Review: Griffin radio SHARK 2 AM/FM/Internet Radio Recorder
Pros: An updated and improved version of a shark fin-shaped FM/AM radio recorder with live radio pausing, recording, and scheduling software, plus tools for Internet Radio recording. Makes all radio recording - and export to iTunes for later iTunes or iPod listening - easy. Price is lower than predecessor model, despite inclusion of additional reception-boosting components and more software.
Cons: Different PC and Mac software packages leave Mac users without a fully integrated AM, FM, and Internet tuning and recording solution. Some of PC version’s advanced software features require time, hard disk space, and persistent power and/or Internet connection to work. Shape and size of peripheral could use an update. While better than in first version we tested, radio reception isn’t interference-proof; your mileage may vary.
Nearly two and a half years have passed since Griffin Technology released RadioSHARK (iLounge rating: A-), a $70 AM/FM radio tuner and recorder for PCs and Macs. Billed as TiVo for radio, the original RadioSHARK allowed you to “time shift” live AM and FM broadcasts, pausing any station’s programming in mid-stream, rewinding, fast forwarding, and recording in real time. or scheduling recordings as you prefer. Recordings could be left on your computer or automatically exported to iTunes for synchronization with your iPod. Now Griffin has released the slightly renamed radio SHARK 2 ($50), a modestly revised version that fixes its predecessor’s biggest problem and offers additional software functionality, as well. While not perfect, the new radio SHARK is a very solid option for those who want to bring terrestrial radio content onto their computers and iPods.
At the time RadioSHARK debuted, the idea of attaching a relatively large white and chrome plastic shark’s fin to a computer was at least moderately amusing. Since radio SHARK 2 preserves the same size and shape, as well as the same blue (power) and red (recording) triple arc lights on its sides, you’ll have to decide whether you like the design or would prefer something smaller, as we now would. Griffin has made only one major cosmetic change, switching the fin’s color to black. Consequently, radio SHARK 2 shows far more fingerprints and smudges than before, which should only be an issue if you plan or want to pick it up and move it around a lot. That will happen a bunch on the first day you use it, but very seldom thereafter.
As it turns out, the biggest enhancement to radio SHARK 2 is actually inside the unit. Over the past two years, Griffin found a better radio receiver chip than the one it was using in the unit we reviewed, and said that it would be quietly updating subsequent RadioSHARKs to include that chip. Consequently, if you’ve used a RadioSHARK, you may or may not see an improvement in audio reception when using radio SHARK 2, but we did: in the United States, the new model tuned FM stations from 87.5 to 107.9 very well, and AM stations from 530 to 1710 pretty well, even if we didn’t have the antenna positioned optimally. When we moved the antenna close to a window, we saw the AM reception improve dramatically, and FM became impressively clean.
Griffin has helped matters by including both a USB extension cable and an optional external antenna in the package. In addition to the extension cable’s ability to let you place radio SHARK 2 roughly 8 feet from your computer, enough to get it near a window in most rooms, we found that the booster antenna improved signal quality at least modestly on its own. There’s no need to coil the extension cable to boost the FM signal, as with the prior RadioSHARK - though the result isn’t static-free, it’s close enough as to be unobjectionable in almost all respects, at least in our U.S. testing. Our U.K. editor found inconsistent reception quality in his area, where transmissions aren’t as powerful, and results will vary based on your location and local radio interference as well. Based on other devices we’ve tested, we’d call radio SHARK 2 very good or excellent overall, though as with all things radio, everything from the material your walls are made from, your distance from broadcasting towers, and the other devices in your home or office can wreak havoc with reception. If you’re concerned about the potential for issues, find a retailer with a reasonable returns policy before considering a purchase.
