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Technology Today  March  2005
by Robert Sanborn

XACT Sirius Satellite Radio

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas was the largest show I had covered in sheer space taken up. It was incredible and I am still digging stuff out from under the piles of clothing and the like picked up. One of my first stops on the floor was to the XACT Communications booth www.XACTcommunication.com. There, they were showing off satellite radio and telephone products and so what interested me was the fact that I travel a bunch in my van and get tired of hearing the same old CDs and tapes on our trips. Radio stations are not worth the effort because even if you just cover a few miles, you quickly go out of range and worse, when traveling, never know what you get and it is difficult locking into a good station. So it was time to take the plunge into what satellite radio offers and my first stop landed me the Stream Jockey radio from XACT. I like this radio because it is a combination radio for both the car and home.

If you havenít looked into satellite radio lately, you will find that there are two services now available, Sirius, www.sirius.com and XM, www.xmradio.com . You pay a monthly subscription fee that is keyed into the radio you are using and since I wanted one that was portable, that is the reason I picked the Stream Jockey. The model was the XTR1UK which comes with the universal kit for both home and auto. Open the box and you can become intimidated by all the parts in there but you will find you need them all. With satellite radio for the car, you have several options of installing the antenna that comes with the kit. The first preference would be to get someone to professionally install it for you as if you install it on the preferred location of the roof near the rear window. Reading the small installation guides gives you adequate instructions on how to install the antenna if you want to permanently install it inside your car or truck but as I mention before, you might want to get someone who has done this before to feed the cable for you. My preference would be that if you are thinking of using the radio both in the car and at home (or in multiple cars), you might want to just get another antenna from XACT for $25. As the satellite service is keyed to the one radio, multiple antennas make sense. Depending on how large your vehicle is and where you need to run the antenna, check the length. The cable is a 21 foot micro coaxial cable and is very sturdy and should be long enough.

The kit comes with a mounting bracket for mounting the magnetic mount antenna on an outside wall if you will be using it in your home. When you start the install process, you will find that there will be an Antenna Aiming feature on the radio itself to give you your signal strength depending on where the antenna is pointing. The Instruction booklet also tells you what direction you need to aim the antenna as well depending on where in the country you are. In my test, it seems to pick up the satellite signal quite well even if the antenna is not pointing in the right direction. In one of my tests, I decided to set up the radio in my office which has an east facing window. One reason for me to put it here is that I can test different features on the radio while using my computer. I set up the antenna on the window sill and while the screen shows no signal, I am getting one and listening to the music and news shows through my computer speakers. But I am getting ahead of myself, let me get back to getting it setup in my van.

You know, itís all easier than it looks. First of all, my van has a fiberglass roof and so nothing sticks to it, magnetic or otherwise. Just turn on your car radio and set it to one of the preset vacant stations, in my case it was FM 88.1. Plug in the Stream Jockey Radio to the DC adapter, set the antenna on the dash board, plug it in, turn on the XACT, and before you realize it, you are hearing the preview feed coming through your car radio speakers. Simple as that. Sirius now charges an activation fee of $10 or $15 depending on whether you do it over the net or call them, but you give them your radioís SID or ESN number from the radio, and then determine what plan you want and you are on your way. The kit I have comes with a stand for the radio to be attached to the dash of your car using an adhesive pad on the bottom of the stand. It can be unattached from that for standing it in the home or office.

For those of us who like simple things in life, the radio does just what it is supposed to and you can then browse through the channel listing, or by category looking for your type of music. You should zip over to the Sirius web site to see the line up of channels but as of this writing, there are 120 different channels including 65 commercial free music channels. Itís a great selection.

In my location (Indiana), the signal capture seems to have quite a bit of latitude as I have now tested in both in the car and at home. At home, I simply set the antenna on a south facing window sill and it was able to pick up the signal just fine. Both XACT and Sirius recommend that if you will install the radio in your home, you should mount the antenna outside for the best view of the sky. Extension cables are available. Sirius currently has three satellites up there and have installed terrestrial repeaters in some major cities. With the included audio cables, you can then run it to a line input jack on your home receiver to listen to the music there. Another option is the FM approach that I used for the car but on my home system, did not work well because mostly of the poor old analog FM tuner on my stereo. I turned on another FM radio, set the station, and was able to hear the music just fine as this radio let me tune exactly to the FM frequency I wanted to set.

