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Better Vacation Travel: Satellite Radio  (5/2006)

    by Douglas Dixon

Satellite Radio: SIRIUS and XM
Receivers and More
Portable Receivers
Future Services

Whoever said that "getting there is half the fun" was not traveling with cranky children on a congested vacation weekend. However, the aphorism does suggest the important characteristics of holiday travel: successfully getting to the destination, and providing some entertaining distraction along the way.  I recently had the opportunity to try out two heaven-sent (or at least satellite-based) answers for these crying needs -- a SIRIUS satellite radio system and a ALK CoPilot GPS-based navigation system . Both satellite radios and navigation systems are becoming hot add-ons for new cars and rentals, and there are a variety of interesting and ever more affordable options to upgrade your existing vehicle . What's particularly interesting is how these products are using digital formats, digital storage, and digital communications to add new capabilities and further blur the lies between different categories of devices.

    See also: Vacation Travel: GPS Navigation


Satellite Radio: SIRIUS and XM

Once you know you are headed in the right direction with your navigation system, you still need some entertainment to help pass the time. You could surf the radio dial skipping through commercials; or plan ahead and bring along a stack of CDs, or load up a MP3 music player; or even try a portable DVD player. Or you could join the satellite radio revolution, and listen to over 65 channels of commercial-free music across a wide variety of genres, plus over 50 more channels of news, sports, talk and entertainment.

The two providers of satellite radio programming in the United States are SIRIUS ( and XM ( XM, headquartered in Washington, DC, has over 6 million subscribers as of April 2006; and SIRIUS has some 4 million. SIRIUS, based in New York City, has been loading up on personalities like Howard Stern -- or, if you prefer, Martha Stewart.

These services compete with exclusive offerings, special events, and exclusive partners and personalities. They also have relationships with car manufacturers for installation on new vehicles. The weekends are particularly busy in football season as the channels are reallocated for live play-by-play action from a wide variety of games. (SIRIUS features the National Football League and National Basketball Association, and XM features Major League Baseball and NASCAR racing.)

Both services have the same monthly subscription fee of $12.95, with discounts for annual subscriptions ($142.45 a year) and additional receivers in the same household for $6.99. SIRIUS also offers a business subscription to play commercial-free music for customers starting at $24.99, and a lifetime subscription for $499.99.

At the core, SIRIUS and XM are content companies, so you can access their services though alternate providers. You can subscribe to the SIRIUS service on satellite TV through the DISH Network and over mobile phones through Sprint. You also can check out the channels online and even preview them as streaming audio, and subscribers can listen on their computers at no additional charge.

Receivers and More

What's most interesting about these services is the broadening of in-car radio devices to take on more capabilities from other digital media players. First, satellite radios have become portable, so you can dock them in your car, or boat, and then bring them into the house to keep listening in the evening. For example, I tried out the SIRIUS "plug-and-play" Sportster Replay in my car ($139). This is a palm-sized satellite receiver and tuner (4.5 x 3 x 1.125 in. and 7 oz), with a car dock base, magnetic car antenna, and cigarette lighter power adapter. It includes a FM transmitter so you can listen to the satellite channel on your car radio system.

        Sportster Replay portable satellite radio

SIRIUS also offers a compatible Boombox unit so you can detach the Sportster tuner from your car and listen to it at home or on the go (car and boombox bundled for $229). You also can use a home docking kit, including home antenna, which you then need to connect to a separate stereo or amplifier ($49).

        Sportster Boombox

However, portability is just the beginning.  With built-in digital storage, the Sportster can buffer over forty minutes of content, so you replay recent songs or action. Plus, digital transmission can take advantage of the metadata transmitted along with the audio, to display the channel name, category, song title, and artist (and even the current score of the game).  In fact, the metadata can describe what is being transmitted across all the channels, so you can be alerted when a favorite song or artist is being played, or favorite sports team is starting a game (or the score changes) -- on any channel. Even better, your list of favorite teams can be used to create a display of all their scores on a single screen.

Portable Receivers

XM also offers an even smaller personal XM2go satellite radio receivers from several partners including the Pioneer inno XM2go ($399). This includes storage for up to 50 hours of content, so you can load content in the car and then listen when you are indoors and out of satellite range (or even outdoors and blocked by your body or other obstruction).


Pioneer inno XM2go / SIRIUS S50 satellite wearable radio with home dock

These portable satellite radios are converging even more closely with MP3 players with the new "wearable" SIRIUS S50 ($299). This includes 1 GB of local memory, which you can use to load up to three personalized channels of your favorite content, or to download your own music files in MP3 and WMA formats. The SIRIUS content is locked to your subscription and the device, and cannot be uploaded or copied.

Future Services

So satellite radio is a content service, now appearing on other providers -- and it's a family of media players, now extending to portable devices. But it's also a digital pipe, which can be used for more than delivering audio and associated metadata. For example, SIRIUS provides data services such as marine and aviation weather, and is planning to introduce several channels of premium video content in the second half of 2006, targeted to entertaining children in the back seat.

This digital pipe also can be used to integrate with other in-car services, including navigation systems. SIRIUS is in the process of adding traffic data service to deliver real-time information including incident alerts, scheduled road work, and traffic flow, which can be displayed as overlays on the car navigation system.

Now that's how to travel -- you know where you're going, the kids are entertained in the back, and you even can choose the best route based on current traffic conditions!


SIRIUS Satellite Radio

XM Satellite Radio