Our only real issue with radio SHARK 2 is the inconsistency of its Mac and PC software offerings. When the first RadioSHARK was announced, it was supposed to have AM, FM, and Internet Radio tuning capabilities, but the latter feature disappeared at the last moment. Software, not hardware, was to blame. Now radio SHARK 2 has arrived with different software for Mac and PC users: Mac users get Griffin’s radio SHARK 2.0 software, a limited version of its iFill Internet Radio software, and an automator program called Proxi, while PC users get Griffin’s radio SHARK 2.0, iFill, and a third-party AM/FM/Internet Radio program called SnapTune One. Recordings can be exported directly to iTunes and an iPod once finished.
From an interface and features standpoint, radio SHARK 2.0 hasn’t come too far from the original program we tested before. It offers a user-selectable timed buffer for timeshifting, defaulting at 10 minutes, as well as the ability to save favorite stations, schedule multiple recordings, and adjust the radio’s volume independent of your speakers. The Mac version includes nice extras like a point-and-click radio tuner, a good graphical EQ/visualizer, and a button to return immediately to live programming, which are absent from the blander Windows version. Other than the PC version’s lack of visual finesse and their odd differences in output formats - the Mac version uses AAC and AIFF, while the PC version outputs to MP3, WMA, and WAV - the programs are largely similar, more functional than wonderful. Using an iMac G5, our U.K. editor experienced an odd recording distortion bug that was apparently related to simultaneous use of recording and time-shifting, but we couldn’t reproduce it on our MacBook Pro or PC set-ups.
In two and a half years, one might have expected Griffin to radically evolve the RadioSHARK software to include Internet Radio tuning and other, more sophisticated features, but that hasn’t happened. Instead, you need to switch over to iFill on the Mac to access and record Internet stations, or use iFill or SnapTune One on the PC. SnapTune One is pretty much what we’d hoped the Griffin software would have been: AM, FM, and Internet Radio tuning and recording in one program, plus a rather complex system for identifying songs that have been played on standard radio, then tagging them, and helping you find similar music online. The only missing feature one could hope for would be advance schedules with TiVo-like ease of song and program selection, but radio just doesn’t support that, particularly on a per-song basis.
We won’t fault Griffin for turning to another company to create good radio SHARK software - this is actually for the best - but SnapTune One has its own quirks. In order to auto-tag songs and create a collection of sorted songs, the software needs to be left running for an extended period of time - the manual advises you leave the computer on for extended periods without interruption - to “learn” what it’s hearing, and needs quite a bit of storage capacity to store everything. Once songs have been IDed, it will help you find the same or additional tracks from the iTunes Store or online CD merchants - a very nice idea. However, unlike Griffin’s software, SnapTune One requires an Internet connection to even open its main window, so if you’re not connected to the Internet, you’ll need to use the radio SHARK 2.0 software for even AM/FM tuning.
It’s worth only a brief final note that terrestrial radio itself has changed quite a bit since our last review. Thanks to widely publicized FCC enforcement actions and the growth of satellite radio services, the value of an radio tuner has decreased as several popular radio personalities have fled to greener satellite pastures, leaving the AM and FM dials less worthwhile than they were back when RadioSHARK debuted. You’ll have to decide whether there’s still enough content on these dials left to justify a purchase, but in any case, radio SHARK 2’s $20 less expensive than before, which should make the pill easier to swallow. If satellite tuning really strikes your fancy, Griffin has announced that it’s now working on radio SHARK HD, a device with tuning support for HD Radio - a competitor to the more popular Sirius and XM formats. We’ll be looking out for that unit and rendering opinions if and when it ships.
Overall, radio SHARK 2 is generally an improvement over the version we reviewed before - it’s better priced, better sounding, and better equipped straight out of the box with software and accessories that provide you with more capabilities. For all of these reasons, we think it’s at least as highly recommendable today as RadioSHARK was two and a half years ago. However - and this is a big however - the gulf between its packed-in Mac and PC software offerings will be a particular disappointment for Mac users, and really should be remedied on both platforms with a single fully functional software package rather than bundling a bunch of differentially capable tools on a CD and hoping that users sort them out. While the lower price and SnapTune One go part of the way towards making radio SHARK 2 a perfect radio recording product, ironing out the last software issues would finish Griffin’s job.