The screen is easy to see and read though with even the text as readable as it is, if you are going to use the included remote control, you might as well be sitting next to the radio in order to read what is on the screen. If you do find it difficult to read the screen, both the brightness and contrast are adjustable. Once you have it up and playing, now is a matter of deciding what of the 120 channels you want to listen to. There are preset buttons so that you can store your favorites and not have to look it up but you know, it is easy to find stations just by going through the menus looking at categories and making your selection. As I said, the screen is readable and you see information about the track playing, the channel you are on, and the category as well as time of day. You can even search for a particular artist or composer and it will give you a listing of all channels currently playing that personís music. You can do the same kind of search for a song. Find channels to your liking and you can use one of the 3 preset buttons with 6 modes each for saving up to 18 different channels in a quick pick list.

If you are really hooked on an artist, you have lots of options to saving his or her music and songs in the memory of the Stream Jockey. But the radio system is not just about music. It is also about sports, news, traffic, and weather and just about any kind of talk radio show that you want to hear. With 125 channels, there is something for everyone and the quality I found listening to several channels is excellent. You get everything from ESPN Radio to Air America Radio to the NFL Radio to a channel devoted to the old classic radio shows of yesteryear.

Each time you turn on the radio, it will make a scan of the channels available and on my radio, I am not sure it took more than a minute. You can disable this feature if you want it to connect immediately and then scan for the new channels later if you like. There is also parental control over the radio to block out particular channels or require a password to listen to them. Be careful of the password you choose as it is a bit cumbersome to enter the number in. Kind of like setting the old VCRs where you have to scroll up a bunch to pick the right digit. There is a section in the manual about aiming the antenna when using it at home but it is a bit confusing. Lucky for me, all I had to do was to just sit it up on the window sill and get a good signal. The good news is that you can see your signal strength so if you do have to move the antenna, you can easily find the strongest signal. Using the radio is pretty easy. Hit either of the Category buttons and a listing of the categories comes up and you can scroll through those to choose what you want to hear. Want to see what is playing in one of those categories, hit the display button and it will show you the artist playing for each of those channels listed. Hit the display button again and it will show you the songs being played.

Like most radios today, there is a clock (with daylight setting on or off), alarm, and you can set it to wake up and play or go to sleep on you all using the Program Alert function of the radio. Want to hear a favorite show? Then just turn on the program feature to tell it to wake up and play it at a particular time. The radio will also turn itself off if it looses signal or no activity on a particular channel after an hour. Want to take this radio with you? There is an optional Portable Power Pod unit that is actually a rechargeable battery, antenna, and carrying case. Another option for taking it with you is that there is a cool looking boom box add on for this radio. As I continue to explore the different features of the radio, I like them and how they work. I mentioned that I had plugged it into my computer for testing. For radio listening, now that I have an account, I can get all the channels streamed through my computer directly if you have broad band access and listen to the channels that way. I enjoyed listening to the music commercial free.

I am impressed with what I can get on the radio and how easy it was to actually get going with it. You can get the XACT Stream Jockey Radio directly from XACT or Office Depot for a price of $149. If you have not yet decided to go with a satellite radio service, my recommendation would be to first see what you want to listen to the most and then pick the service, either Sirius or XM. If you go with Sirius, I think the Stream Jockey from XACT is an excellent choice.

Short Takes

If like me, when you travel by car, you like to take some of your equipment with you and have needed more places to plug things into, then take a look at Xantrex, www.xantrex.com. They have a complete line of micro inverters and portable power systems that plug into an outlet in your car to give you all sorts of juice for everything from digital camera chargers to small power tools.

Another VoIP service that is available for you is from Packet8, www.packet8.com. Their service brings you a box that you plug your regular phone into to make internet calls but with this system, they intend to replace your home calling system. For a $19.95 per month charge, you can make unlimited calls in the US and Canada, and it includes very in expensive rates for overseas. As with other services like Skype, www.skype.com, and TalkPro, www.talkpro.net , if you call someone on their network, the call is free. Unlike Skype or TalkPro, Packet8 is intended as a replacement for your home phone as it provides caller id features as well as all the usual land line phone options including 911 service. If you would rather, you can set it up with a different phone number than what you have. For another $10 per month, you can get their videophone service to use with other Packet8 video users. Rebates abound so check around.

Robert Sanborn


Robert Sanborn is a technology writer for PC Lifeline. You can reach him through the net at robert@pcll.com 


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