13 November 02005

The slow evolution of DAB digital radio devices

My excitement and predictions about the Bug — the digital radio that can pause, rewind, record and convert to MP3 (pictured right) — seem so far to have been overstated. The Bug DAB digital radio, from Pure DigitalSixteen months ago, I said I'd trade my iPod for a Bug, and just over eleven months ago I recorded the prediction: "next year it will be possible to download the programme guide to your Bug digital radio, set it to record your favourite programmes for the week onto flash memory and then copy them to your iPod" (I can't honestly remember whether that originated with me or someone else at the event I was writing about).

In the intervening period, iPods have gone through several generational changes (including the introduction of the iPod Mini in the UK, followed by the Shuffle and the Nano). By comparison, the Bug seems to have more or less stood still, and is nowhere near being a pace-setter in the market. I thought I'd wait to see how the second generation Bug looked before buying one, and I'm still waiting.

At the risk of the vaingloriousness of comparing my predictions with William Gibson's, I'm reminded of an interview he gave after the 01992 Los Angeles riots where he saw looters stripping one store of TV sets and music decks, but leaving the Apple Powerbooks in the next-door store untouched. He realised that the urban disenfranchised were not persuaded by the ideas he'd been peddling, that they could use computers and networks as subversive technologies to empower themselves.

But that was in 01992, and maybe it just needed another ten years for the Internet to become truly accessible, as well as for computers to incorporate some of the capabilities of TVs and music decks along with copying, remixing and re-distributing media content.

Perhaps the Bug is at the same stage that the Powerbook was in 01992: a boon to enthusiasts and early adopters but just not connected enough to be truly mainstream. The Bug is not small enough to count as really portable, but neither is it flexible, powerful or 'big' enough to substitute for managing your digital music collection on your computer or listening to your favourite music on a hi-fi system. So, to get the most out of it, you have to connect it to your computer (and thence to your MP3 player and/or hi-fi) — and the process of doing all this via an SD card with modest storage and a USB cable is not as seamless as the iPod experience. The iPod comes with a dock, so it's natural to keep it by your computer, and anyway it's designed to be carried around. Many people don't keep their radio by their computer, and the Bug is not designed to be carried around.

One option for next-generation Bugs, then, would be to make them more portable, give them more on-board storage, and ensure the link with computer software has the same foolproof simplicity that the iTunes/iPod combination has achieved.

SL-900 DAB radio/CD player, from TeacTeac, meanwhile, is going down a different route by taking the computer out of the picture altogether, appealing to people who are turned off by the complexities normally associated with computers. This is embodied by the snappily-named SL-900 DAB radio/CD player (pictured right), and the Reference 200 CR-H250 CD Receiver. These products play CDs, which the Bug doesn't do, as well as digital radio. You can record either source in MP3 format — I can't find out how much storage is available — and then transfer it direct to your MP3 player via the USB port on the front.

While the Bug is styled (by Wayne Hemingway) as a kitsch futuristic robot, the SL-900 DAB is clearly going for the like-silicon-chips-never-happened retro look, and the tacky "No PC 4 MP3" advertising campaign for the CR-H250 (featuring an MP3 player worn by topless woman) suggest a target market that likes the feel of tech chic — model names that sound like motorbikes — even if they can't hack it with anything as a prissy as a keyboard and a mouse.

When digital radio devices with record, pause and rewind link more intimately and straightforwardly with computers, MP3 players and living-room music system, I think there may yet be good mileage in them. Last year I overlooked the importance of this intimacy and underestimated how many evolutionary cycles it will take to get to DAB consumer devices that give listeners the functions and convenience they want. It's always instructive to be shown to be wrong, but I'm not completely throwing in the towel yet.

Pure PocketDAB 2000Update, 11 December 02005: With apologies for the oversight, I should belatedly mention Pure's PocketDAB 2000 (right), which is like a Bug that you can put in your pocket — if you have a reasonably big pocket. This review says "at £200 it's a little pricey", and I think that may be right.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Music and Multimedia, Radio on 13 November 02005 | TrackBack
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