Sunday, August 10, 2008

Satellite Radio Showdown

After discovering that Microsoft Prime gives us a 20% discount on Sirius satellite radios, Amber said she would get me a satellite radio for my birthday if I wanted one.

So what is satellite radio? Basically, it's like satellite TV, but for music (and recently, for TV as well). You buy a special radio that lets you tune in to approximately 130 digital-quality radio stations, whenever you can get a signal from an orbiting satellite or set of ground-based repeaters. Cost is $12.95/mo, but all the music stations (about 60) are commercial-free.

There's other options for radio. Traditional radio is free, and has a local focus - but the quality is low. I'm not just talking about sound quality either, though it does suck too. There's at best one station that I can pick up in Seattle that's even worth listening to. From the near-constant barrage of commercials during the morning commute, to repeats of months-old talk shows, to the total lack of any control or choice, and the rampant FCC censorship of anything even remotely interesting; it's only barely an option at all! There's HD Radio; same radio, same stations, but in digital. Addresses the sound quality issue, but the fundamental suck of free radio remains. I could always just download podcasts, but that involves effort on my part to keep getting fresh material. Finally, there's Pandora-on-the-go. While you may remember that I'm a total Pandora fanboy now, I must admit that the appeal of radio does include being exposed to new material, and perhaps even a DJ sometimes making a few comments. You really do need to interact with Pandora to keep the experience fresh, I've found. Anyways, Pandora on the Go doesn't support my Tytn (or any Windows Mobile phones) yet, and even if it did, I can't use it in Canada because of the ridiculous roaming data rates.

So, convinced that I'd give it a try, I decided to compare the two heavyweights, Sirius and XM. Of course, the two just announced their merger, but plans for mixing and matching across the networks' content are still a ways off, so I'd be stuck with one or the other. I tried the three day trials of each service's Internet streams, and below are my findings.

Sirius offers most of their channels online; free at 32kbit if you subscribe, or 128kbit for an extra $3/mo. I found this embarassing, since XM had free CD quality with their subscription. 32kbit is just not reasonable if you're paying for a service. Plus, their solution was based on Windows Media Player. They obviously didn't get the memo that Flash won the Internets. XM had a really slick Flash-based solution at high quality, and free is the best price. Internet radio victory clearly goes to XM.

I spent my three days focusing on mostly the metal and hard rock stations. Overall, it's hard to say which I like better; it really varied over time. Both have "metal" stations: XM Liquid Metal and Hard Attack for XM and Sirius respectively. I was not impressed with either - both focused a little more on the American Death and Thrash than I'd care for. Hard Attack was pretty much a waste of time unless you're seriously pissed off at your parents; XM Liquid Metal you'd at least get a bit of In Flames and old-school Metallica mixed in with the cookie monsters. Next on the list is Squizz vs Octane. Both are more mainstream hard rock... they were pretty good, but a bit far from the metal bus I wanted to get on. I'd say that Octane just barely edged out Squizz, so victory for Sirius. For classic rock Sirius had Buzzsaw and Hair Nation, and XM had Boneyard. Boneyard was freakin awesome - basically the 80's hits of all the bands we love; Ozzy, AC/DC, KISS, and even some really hard stuff! Buzzsaw and Hair Nation were both pretty good, but had a slightly higher 'cheese' content in terms of music. Basically a toss-up; Boneyard is great, but Sirius gives me two stations to bounce around.

Overall, the DJ component was pretty light on all the stations, but I must admit I preferred the far more professional atmosphere from the Sirius DJs. While some of the banter on XM was pretty funny, it was also pretty dumb at times. Though I must admit, the lack of FCC regulation is great! It feels much more natural when you don't have censor every other word.

I tried listening to a few other stations; news, sports etc. But meh, I hit commercials right away, and didn't really make much progress. They both have BBC and CNN, so meh. XM has NHL, so they win on sports, peroid, no matter how much everyone asserts that Sirius wins sports.

As for reception... it's the one thing you can't judge from the Internet. The internets say that Sirius runs a trio of satellites in elliptical orbits, while XM runs a pair of geostationary satellites. I'd guess the former would work better (geostationary satellites have to orbit the equator), but apparently, XM has a pretty nice network of repeaters near Seattle. Both are designed for strong coverage through the continential US, and would be fine for the parts of Canada and Mexico I'd care about.

Finally, hardware. My Scion tC is satellite-ready, so I should be able to wire in directly, right? Well, not really. It's difficult to get the hookups for XM at all except through the dealer, who wants $Ridiculous to install it, and won't do any dockable setups. Sirius you can buy the parts to link into my radio off the Internets, and I can find an installer easy enough. Still, it's going to be $300 to do even before the radio itself. I finally gave up and decided I'd just use my aux jack, which means I can use any radio I want from either provider. Still, points to Sirius for at least having the option for an aftermarket hookup.

So, Mike, what's your conclusion? Sirius or XM?
I... um.... can't decide. I checked all the right things, and they beat each other down into a stalemate. But, more importantly, it shows how important this merger will be - what hardware will we need to access both networks? How much will it cost to get the best of both worlds? Will the price go up, or down? Or is this the final desperate cry of a technology that knows full well that 3G cell networks may obsolete them entirely?

I decided to wait. I'm going to ask for a bluetooth GPS instead, and then see if I can run my entire car off one device. In the meantime, I hear you can download music off the Internets...