Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Satellite Radio

UPDATE 3/9/2008: For anyone else who’s interested in satellite radio, you can now get the radio, car kit, and home kit all for $4.99 after rebate at Crutchfield. Use code PA145 for free shipping, or if that doesn’t work, look here for other Crutchfield discount codes. The $64 deal for a year of service still seems to be available.

We got satellite radio! The only good that came out of our dead-car experience was that we rented a Hyundai Sonata that had XM Radio, and after listening to it for a while, we decided to look into getting satellite radio for ourselves.

Finding good music to listen to has been a problem for us. We’ve driven about 13,000 miles so far since October, when we started our journey, and for many of those 13,000 miles, we were in the middle of nowhere with few choices on the radio, or all the good stations were playing commercials, etc. We carry two dozen CDs in our car, and we have a lot of our CD collection at Brian’s parents’ house, so we occasionally swap out the CDs we’re carrying for two dozen new ones. We thought maybe we’d get an MP3 player, but we don’t really have much digital music, so we’d have to rip CDs or acquire digital music some other way. And we don’t really have a way to connect an MP3 player to our car stereo anyway – our car just has a CD player, with no other inputs.

Then, as Brian drove the Sonata, he decided that satellite radio was the solution. There are over 170 stations, including about 10 country music stations. You get a clear signal anywhere in the U.S. And you can listen to all the major league baseball games. Sign me up!

Some online investigation turned up another exciting fact: You can get a radio that will work in both the car and at home! You get a docking station for home and one for your car, and then you just move the little radio between the two docking stations. We were previously thinking you’d need two different radios with two different subscriptions to listen at home and in the car – not so!

Signing up for service also turns out to be pretty easy. Unlike cable TV, there aren’t different options for satellite radio (different packages, premium channels, etc.) – you just sign up, pay your service fee, and get all the channels.

Unfortunately, the investigation also turned up some obstacles. First, you have to pick a satellite radio – there are lots of different choices here, with different feature sets, different price points, and different levels of reliability. You have to figure out how to hook the radio up to the car – this is the same problem as the earlier MP3 player idea. And if you want to listen to it at home, you have to set it up there, too.

After some more online research, it seemed doable. There’s a radio and car kit that are currently free after rebate. The radio has a lot of features but gets poor reviews, primarily, it seems, because it locks up pretty frequently and people think they need to wait hours for the battery to drain before they can reset it. That would be painful, but as it turns out, there’s an obscure key combination to reset the radio. The home kit for the radio – primarily consisting of an antenna to use at home and an AC adapter – is another $9.99. So all the hardware that we would need would cost a total of $9.99!

It gets even better: XM service is only $64 for the first year! What a deal – for about 20 cents a day, you can get a year’s worth of satellite radio, hardware included!

We ordered the hardware on Monday, February 18, and it was supposed to arrive yesterday, but it got here early, last Friday. As soon as we got done snowboarding for the day, Brian ripped open the package, which turned out to contain something like two dozen different parts – a little overwhelming.

The first thing was to sign up for service – this just required a short phone call. Next was to set up the radio at home, since this wouldn’t be as complicated as the car setup. We live in a basement, so not surprisingly, we got no signal with the antenna set in our window. We were able to stick the antenna outside with the wire running back through the window, though, and get the maximum signal strength. Within an hour or so of getting our package, we were listening to country music on satellite radio!

Next came the car setup. There are all sorts of different ways to connect a satellite radio into a car. If you have an audio input on your car stereo, it’s a piece of cake. We don’t. If you have a tape player, you can route the audio through the tape player. We only have a CD player. If you want to pull out your car stereo, you can use a separate “FM Direct” kit that routes the satellite radio signal right through the antenna input at the back of your stereo. We looked into pulling out the car stereo, and it seemed like that would be a major undertaking.

The fourth option is for the radio to transmit on an FM frequency, which you pick up on your car stereo. Unfortunately, there’s an FCC regulation in place that severely limits the strength of this signal, so interference with broadcast radio is common and this option results in the poorest sound quality of the four. To improve the signal, there’s something called SureConnect, which is a wire that attaches directly to your antenna – it’s like the clip that you attach to your antenna at a drive-in movie theater. Even with SureConnect, though, online reviews indicate that the sound quality can be subpar. We decided to try it anyway.

We stuck the satellite antenna to our roof, next to our radio antenna, and then we connected the SureConnect clip to the radio antenna. We ran the two wires down the door frame, into the car, under the steering wheel, to the center console. Except for a few minutes spent with several feet of extra wire all tangled up, this was pretty straightforward. Then we connected the satellite radio, found an FM station that was all static, and set the satellite radio to broadcast on that frequency. Voila! Crystal-clear sound (at least, as good as anything sounds on our 10-year-old stock Honda car stereo)!

We’re probably an ideal case for SureConnect – we live in the Rockies, so we don’t get much in the way of radio signals to interfere with the satellite radio’s broadcast. Whatever the reason, it works great!

Since yesterday, Brian’s been playing with the radio – setting preset stations, recording songs into his music library (the radio comes with 256 MB of RAM, expandable via MicroSD), and generally loving having new music after months of listening to static-filled radio stations and the same CDs over and over.

The only thing that remains to be done is to mount the car docking station. There doesn’t seem to be a really good spot for it in our car. If anyone has mounted a satellite radio docking station (or portable GPS – that would probably be the same thing) in a 1998 Honda CR-V, let us know how you did it – we’re looking for ideas!

But this is a minor last step – at this point, we have tunes in our car and in our house whenever we want, and out of the ten country stations and the stations that play “other” kinds of music, there’s always something good on. We’re happy campers – we should have done this months ago!

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