Gadget freak: Satellite radio a-go-go

SAN FRANCISCO (11/24/2003) - We were headed on a road trip from the Carolinas to Boston, and as usual I'd packed more provisions than Lewis and Clark. We had toys, books, cellular phones, a CD player and a portable refrigerator filled with enough string cheese to feed a small army. My wife and I brought most of it to keep our two adorable children from becoming screaming hellions on the New Jersey Turnpike, but one of the items was just for me: an Audiovox Corp. Satellite Radio Shuttle for Sirius.

About the size of a paperback book, the US$99 Shuttle has an LCD readout and enough buttons to satisfy any gadget freak. Sign up with Sirius, and for $13 a month you receive 100 streams -- or channels -- of music, news, and entertainment anywhere you go in the contiguous 48 United States. (Audiovox also makes radios for XM, a similar satellite service.) The product seemed like an excellent way to relax while the kids murdered each other in the backseat.

Installation was a snap. I slapped the magnetic, pocket-size satellite receiver on top of the minivan and then fed the cable through the sunroof and around the edge of the windshield, wedging the cable in place with some mint-flavored toothpicks I found buried in the seat cushions. (Serious Sirius users may need to remove the car's interior panels and run the cable beneath them.) I plugged the power dongle into the cigarette lighter socket and tuned my car radio to 88.7 FM to get the signal from Sirius. Within moments I was boogying to the soulful sounds of Barry White on The Strobe (Stream 68).

For the next 1,600 miles, I listened to Sirius. Save for brief interludes in rural Virginia and on the Bronx Parkway, the signal was smooth and static-free. My only real problem: remembering that turning the knob up (clockwise) cycled down through the streams on the LCD readout.

I tuned in the Sirius Trucking Network, Radio Slovakia and Club Pam (for reasons that defy all human understanding, Pamela Anderson has a radio show). I dialed up NPR Now and BBC Mundo. I pondered the differences between The Rock (classic rock), Alt Nation (alternative rock) and First Wave (classic alternative rock).

And I found that listening to Sirius is like eating string cheese -- bland and ultimately unsatisfying. Sirius's heavily niche-oriented programming leaves no room for random weirdness -- you'll never hear Alice Cooper, Alice in Chains, and Allison Krause in the same mix. I found myself turning off the Sirius unit and scanning local frequencies. Despite static, commercials and idiot DJs, local stations provide spontaneity and a feeling for an area you won't get from any satellite feed.

Dongle boogie

On the road I encountered another problem: dongle glut. Every device -- the radio, CD player, portable fridge and cell phone charger -- was vying for time on the same cigarette lighter socket (except, of course, the cigarette lighter, which we'd lost years ago). I had to keep swapping dongles while trying not to veer into traffic at 70 mph.

If I were a traveling salesperson or long-haul trucker, I might give Sirius radio a go, just so I could bring favorite stations with me wherever I roamed. Otherwise I'd skip it: I've swallowed enough string cheese to last a lifetime.

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