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July 21, 2005

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Satellite radio showdown. The difficult choice between the cute dog and the m

by John "jaQ" Andrews 

We've all gone through it.

Barreling down the highway, one hand on the wheel, one hand on the SCAN button of the radio, searching desperately for music that doesn't make you want to drive off the shoulder. You finally find your favorite song, halfway through but blaring boldly, urging you to croon along. Just as you're ready to belt out the chorus, the radio gets all fuzz fuzz on you, some other station on the same frequency starts cutting in and all of a sudden you're hearing Britney begging you to hit her one more time and you really, really want to.

Nothing beats local radio for relevant news and the occasional area band, but media company conglomeration is making it harder and harder to find truly unique programming. Add in the range limitations of traditional radio towers and it's easy to see why satellite radio has been gaining prominence lately.

Satellite radio works on the same basic principle as satellite television. Content is beamed up to satellites in Earth orbit, which beam it back to a wide area down here on terra firma. People with a subscription and receiving hardware can decode the signal and listen to all the programming offered no matter where they are in the contiguous United States.

The biggest decision is figuring out which provider to go with, Sirius or XM. On one hand, XM sounds like AM and FM, so it fits neatly into even the biggest technophobe's worldview. On the other hand, Sirius has a cute little dog for its logo.

Maybe some more objective criteria are in order.


XM offers more than 150 channels, 67 of which are commercial-free music.

Different channels are dedicated to jazz, Christian, Latin, classical and rock styles, among others. Sports fans get Major League Baseball, NASCAR and college football and basketball channels, while talk radio listeners can browse the gamut from Bob Edwards to Opie & Anthony.

Sirius has more than 120 channels, with 65 commercial-free music stations. You get a similar variety of music choices, but specific shows differ. Sirius snatched up NFL, NBA and NHL licenses as well as NCAA basketball, horse racing, English soccer and college sports. Martha Stewart and Howard Stern are arguably the biggest stars on Sirius, though neither has quite started broadcasting yet. Other notable voices include Bill Bradley and Jim Breuer, along with Catholic and GLBT stations coexisting side by side.

Both services report on traffic and weather in major metropolitan markets. XM has a dedicated channel for each of 21 markets, while Sirius has 20 markets sharing a few channels.

Subscription Price

XM and Sirius are remarkably similar here. Both have a base price of $12.95 a month for one receiver, with additional receivers under the same subscription costing $6.99 a month. Both also offer a discount when you pre-pay for a year or more; Sirius gives you lifetime service for $500. Business subscriptions start at about $25 a month.


This really should be your last consideration as, again, the offerings are remarkably similar. Car, home and portable units are available for XM and Sirius services, with boom box and stereo hookup accessories. Prices can fluctuate, but similar units are similarly priced between the two companies.

It ends up being pretty much a draw when choosing between XM and Sirius. Your best bet is to look for the specific programming you're interested in and go with that service.

John Andrews, also known as jaQ, is not only a technical wiz but he also writes and sings his own songs. Each week in Hippo he examines some facet of the gadget/techie world and offers his advice for how to get the most technology bang for your buck. Have questions for jaQ? E-mail him at citizenjaQ@softhome.net.