MP3 music files, webcasts, digital satellite and "HD Radio" broadcasts can all make plain old analog AM and FM sound more than a little dated. But hope is not lost: A few new gadgets do their best to yank the venerable analog medium a little further into the digital age.
For example, Griffin Technology's $70 RadioShark can turn a Mac or PC (Win XP or Mac OS X 10.2.8 or newer) into a radio. This compact, USB-connected white pod, the size of a paperback book and the shape of a shark fin, also lets you pause and rewind a live AM or FM broadcast and can record programs for later listening on your computer or music player.
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___Personal Tech E-letter___ Washington Post personal technology columnist Rob Pegoraro answers reader e-mail and expands on themes he touches on in his weekly newspaper column. The e-mail version of this weekly feature includes links to the latest gadget and software reviews.
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These capabilities make the RadioShark handy for people who miss a favorite show. And its ability to send recordings directly to Apple's iTunes software lets owners of iPods, which lack radio tuners of their own, listen to their favorite broadcasts on the go (albeit after the fact).
Audio quality was fine for spoken-word fare, but just adequate for music. The biggest hindrance to using the RadioShark to "tape" tunes off FM is that it can't split a recording into MP3 files for each song.
The RadioShark's visually appealing design can also be a liability, depending on what stations you listen to. Because its antenna is encased inside that plastic body, you have to angle the entire unit to pull in some local stations -- and sometimes even that doesn't work.
Griffin's bundled software works fine, but its scheduling tools are quite limited -- and it lacks any sort of programming guide to let you see what's coming on the air next day or next week. For that, you need RadioTime.
For a $39 annual subscription, RadioTime (Win 2000 or newer, Mac OS X 10.3, www.radiotime.com) provides a TiVo-like program guide of local radio broadcasts that you can tune into on your computer using a sold-separately radio tuner. You can use a RadioShark, but a simpler-model RadioTime sells for $39 ($59 when bundled with a new subscription) and includes a telescoping antenna that yields better sound quality.
RadioTime's program grid, which also works with Internet radio streams, shows what's on the air now and can search for shows by keyword, style, genre and location. This information is based on what stations choose to publish ahead of time, often nothing. (But if you hear about an upcoming broadcast while you're at work, you can log into the RadioTime site from any Web browser to schedule radio recordings at home.)
RadioTime's interface can also be sluggish to update. Note that you'll also need to install current versions of Windows Media Player and RealPlayer in addition to RadioTime, since that program doesn't include playback software of its own. If the subscription fee doesn't suit your tastes, you can opt for a free basic membership that leaves out the scheduled-recording capability.
As with the RadioShark, RadioTime records broadcasts as MP3 files that you can copy to any digital-music player.
If, however, you want to make digital recordings while you're away from the computer, PoGo Products' Radio YourWay LX (www.pogoproducts.com) might be an option. This compact, light AM/FM radio and digital-music player can record programs to its built-in memory or an optional SD card. It's not cheap, however; a 128-megabyte version (good for storing about eight hours of radio) costs $200, and a 512-meg model goes for $250.
It plays MP3 and Windows Media files transferred from a computer and also records radio broadcasts in MP3 format. Using it, however, is harder than its vaguely iPod-esque looks suggest. Tuning in stations and starting a recording on the fly are straightforward, but timing a recording for later is puzzling. (For example, sometimes you have to press the timer button, but sometimes you have to press and hold it to get things to work.) And there's no way to pause or rewind a live broadcast.
Those recordings did not sound as good as those made with the desktop systems; for one thing, walking around while a recording is ongoing can jar its reception. Its battery made it past 13 hours of constant use.
Transferring MP3 recordings is streamlined enough in Win XP: Just plug the Radio YourWay into the PC's USB port, and it will show up on the desktop as an external drive, from which you can copy the new MP3s onto your computer. But that's not as convenient as the automatic synchronization offered by most music players.
If you're not a radio aficionado, none of these products justifies the cost. Better versions might, but by the time any of these can be perfected, analog FM and AM may not be long for this world.