From the Birds: A Look at the Accessibility of Satellite Radio Receivers
The advent of satellite radio several years ago presented people who are blind or have low vision with a new technology with which to enjoy listening to music and a myriad of talk and sports programs. Like the larger audience for this new technology, many readers of AccessWorld may consider purchasing this new kind of radio. This article reviews four satellite radio receivers and briefly describes the respective web sites for XM Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio.
How It Works
Space prevents a full technical explanation of satellite radio technology. Several resources on the Web, including www.wickapedia.com and www.xmfan.com, can provide more detailed technical information about both services and their technology.
Of interest here is the fact that the signals for both XM and Sirius originate from satellites that are orbiting the earth. Depending on your location, in a major metropolitan area or not, the broadcast signal will often be faint. For this reason, the placement and design of the antenna are important characteristics of the hardware that we at AFB TECH evaluated.
Of additional technical interest is the control that the services exercise over the producers of compatible hardware. It is our understanding that Sirius exercises more direct control over the manufacturing process and design of equipment that is intended to receive its programming.
Receivers for satellite radio services can be divided into several broad categories on the basis of their intended use. The only component receiver that is intended exclusively for use with a home stereo setup is the Polk Audio XM receiver. Most receivers are designed to do double duty as both in-home and in-car units. Still others are designed to allow recording and playback of programs from the service and, in some instances, standard MP3 files from your computer.
We evaluated two XM models, the Polk Audio home receiver and the Delphi MyFi. Both are widely available, the MyFi in particular, at big-box retailers, such as Circuit City and Best Buy. In addition, Crutchfield, the large mail-order retailer, is a major source for both XM and Sirius gear.
Polk Audio Receiver
The Polk Audio receiver is the most traditional member of our quartet. It resembles other audio components in a typical home stereo system. Operating on AC power only, the plain black box connects to your stereo with a pair of line-out audio cables.
In addition to the analog audio outputs on the back of the unit, digital outputs are provided, which can be used to decode the digital signal in a separate converter. Some audiophile users may want to route the signal to such a processor to enhance the audio quality. Based on listening, however, it is not clear that the already limited signal benefits significantly from an outboard D-to-A converter.
A unique feature of the Polk unit is the included video output. Designed to be connected to a home theater receiver, along with the audio, this video output allows direct viewing of current information on songs and channels on a television screen. We did not evaluate the video output for accessibility for people with low vision.
Limited-function front-panel controls provide some navigation of menus and channel selection directly from the receiver. Like many other audio components, the use of the full-function remote control provides full access to all features of the system.
The remote control is almost square and feels substantial in the hand. Unlike the remote controls for many other components, the buttons are easy to feel, are well spaced, and have a positive feel when pressed. The remote control includes a Power button, keypad, and a few other controls. Direct access to channels is easy and consistent. Pressing the buttons for the channel you desire results in immediate silence of the current program until the receiver finds and decodes the desired channel. Up-down navigation is also provided, as are preset favorites.
The Polk Audio receiver appears to be thoughtfully designed, with a focus on audio quality and basic, easy-to-use control functions. No specific accessibility features are included on this unit. If you are comfortable using a remote control and want a satellite receiver that is in your home entertainment system, the Polk unit may be a welcome addition to your system.
Delphi introduced the MyFi more than a year ago as the first XM receiver that is capable of both playing and recording XM programs. The MyFi is a small handheld unit about the size of two clamshell-style cell phones set side by side. The front of the MyFi has a number of buttons. It is in the use of these buttons that the MyFi distinguishes itself from other XM portables.
The basic operation of the MyFi is straightforward. Once the unit is turned on, by depressing and holding a small button on the upper corner of the receiver, direct entry to a channel takes place, with the five elongated buttons arranged in an arc across the bottom of the unit. Each button controls the entry for two digits. The left-most button enters the numeral 1 when the top of the button is pressed and 6 when the bottom is pressed. The next button controls 2 and 7 and so forth across the remaining buttons. Each press of a button results in a subtle but distinct click which can be felt and heard.
The MyFi can record several hours of program material for listening on the go or when a live signal is unavailable. A separate Record button allows nonvisual recording of the current program whenever the button is pressed. More customizable recording functions, such as specific channels at particular times, can be selected from the menu on the MyFi. As with a VCR, this menu requires vision, or the mastery of an alternative technique such as counting and pressing, to navigate its many functions.
Several listening options are available with the MyFi. The most typical for in-home use is with the included charging stand. The antenna, AC power, and an optional audio output are connected to a small stand on which the MyFi is placed for charging and listening. The unit can also broadcast the XM program you have selected on an FM frequency. Visual navigation of the menu is required to set this frequency. The coverage area is limited to a few feet from the MyFi. When it is removed from the charging stand, the unit can be used to listen to prerecorded XM programs with no antenna attached. For live listening, it is necessary to plug the mobile antenna into the MyFi. This clip-on plastic tube resembles a stubby Magic Marker.
