My current work has me heading down to New Jersey every few weeks to work with my client on our various projects. After the first 2 drives (4 1/2 hours or so), I decided that I needed some way to keep myself sane on the drive. The first trip involved cabling up my laptop to the stereo so I could listen to the MP3 collection on it while driving. This proved… less than optimal, and I began considering XM Satellite Radio. Last week I marched into Best Buy and picked up a SkyFi2 receiver.
XM Radio is a satellite-based radio service that provides about 250 channels of ‘digital radio’ to a special receiver. It is a subscription service, requiring a monthly charge and activation. There are no ‘levels’ of subscription, such as in cable television – once you’re subscribed, you have access to everything. The channels vary widely in content, from Major League Baseball through classical music. The service is activated based on your receiver ID. Receivers can be moved from vehicle to vehicle (or in the case of the ‘MyFi’ receiver, carried around with you like an iPod). You can activate multiple receivers, but there’s a (smaller) charge per additional unit. Many of the units are mobile, and can simply ‘undock’ from one car, and ‘dock’ in another (or into an at-home unit).
As mentioned, I have the SkyFi2 receiver, which is sort of middle of the road as far as receivers go. It has has a ‘dock’ arrangement that lets you remove the receiver or hide it when parking, which is a win. The receiver has a clear easy to read display (both in daylight and at night), and is easy go use to navigate stations and presets. Mine has a very stiff ‘wheel’ on it, which I may bring in to get serviced (it should turn smoothly), but other than that it works fine. The unit comes with an external ‘magnetic mount’ antenna, a ‘cassette-style’ hookup for stereos (it also can transmit on several FM bands, but I found as I was driving I’d drift in and out of range of various FM stations, which would conflict with the FM transmitter), so I opted for the slightly more cluttery arrangement with the cable, but didn’t have problems with interference. This will definately require a more permanent installation though, since the receiver now has 3 wires coming out of it (power, antenna, and audio).
The receiver does provide some excellent functions over traditional radios. The biggest is having a realtime display of the current channel, track and artist. You can add other things to the display (stock tickers, etc), though I can’t imagine that would be safe for a driver :). Another big win is the ability to ‘pause’ music or shows – for instance to go through a toll booth, or get food from a drivein, or whatever. The receiver ‘spools’ the show up (and shows how far behind realtime you are), and lets you play and catch up when you’re ready. Up to half an hour of paused music can be stored.
Last but not least is the ability to ‘tag’ certain music or artists, so that if another station starts playing an artist you want to hear (or a show, or whatever), the unit will alert you that something is starting elsewhere. I haven’t done this yet, but if there were certain shows I didn’t want to miss, that would be handy.
What is a radio service without content? XM provides 250 or so channels of programming with a wide variety of content. After scanning through the listing several times, and listening a bit to each one, I’m slowly settling down into a dozen or so I enjoy. Many of the stations have live DJ’s that introduce and comment on the pieces being played (though the receiver includes the feature of showing the channel, artist, and track being played – and it’s updated in realtime), but it’s nice to hear a real person on occasion. My only beef with the station programming is they have commercials. This is a pay-for service, the last thing I want to do is listen to an add for Viagra in the middle of a Blues concert. I find this incredibly annoying, and would even consider paying a slightly higher premium to avoid the commercials
As far as generic programming, the stations are good. Some are excellent (in my opinion), and some are just boring. I would have liked to see less channel space used up by specialty or limited audience bits that are repeated elsewhere. (For instance, there are 40 some odd ‘local’ stations. If I’m in Boston, chances are I don’t need to hear traffic conditions in Chicago, but I have both a Chicago and a Boston channel on my receiver). Also, there are 5-6 major league baseball channels, and 4 Nascar channels. If there is a limited number of channels in the XM system, they should work on a subscription mechanism that lets you tune what channels you receive. I’m never going to be listening to MLB or Nascar programming, why is a third of my channel selection used up by them?
The good, the bad, and the ugly
So now I’ve been using the system for a week, and have some pretty detailed impressions of it. So here’s the basic rundown as I see it. I spend anywhere from an hour and a half a day to several hours (for the road trips), so I’m probably a fairly typical user:
- Very good selection of stations and programming.
- A lack of DJ chatter or other annoyances
- Very capable technical offering on the receiver
- Activation and maintenance painless (took about 15 minutes from my car)
- Availability of all programming over the net via their website
- Ubiquitous access to stations, no matter what your location. The same channels are available in Boston that are available in NJ.
- Simple installation and easy to use.
- Many channels used up by narrow-focus audiences, but still occupy many channels at once.
- Reception can be sketchy. Audio cuts out as the signal drops down reasonably often. Not enough to be a real problem, but far more often than I expected.
- Audio quality is less than ideal. It sounds similar to a 64k MP3 streaming audio feed. It is NOT as high quality as CD or even broadcast radio, but is acceptable.
- No way to skip or avoid commercials
- No Radio Paradise!
For $11 a month for the service, I think it’s worth it, particularly for people who do regular road trips or even longer commutes. The inclusion of not necessarily ‘mainstream’ content makes all the difference (things such as NPR, Folk radio, etc). Some more flexibility would be nice, and higher quality audio would be a huge win, but for now, I think I’ll stick with it.