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Tuning in to satellite radio’s jukebox in the sky

Times Staff Writer

Satellite radio for the home computer is so addicting, it should be sold on street corners in dicey neighborhoods.

The XM Satellite Radio service, which debuted two years ago mostly for use in automobiles, provides 101 channels of niche programming. It gets so specific that it has not just a single oldies channel but one for every decade beginning with the 1940s.

But its new personal computer unit truly makes it a jukebox from outer space. It shows not only all the channels on a scrollable computer page but also what is playing on each one at that moment.

As I’m typing, I’m listening through the computer speakers to Louis Armstrong’s “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” on the Real Jazz channel. But at a glance I can see my choices include Lil’ Kim’s “Magic Stick” on the Top Twenty channel, the Indigo Girls’ “Southland in the Springtime” on Folk Village, a song from “Showboat” on Broadway, Big Daddy Kane’s “ ‘Nuff Respect” on the Rhyme, Ozzy Osbourne’s “No More Tears” on Bone Yard and Lara St. John’s performance of Bach’s 1st Violin Concerto on one of three classical channels.

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The guide is continually updated in real time. Just as I am about to click on Chuck Berry singing “Back in the USA” on the 1950s oldies channel, it changes to the Lettermen performing “The Way You Look Tonight.”

I decide to peruse the news, sports and talk channels. The top-of-the-hour news is on the BBC, Albert Brooks is doing a routine on a comedy channel and the “Teambusters” call-in show is on NASCAR.

It’s tremendously more information than you can get at any one time from a car satellite receiver, which has only a thin screen. Anyway, you don’t want drivers to be reading through 100 channels of programming while simultaneously talking on a cell phone and, incidentally, driving.

Like most addictions, satellite radio for the computer has initial and recurring costs.

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The base unit, which plugs into a computer’s USB port, is called PCR and is about the size of a portable CD-ROM drive. It costs $69, including software and a small plastic indoor antenna, and is available at www.pcconnection.com.

The activation fee for the service is $14.99 if done on the phone or $9.99 online. Then comes the recurring charge -- $9.99 per month.

The antenna picks up the signal directly from XM’s two satellites or from repeaters that the company has installed in major cities. Although XM suggested the antenna be placed in a south-facing window, I was able to pick up the signal everywhere in my house. It even worked when I put the antenna in a windowless closet and closed the door.

In a large building, however, reception is less assured. I had to go near a window to get it to work at my office.

The unit is plugged into a USB port, which can be found on most newer home computers. The software that produces the screen display is Windows-only, and XM officials said they will not have a Mac version in the near future.

But Mac enthusiasts are not to be denied. Software programmer Nick Sayer has devised a Mac version that XM spokesman Allen Goldberg described as a “very workable home-grown” solution. Goldberg added that the company has no problem with Mac owners using Sayer’s software, which can be downloaded free at macxm.sourceforge.net.

Mac users are still required to buy the PCR package and pay the monthly service fee.

There are other ways to get satellite radio at home, albeit without the ever-changing, comprehensive screen guide. Several manufactures make home receivers that can be plugged into a stereo system or headphones for getting either XM or its rival, Sirius satellite radio.

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Sirius does not have a home computer service, but a spokesman for the company said later this year it will offer an Internet version that will include a real-time, on-screen guide.

Sirius offers 100 channels of programming (one fewer than XM) but at a higher monthly fee of $12.95.

Its main stated difference is that all of Sirius’ 60 music channels are commercial-free.

On XM, 35 of the 70 music channels have no commercials.

Each has a variety of news, sports and talk shows. The best way to choose between the two is to check out their programming choices on their Web sites -- www.xmradio.com and www.siriusradio.com.

Sirius can be accessed on a small Kenwood tuner that can be used in either a car or home docking unit. The car and home dock each cost $69.95, including antenna.

XM can be received on a Delphi unit that also goes from car to home. It retails for $129.99, with the home adapter costing an additional $69.99.

The Delphi unit can also be used in a spiffy, specially designed boombox that costs $99.99. It runs on AC power or on batteries for outdoor listening (because the boombox takes six D cells, it’s a bit weighty to haul around).

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But for home XM listening, it’s hard to beat the computer, PCR version of the service.

I’ll be returning the review unit shortly. I may have to find a support group.


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