A car kit is also available for the MyFi. As with the home-charger station, the unit is placed in the car adapter for DC operation and use with an optional line-level input to the audio system. Alternatively, the FM transmitter can be used to hear the XM program on an open FM frequency. Personal experience on I-95 between Baltimore and New York City suggests that this method may be less than ideal in densely populated areas, given the crowded FM band and the need to change frequencies on the radio and MyFi several times over the 185-mile trip.
No specific accessibility features are included on the MyFi. Nevertheless, the basic functions of the operation of the unit are easy and convenient for those who are comfortable using small handheld electronics.
A remote control is offered as part of the package. Because all functions are controlled on the receiver, we did not examine it in detail. As with other remote controls for small receivers, the buttons on the Delphi remote control, although detectable by touch, are crowded.
The more advanced programming of the recorder remains inaccessible. Devotees of the MyFi have reported that they have been able to master the navigation of the recording menus with count-and-press strategies.
Let's Get Sirius
The differences between XM receivers and Sirius Satellite Radio receivers are subtle. Nevertheless, a Sirius unit emerged as an especially intriguing option for those who would like to have some feedback while using their receiver.
In many respects, the S50 receiver from Sirius contains many of the same features as the MyFi, its earlier counterpart from XM. The S50 is a handheld package that allows you to listen to live programming and play back prerecorded Sirius programs. Unlike the MyFi, the S50 cannot play live Sirius programs when it is used in the Mobile mode.
Included with the S50 are two docking stations--one for home use and the other for use in a car. Both docking stations feature a prominent dial, along with three hard-to-feel buttons that are smooth like the rest of the docking station. After connecting the S50 to the home docking station, connecting the standard audio cables to a stereo, and connecting the antenna and wall charger, I was surprised and delighted to hear the system talk to me. The first message I heard was a pleasant female voice informing me that there was no signal.
After I moved the antenna around my listening room, in Huntington, West Virginia, I obtained a signal. Once the system was able to tune to all channels, the fun began. As you turn the dial on the unit, a voice announces each service. "Jazz Cafe," "CBC3," and so on. As an XM listener, I was surprised by just how convenient this feature made exploring the unfamiliar channel lineup on Sirius.
Like the MyFi, the S50 includes a remote control which, while small, has easy-to-feel buttons that provide a sufficient amount of feedback in the finger as each is pressed. Most important, as you press the last digit of a channel, the voice immediately announces the channel's name.
Before you jump to the conclusion that the designers of electronics have at long last heard our shouts and pleading for accessibility, be advised that the voice feedback is limited. In addition to the names of channels, the system announces that you are switching browse modes from stations to genres and so forth. The system also tells you when you are browsing recorded content. Alas, the recording functions and recorded content are not announced.
Unlike the XM, many hours of recorded content can be saved on the S50. Aiming the antenna for indoor listening is more challenging for Sirius systems because the satellite moves relative to your location and is located more directly above you than is the XM signal, which is viewed much lower in the sky, closer to the southern horizon. The upside to this difference is that for car-mounted applications, Sirius is less susceptible to interruptions in signals in nonurban and mountainous areas in which large "shadows" are cast by hills and mountains, often many miles distant from your receiver's location.
Accessibility on the S50 is enhanced by the voice-output features. Listening to the unit as part of an in-home system or with headphones while stationary indoors was a pleasant experience. For those who are not comfortable tracking menu functions by memory and using remote controls that do not provide direct feedback, giving the S50 a try may reveal a system that can provide many hours of enjoyable use.
Regrettably, the voice output is limited, and recording functions remain inaccessible for nonvisual use.
Sirius also offers a more basic system, called the Sportster. This unit resembles basic offerings from Delphi for use with XM. Most Best Buy and Circuit City stores and many Radio Shack locations offer these systems for evaluation in the car audio department. The Sportster is intended for use with a docking station, either at home or in a car. No portable use is available.
The basic tuning functions are easy to perform using the 10 individual buttons that represent the 10 digits. Navigation controls, which have the rubbery feeling of some other inexpensive electronics, complete the interface.
Some audio tones confirm functions, such as Power On-Off and Preset Confirm. Again, those who are familiar with count-and-press techniques may find the Sportster and similar units easy and convenient to use.
Generally, feedback with the unit was better than that of similarly priced XM receivers. The use of tones and easy-to-feel discrete buttons makes this receiver a worthy contender for those who do not want to spend as much to begin listening to satellite radio.
The Future View
The rate of change in the design and features of satellite receivers is rapid. A new generation of XM receivers has just arrived. Rather than having separate buttons for channel entry, the face of these receivers uses up-down navigation controls in combination with other controls. Remote controls are still included for traditional direct channel entry. MP3 files from a home computer can be loaded on these units and listened to, along with recorded XM content. The jury is still out as to whether these units are accessible or even usable.
