Review: Griffin Technology RadioSHARK
Pros: FM/AM radio recording made simple and fully iPod compatible. Nicely designed peripheral with more than acceptable initial PC and Mac software interface.
Cons: Antenna strength is acceptable out of box only for users in buildings/homes without significant radio interference problems; USB extension cable will be necessary for others. Additional software features would improve experience further.
Is Griffin Technology’s new RadioSHARK an iPod accessory? If you’ve ever wanted to record FM or AM radio programming for later playback, you’ll sure think so. After releasing iTrip, iTalk, and numerous other iPod accessories, Griffin has come up with an inexpensive, easy way to transform radio broadcasts into iPod-compatible digital music files. The company bills it as TiVo for radio. And iLounge is largely inclined to agree.
Long promised and long delayed, RadioSHARK is the quintessential “product that you wish someone had invented ten or fifteen years ago.” Requiring only a USB cable for PC or Mac connectivity and power, the seven-inch-tall white plastic shark’s fin sits on a chrome base, picking up FM and AM radio signals whenever a computer’s connected. With a few button presses, you can easily “time shift” radio programming in TiVo style, pausing and rewinding live broadcasts, while a few more button presses enable you to create VCR-style recordings of whatever’s on your local airwaves. Three lights on each side of the RadioSHARK’s fin glow blue to indicate power, and red to indicate recording.
We could opine at length as to the RadioSHARK’s value, citing on one hand the millions of people who religiously tune in to daily talk radio shows such as Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh. On the other hand, there’s been a suggestion that only radio geeks would find the RadioSHARK worthwhile, as the need to record and listen to radio on a computer or iPod just isn’t mainstream enough.
iLounge strongly disagrees with the latter statement. While TiVo-like pause and rewind for live broadcasts may be of marginal use on radio, RadioSHARK’s timed recording ability is unquestionably a killer feature - just ask any person who loves Stern, Limbaugh, or another radio show but has to work in a radio-free location when it’s on. Or ask any teenager whose favorite band will be performing live on the radio at some inconvenient hour. If not for the unfortunate timing of Howard Stern’s recent announcement that he’ll leave FM radio for satellite in 15 months, we ourselves would guarantee right now that we’d be using RadioSHARK or something similar for years to come. Each morning’s broadcast could be automatically recorded and transferred to an iPod just in time for a commute or break in the evening.
And yes, automatic recording and transfer into iTunes work as advertised. Griffin’s software keeps the process simple and clean - nicer looking on the Mac than on the PC, but otherwise functionally similar. After a quick CD installation progress, you can tune in FM from 87.5 to 108.1, AM from 530 to 1710, and set presets on an easy-to-see drop-down list on the tuner. But first, you’ll want to run the program’s Check for Updates feature, since Griffin has been aggressively updating the RadioSHARK program since its release, and plans even bigger updates for the future.
In version 1.0.2 of the software, we found channel seeking and equalization to be as simple as possible, with a list of EQ presets and 10 bands to tweak as you desire for bass, treble, and midrange. Volume adjustment and time shifting are user controllable through intuitive sliders and buttons for forward, reverse, and pausing; you can set the RadioSHARK up to provide as much or as little pause and reverse-play time as you prefer. Though realtime pause and reverse require ten megabytes per minute of hard disk space, compressed recording is instantaneous and consumes far less space: once RadioSHARK records a file, you won’t have to wait an hour or two for it to be compressed and iPod-ready. It’s automatically saved that way.
RadioSHARK’s recording features integrate with iTunes, automatically converting a program of your choice into uncompressed AIFF or compressed MPEG-4 (AAC) format on the schedule you set, then dropping it into an iTunes playlist of your choice. Currently, the RadioSHARK application permits AAC recording from 64kbps to 320kbps, which when considered collectively with AIFF runs the gamut from pristine CD-quality sampling down to highly compressed but still listenable audio. Assuming for the sake of discussion that you can pull in a strong enough signal, your radio recordings of everything from talk to music can sound awfully good on an iPod.
Our only real issue with the RadioSHARK is that particular assumption: in an area with no radio interference, the RadioSHARK will perform wonderfully. But we’re in an area with plenty of radio interference, and found that the RadioSHARK’s ability to cleanly tune AM and FM radio signals under challenging conditions wasn’t as impressive as, say, Tivoli’s iPAL. The problem isn’t Griffin’s tuning software, which works just fine, but the length and design of its USB cable antenna, which didn’t compare in our testing with one of those large extending metal wands that typically improve radio reception. But we solved that problem - at least, mostly.
