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Remote Tuner for Net Radio Is Good for a Select Few

August 24, 2000|ASHLEY DUNN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the oldest and most enjoyable things to do on the Internet is listening to Internet radio--a modern-day version of shortwave that allows listeners to tune in to broadcasts from all over the world.

Using the Internet to carry the broadcasts means that listeners can tune into Hong Kong radio whenever they please, listen to rock 'n' roll from France or, because the shows can be stored and sent later, even catch the early-morning edition of National Public Radio at dinner time.

The only problem with this great application is that you usually have to sit in front of your computer to enjoy it.

Who wants to sit at a computer to listen to Mozart or news from Singapore?

I want to listen to my radio in the kitchen, in the garden, on the back patio, in the living room or any number of other places that are a lot more pleasant than the computer room.

One idea to liberate Internet radio has come from Sonicbox Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., which has developed a little device that uses wireless technology to beam digital audio from a computer to a stereo, wireless headphones, or even a boombox.

In essence, the $99.95 iM Remote Tuner is a bridge between the new world of the computer and the old world made up of all those comfortable audio devices that we have grown used to.

The Sonicbox device is part of a much broader movement to transfer a variety of computer activities out of the sacred temple of the computer room into the larger world of everyday life using simple and familiar appliances.

So far, we've seen appliances to surf the Internet, make Internet phone calls and even display digital photos in electronic picture frames that can be scattered around the house.

Internet radio is one of the best of the applications and a group of companies, including 3Com Corp. and Akoo.com Inc., are promising I-radios in the next few months.

The iM Remote Tuner is first on the market and the company has come through with a product that Internet radio junkies will love, although there are some quirks and caveats that make it hard to recommend to other people.

It has a short range--about 65 feet to 100 feet in a typical home--and like a cordless phone, the sound can break up depending on where you are standing.

I should also warn that if you have only one phone line, this device does not make much sense because you obviously have to use that line to connect to the Internet, meaning that you won't be able to make any phone calls while using the tuner.

It clearly is designed for people with high-speed Internet connections through either DSL or a cable modem. The high speed provides better sound and faster loading of audio streams and enables some key functions of the remote control tuner, such as the audio description of the channels you select.

You can still use the device with a slow analog modem, but it is a far less interesting option--and one that can get very aggravating at times.

Three Basic Parts

The iM Remote Tuner, which is now only for PC-compatible computers running Windows 98 or 2000, is made up of three basic pieces. There is a transmitter that sits on the computer, a receiver that can be plugged into most types of sound equipment, such as headphones or a stereo receiver, and a remote control that allows you to dial into Internet stations without going to your computer.

The transmitter attaches to the computer through a Universal Serial Port, a common connector on modern computers. A second wire connects to the speaker jack on a computer's sound card, also a standard item these days. A third wire connects to the computer's speakers so they can also work with the iM Remote Tuner plugged in.

Installing the transmitter is fairly simple and should take less than half an hour.

The receiver is a little pager-sized device that plugs into the audio input jacks on a stereo. You can also plug headphones into the receiver, which has a clip on it so you can walk around.

The key to the system is the remote control unit. Instead of the usual process of typing in Web addresses to get to an Internet radio station, the remote control is pre-programmed with hundreds of stations.

The stations are grouped into 25 categories, labeled "A' through "Y." "A," for example, is alternative music, "M" is live radio from the Eastern Hemisphere and "Q" is college stations.

"Z" is a category that can be customized by adding your favorite stations. You can also load the "Z" band with MP3 music files stored on your own computer and--using an undocumented feature--get it to play audio CDs on your computer.

To use the iM Remote Tuner, you first turn on your computer and connect to the Internet using your usual access provider. When you turn on the remote control, it sends a signal to your computer telling it what station to go to.

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