An alternative to purchasing and using a satellite radio receiver is to subscribe to the music-channel package for either of the popular satellite television services, DirecTV and Dish Network. DirecTV offers the music channels of XM, while Dish Network includes the Sirius music channels. Neither offers the talk radio, Canadian content, or sports channels that XM and Sirius offer in their packages. No accessibility features are available on television satellite receivers, but the fidelity of the signal is remarkable. If you are already subscribing to a television service from a satellite, the price is attractive.
The Online Experience
Despite the overall similarity in the look and feel of the satellite radio equipment we have reviewed, the online experience for these services differs substantially. Both services allow subscribers to listen to music programs live, using a web connection and a web browser.
For the most part, the web site <xmradio.com> is usable, if not totally accessible. Immediately noticeable are some unlabeled links, which are encountered on the home page. Looking beyond these flaws, however, some features of the site are useful when accessed with a screen reader.
The Major League baseball schedule is of particular interest to baseball fans who want to find the game times and channels for their favorite teams. Selecting from several combo boxes allows you to choose a league, team, dates, and other display options. Once an option is selected, a well-formatted, easy-to-navigate table is displayed with the teams' names, game times, and channel numbers well laid out.
Other programming information, such as the names of channels, musical styles, or news networks, can be viewed from the home page. A PDF (portable document format) document listing all channel information is offered for viewing and downloading. It is one of the most inaccessible PDF files that AFB TECH has encountered, defying even the highly rated Kurzweil 1000 program.
Following the "listen now" link from the home page allows you to log on with your e-mail and password, which you must associate with your account before you use the online service. Once you are logged on, you will be able to select the XM Radio Online "xmrol" link. When this link is activated, a new window is opened that displays a wealth of channel and programming information.
At the top of this window, a Quick Tune edit box allows you to enter a channel number directly. Once the channel number is selected, the audio stream begins immediately. In the default view, a grid of channel numbers and associated information occupies the bulk of the page. Regrettably, this information is not arranged in an HTML (hypertext markup language) table, which would facilitate easy navigation.
The What's On display option is found near the top of the page. Choosing it reformats the screen to include information on artists and song titles for each channel. Browsing to a desired song and clicking on that title will play that channel immediately. It is important to note that the screen will not refresh automatically. Consequently, finding Frank Sinatra singing "Strangers in the Night" five minutes after the page is displayed will most likely result in hearing a different song from Channel 73, since "Strangers in the Night" will have already finished playing.
Several alternative, unofficial XM sites are also available. <www.xmfan.com> and <www.xm411.com> also display information on channels and songs or artists in real time. They do not provide live streams, however, which are available only to subscribers at <www.xmradio.com>.
The Sirius web site <www.sirius.com> is a mixed bag from an accessibility point of view. At first blush, most buttons appear to be labeled correctly. A well-formatted and inviting table allows you to browse the channel lineup for the service.
After you follow the What's On Sirius button, for example, you will find that the resulting page is a disappointment. Many unlabeled buttons near the top suggest that additional content is available. For the visitor or customer who is blind or has low vision, this content remains a mystery, unless you want to follow each button in turn to find out what it reveals.
Subscribers can listen online from any computer. First, you choose Listen Online. Then you enter your username and password. It is also necessary to enter a so-called CAPTCHA, a word that is displayed as a graphic as a security feature. Sirius has provided an alternate link for users who are blind. When you select this link, a string of numbers is announced. Type in these numbers, and you can proceed.
After signing in, you select music or news programming. Then you select the style of music that you want to listen to. A new window opens, and you can tab to the Sirius channel you desire and press Enter. The channel then begins playing.
If using the web-based features of either service is of particular importance, you may want to audition the sites carefully, in advance of selecting one over the other. Sirius even allows you to try the webcast for three days. Both sites still have some work to finish before they can truly claim that they are accessible.
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Satellite Radio Services
XM Radio: 1500 Eckington Place, NE, Washington, DC 20002; phone: 877-967-2346; web site: <www.xmradio.com>.
Sirius Satellite Radio: 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020; phone: 888-539-7474; web site: <www.sirius.com>.
Satellite Radio Models
Polk Audio XRT12.
Manufacturer: Polk Audio, 5601 Metro Drive, Baltimore, MD 21215; phone: 410-358-3600 or 800-377-7655 (toll-free); web site: <www.polkaudio.com>.
Manufacturer: Delphi, 5725 Delphi Drive, Troy, MI 48098-2815; phone: 248-813-2000; web site: <www.delphi.com>.
Manufacturer: Sirius, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020; phone: Customer Care, 888-539-7474 (toll-free); web site: <www.sirius.com>.
Sirius Sportster SOP4.
Manufacturer: Sirius, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020; phone: Customer Care, 888-539-7474 (toll-free); web site: <www.sirius.com>.
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