First, we added our own USB extension cable (under $8) to the RadioSHARK and moved the fin around, but nothing changed - we heard the same noise in even a strong FM station. Then we tried coiling the extended USB cable, and reception suddenly improved dramatically, to the point where a marginally enjoyable FM signal became almost entirely clean. While Griffin notes that a hybrid 3.5mm headphone jack and auxiliary antenna port on the RadioSHARK can be used to enhance the signal, no such antenna was available for our testing. We were happy enough with our coiled USB solution for our own purposes, but note that if we were recording music, we wouldn’t have been as satisfied. It should also be noted that we found FM tuning to be significantly better than AM tuning on the RadioSHARK, at least where we tested it.
If you want to know whether your experience will be trouble-free or will need a coiled USB extension, you can test your own listening environment for radio interference easily. Use a $30-50 clock radio in the location where you’ll use the RadioSHARK. Strong radio signals on the clock will be just fine on the RadioSHARK; recording quality will be unlikely to degrade unless you fall at or below 128kbps. If the signal’s not strong enough, use a USB adapter. We hope Griffin will offer a superior option in the near future.
Recording Performance and Missing Features
Once we used our coiled cable, we found 64kbps recordings of talk radio to be entirely acceptable for listening purposes - an hour and 50 minutes of one radio recording took up 50.4 megabytes of AAC file, while another recording of equal length consumed 52 megabytes. Allotting 120 megabytes per four-hour radio show, an iPod could easily hold 8 long shows (32 hours of listening) in under a gigabyte - enough for even iPod mini users to enjoy radio programming with the RadioSHARK.
Another plus is that files are unencrypted and in no way digital rights protected, a fact that may irk some recording artists and radio performers, but frankly will satisfy most of the RadioSHARK’s potential users. While file-swapping of radio programs will vary in legality depending on the content recorded, there’s no technological impediment to doing so right now. Recorded AAC and AIFF files play back on any iPod, plus any computer equipped with iTunes.
On the minus side, a second and minor issue with the RadioSHARK is that users can’t independently adjust recording quality on a per-show basis - you set one recording level for all of your shows, which may be fine if all you record is talk radio, but not great if you want to record music performances at one time and talk at another. You’ll either wind up with oversized or undersized files, too high or too low in quality for your actual needs. This can and likely will be corrected in future RadioSHARK software.
Additionally, contrary to early feature lists for the device, Griffin opted to leave out Internet radio recording from the RadioSHARK at the last minute, and it’s no surprise that it also can’t record satellite (XM or Sirius) radio broadcasts. Harder-core FM or AM radio fans may also lament the lack of additional inputs on the white fin for more sophisticated antennae. But in our view, these omissions are acceptable given the hardware’s reasonable price tag and generally solid performance.
When we first mentioned the RadioSHARK on iLounge Backstage, the reaction was mostly positive - and strongly so - but there were a few dissenting voices, too: “There are dozens of products already on the ‘net (some are free, some are shareware) that do this and much more,” one person said, while others pointed out specific program names and PC cards that could be purchased to accomplish similar feats. But after checking into these options, while we agree that it’s possible to squeeze two or three different products together to achieve the same feat, we think that the RadioSHARK is unique because it does it all so easily. No need to pop open your PC or Mac and install a PC radio tuning card. No need to find and purchase additional software. No need to transfer files yourself into iTunes. For $69.99, you get the RadioSHARK, plug it in, and easily transfer radio onto your iPod. It’s virtually that simple.
And with all due respect to The Wall Street Journal, which said that the RadioSHARK wasn’t enough like TiVo because it “doesn’t have program schedules like TiVo does,” so “you can’t look through a list of upcoming radio shows to learn what will be on when, what specific song will be played, or which talk-radio topic will be discussed”, truthfully this and their host of other minor gripes (it can’t name songs for you or automatically separate out music tracks) seemed to miss the device’s point. Sure, there are ways that the RadioSHARK could be better, and if Griffin updates their software, it will be. But if you listen to radio and want to turn your favorite broadcasts into iPod tracks, the process could hardly be easier than with the RadioSHARK. We only wish Griffin had released it sooner.
Jeremy Horwitz is Senior Editor of iLounge and practices intellectual property law in his spare time. His recent book, Law School Insider, has been called the “best book about law school - ever,” and he continues to contribute to Ziff-Davis electronic entertainment magazines.