which will be suitable for your van or motorhome. First off, work out where you'll be watching telly from. Do you want to watch from the bed, as well as the dinette? Are you going to be using the display for your computer too? It might be more appropriate to have a table-top mount rather than a pivoting bracket, depending on what you're after.
Next, examine the surface on which you want to mount the bracket. The average interior van wall isn't more than 25mm thick, and anything thinner may result in a heavy monitor ripping out a large chunk of ply and crashing to the floor in a hail of sparks and expletives!
It's best to ask your dealer or manufacturer whether your intended mounting position is suitable.
Finally, work out whether or not you want to mount it permanently. Some brackets will allow you to safely stow a monitor against a wall. Others, with a quick-release monitor-side attachment, will enable you to store the monitor in a padded box or cupboard while you're on the move.
As a side note, it's crucial that you keep LCD displays upright, as otherwise the liquid crystal that produces the image may shift. Mal from Canterbury Caravans recommends that if you have kept a monitor horizontally, allow the liquid crystal to settle for a period once you've reattached it to the bracket, before turning it on.
Good reception is a funny thing. Sometimes a plastic-encased set of bunny ears will do the job (depending on where you are), while at the same time the van at the adjacent site is struggling with its power-boosted, high-end job, desperately rotating it to get a clear picture. The moral of the story is that if there isn't any reception to start with, no aerial is going to help you. So you'll either have to shift position or buy a satellite dish. On the other hand, when there is a shred of reception, high-end receivers are worth every cent.
Award RV Accessories rates aerial performance out of 20: a plastic-coated aerial comes in at eight; an Active-Zone at 15; the ever-popular Winegard at around 17; Explorer and Phaselink units, which come with signal boosters and handle UHF, VHF and digital signals, coming in at about 19 or 20. That's also an indication of the cost scale - the top-of-the-range Explorer is over $300, while the omni-directional Saturn antennas attract $50 or $60 more.
Richard Henry of Explorer RV Reception Systems says that if you want good reception, you have to understand an antenna as one link in the chain of boosters, cables and connectors. It's like Chinese whispers: if each part of the chain can't convey the message perfectly, you end up with garbled nonsense.
Explorer started out as a commercial and domestic antenna installer, specialising in problem reception. The caravan reception troubleshooting business germinated from there, and it now makes aerials, boosters and exclusive through-wall connection kits.
In its kits, Explorer uses Australian standard, screw-on F-connectors for the best possible signal transmission. The team know their stuff.
"In Australia," Richard says, "87 per cent of transmitters are UHF and 51 per cent are above channel 52, at the high end of the frequency, so good connections and mastings are important." At the high frequencies of broadcast in Australia, reception systems have to be especially finely tuned. Each part of a reception system needs to work in concert with the next, so that there are no weak links.
Richard's also an expert when it comes to digital television reception. Although you don't need a new aerial to receive digital signals, tuning in is a different ballgame to analogue. "With digital, it's either on or off," Richard says. "It's a bunch of zeroes and ones in a packet of information (a byte)." This system means that there's no fuzzy reception when strength is low - instead, the picture remains crystal clear. Ghosting, interference and scrolling are all also a thing of the past with digital TV.
The on-or-off nature of digital reception presents one major challenge - finding a good position for the antenna. Richard says that since the picture is either perfect or non-existent it may be difficult. On the other hand, until 2013, when the analogue system is discontinued in Australia, he has a way around the issue. "I guess a good tip is to use the analogue signal to locate the best spot," he says, "and then switch over to digital."
Most new LCD TVs sold today, whether RV-specific or otherwise, contain a digital tuner. If you want to add the functionality to your existing setup, 12V-friendly digital set top boxes (STBs) are inexpensive and readily available from caravan accessories shops.
CINEMA ON DEMAND
Apart from what's floating through the airwaves, you'll probably want to watch something else on occasion. Whether you like to be swept away by a Hollywood feature or drawn into a documentary, there are a range of TV-input options.
It seems fairly recent that the old VHS player was turfed out with the hard rubbish to make way for the sleek, new-fangled DVD players we were told were the way of the future. The most obvious and most popular way to enjoy a film remains the now-humble DVD. Once upon a time it was super-high-tech, and these days players are built into many LCD TVs manufactured for the RV market.
If your TV doesn't have a DVD player built in, there are other options. Mal Sadler, service manager at Canterbury Caravans in Bayswater, Vic, says that you can make use of an existing DVD-playing car-stereo head unit installed in your van, if the wiring will allow.
RV-specific, standalone DVD players are available. Camec distributes a 12V player that sports an anti-shock design, Dolby Digital sound decoding and mp3 compatibility all in a very compact package. If you're going for a separate DVD player, make sure it can handle RV life before you purchase it.
Anyway, DVD is incrementally on the way out. The latest format war was fought between Sony's Blu-ray and Toshiba's HD-DVD technologies. HD-DVD discs are cheaper to produce and players came onto the market at a fraction of the price of Blu-ray counterparts. Blu-ray won, though, because many more movie studios have committed to releasing films on that format. And despite the higher Blu-ray cost per disc, the technology allows for much greater data capacity than HD-DVD.
It's going to be a while before RVers find Blu-ray compatible units made by the likes of Xien, but there's no reason you couldn't use a dedicated Blu-ray player, or another Blu-ray-capable device, like a suitable laptop or a Sony PS3 gaming console, at a 240V outlet.
EYES IN THE SKY
For truly remote travel, or for as close to guaranteed reception as possible, a satellite TV system is the only option. They're much cheaper than they used to be, simple to set up, and according to Aardvark Electronics, Qld, maker of Vansat RV satellite reception systems, they're a "set-and-forget" investment.
Once the satellite kit is installed, when you arrive at a new destination all you have to do is park the dish on its tripod outside the van, and aim it to a point when the needle on the in-line "satellite finder" shows a strong signal. Once you're tuned in, that's it. Sit back and enjoy. You'll have a minimum of ABC and SBS all over Australia, with Westlink, ICTW, and two home shopping networks thrown in.
And if you're already paying a monthly subscription to pay TV at the home base, providing it's a satellite connection and not cable, you can take your tens of channels along when you're out on the road. With the amiable aid of an in-van cable TV decoder you can extract maximum value from your subscription, wherever you happen to be.
SOME VISUAL ENTERTAINMENT CONTACTS
Award RV Superstore 1809-1811 Ferntree Gully Road, Ferntree Gully, Vic 3156. Visit www.awardrv.com.au, or phone (03) 9753 5511.
Camec 47-63 Remington Drive, Dandenong South, Vic 3175. Phone (03) 9799 6455 or visit www.camec.com.au
Canterbury Caravans World of Caravans, 140 Canterbury Road, Bayswater, Vic 3153. Phone (03) 9729 8188 or visit www.canterburycaravans.com.au
LCD TVs, SET-TOP BOXES AND MOUNTING BRACKETS
Xien Entertainment Castle Hill, NSW. Visit www.xien.com.au
Yess AV Australia, Oakleigh South, Vic. Phone (03) 9545 5788.
DIGITAL AND ANALOGUE RECEPTION SYSTEMS
SATELLITE TV ON THE ROAD