Technology

Aluratek's Big Step in Internet Radio


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Editor's Rating: star rating

The new alarm clock radio from Aluratek has drawbacks, but it offers the joys of listening to broadcast programs from around the world

When I was a boy, I wanted a shortwave radio. I was fascinated by the idea of listening to radio programs from around the world. I didn't get one until I was an adult, by which time the reason I had wanted one was diminished: In recent years, most of the national radio services around the world have stopped or cut back on their shortwave broadcasting, opting instead to broadcast via the Web. Britain's BBC is a prime example. Some years ago its World Service stopped broadcasting directly into North America via shortwave.

Meanwhile, although radio broadcasters have embraced modern times, with some 10,000 around the world now streaming their programs online, radio makers haven't caught the hint. Why don't more radios feature an Internet connection? The appeal is obvious, if only because tuning in to a broadcast on a computer isn't as easy as flipping on a radio on the nightstand or in your kitchen.

This is why I was excited to try the Aluratek Internet Radio Alarm Clock. Priced at $199, the Aluratek is a basic clock radio that can pick up both traditional FM signals as well as Internet broadcasts via an Ethernet cable or your Wi-Fi wireless router.

Balky on Passwords

When I connected the radio to my router via Ethernet, the setup was easy. I didn't have to configure anything on my computer. But setup via Wi-Fi could have been better. My router is an Apple (AAPL) Airport Extreme, and I use both WPA2 passwords and MAC-address filtering to prevent others from hijacking my network. Try as I might, I couldn't get the router and the radio to work with a password required. I'd type it in with the remote control, and still it wouldn't connect. Finally I turned off the password requirement on my router, and the radio connected. I had this same problem once when I tried another model of Internet radio, the Roku Soundbridge Radio. Wi-Fi radios don't seem to like passwords very much.

Using the included remote control—sorry, no knobs on this radio—I browsed a vast list of available Internet stations on the LCD screen. Drilling down through the menus, you can find a dizzying number of stations listed by country. I found stations in Algeria and Madagascar as well as France, Britain, and tiny Andorra to name a few. I also found a few curiosities: a live stream of radio traffic from the control tower at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport, and live scanners monitoring New York police and fire frequencies. Once you find something that interests you, hit the "favorites" button and that station appears on the Favorites list in the menu.

Thus armed, I spent a pleasant weekend in my Manhattan apartment listening to stations I grew up with in my home state of Oregon, some favorites from California, and live classical music from the Australian Broadcasting Corp. and a BBC sports news program from Britain.

The response time after selecting a station depended a little on the Internet itself. It takes a few seconds for the radio to store enough data from the stream to play it smoothly without interruption, and so there's a pause between selecting a station and actually hearing programming. But once it got to playing, it was as steady as any FM radio I've ever used. In some ways it was better: There was no static, nor any need to fuss with an antenna.

AM Shortfall

But as a conventional radio, the Aluratek falls down in ways both minor and major. The unit searched for available FM stations and allowed me to select one from a list it had created based on its scan. But I couldn't find a way to manually enter the frequency number of the stations I know using the remote. This was the small problem. The big one? There's no AM tuner, which in New York means that listening to must-have news and talk radio stations like WINS, WCBS (CBS) or WOR has to be done via the Web. That may not sound like a big deal—unless your broadband connection goes down or you happen to want to take it somewhere.

Sound quality of the single speaker was O.K., but it was by no means impressive. Perhaps I'm spoiled, as my home is full of conventional radios from Tivoli Audio, whose single-speaker units produce terrific sound. Listening to the Aluratek radio with good headphones improved the experience.

Overall I would rate my weekend with Aluratek's radio as a positive one. It was downright pleasant listening to radio programs from around the world as readily as one here at home, but it wasn't without a few technical frustrations that demonstrate why Internet-ready radios aren't quite ready for prime time. I might pay $150 for this device, but I think the $199 suggested retail price is just a little too high. And yet it gives me hope that someday all tabletop radios will be Internet-ready like this one.

Hesseldahl is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com.

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