I want Sirius/XM to survive. I really do. I've been a Sirius subscriber for years now, with a plug-and-play Sportster radio that I can use in both the car and the home. During this time, I've enjoyed many an NFL and Big 12 football game that wasn't televised in my area. My favorite music and comedy channels have gotten me through numerous traffic jams and cross-country road trips. I seldom listen to free radio in my car anymore; when I do, the song selection, commercials, and absence of song/artist info on the display drive me insane. I pay yearly as opposed to monthly because I know I'll use the service. In a nutshell, I'm as loyal a Sirius subscriber as you'll find, which is why I was excited when I got word of the new Sirius/XM iPhone and iPod Touch app (I'm also a pretty loyal Apple fan) and quickly headed to the App Store to try it out.
To understand how the iPhone app operates, here's the back story: Sirius/XM offers a Web-based streaming solution, accessible from a Mac or PC to anyone with a broadband connection, that features over 120 channels of music, sports, news, and entertainment content. Sirius/XM subscribers must pay an additional monthly fee of $2.99 to access the online service (there used to be a stripped-down Web service offered to subscribers for free, but that's gone now), while non-subscribers can sign up to receive the online service for $12.95 per month. The Sirius/XM iPhone app is essentially a means to access the online streaming service, with its own user interface. The app itself is a free download, but you have to pay the monthly fees described above to access any content. The service is streamed over WiFi or AT&T's 3G or Edge cellular network, using variable bitrate streaming that lessens the quality when connection speeds are not where they need to be. The company says that WiFi will provide the best quality, while results may vary when using the cellular network. Sirius claims "near CD-quality sound" and then goes on to quote a 128k rate. In what universe is 128kbps "near CD-quality"?
Sirius/XM is currently offering a free 7-day trial of the service, so I signed up online, downloaded the iPhone app to my phone, and dug in. The iPhone interface is cleanly laid out and intuitive to maneuver; it's very easy to browse categories and channels and to set favorites. The interface shows you what's currently playing on any given station as you browse, and it allows you to instantly purchase songs via the iTunes Store - or you can add them to your shopping cart to purchase later so that you don't have to leave the app.
In terms of programming, the service includes all of the Sirius/XM music-only channels, as well as most of the entertainment, news, and sports talk channels. The online service does not include live play-by-play sports broadcasts, which is the big disappointment for me. The most noteworthy omission, however, is Howard Stern. The company has opted not to include the Howard Stern channels in the iPhone app, even though these channels are available as part of the online service. This just doesn't seem like a wise or logical decision. I personally don't listen to Howard Stern, but Sirius gained a lot of new subscribers when Stern made the jump to satellite radio, and those people probably won't pay the extra $2.99/month for this app if they don't get their Stern. Some are speculating that Sirius/XM will release a dedicated Howard Stern app, but there's been no official word on that.
As for sound quality, I compared the Sirius/XM iPhone app to the other Internet radio apps I have on my iPhone: AOL Radio and Pandora. The Sirius system sounds better than the AOL service and is comparable to Pandora, which also streams at a rate up to 128k. I also compared the iPhone app to my plug-and-play Sirius Sportster radio in both the car and the home, and I found that the dedicated Sirius radio sounds a bit less compressed, with more space in the highs and a cleaner low end. For what it is, though, the iPhone app's sound quality is decent. When the cellular network signal drops too low, you may lose the stream for a second. This happened to me in the car a few times when I was receiving Edge service; then again, my Sportster radio loses reception whenever the antenna passes under an obstruction, so it's kind of a push. The iPhone app doesn't require an antenna or a permanent power adapter, which is definitely a plus.
Read about the high points and low points of the Sirius/XM app on Page 2.
• The iPhone app is easy to install and a breeze to maneuver. The
interface shows you what's playing on any given channel as you browse.
• You can purchase songs from the iTunes Store or add them to a shopping cart to purchase later.
• The service works over WiFi, 3G, or Edge, so you can listen to your satellite radio channels anywhere you have phone service.
• You have access to all of Sirius/XM's music-only channels and most of the entertainment, news, and sports-talk channels.
• If you already own an iPhone, this app makes it easy to try out
Sirius/XM programming without having to invest in satellite radio
• The sound quality, while not exceptional, is fine for this type of application.
• The iPhone service does not include live sports broadcasts or the
Howard Stern channels, even though the latter is offered as part of the
premium online service that you can access through your computer.
• The sound quality will vary, and the connection may be inconsistent, depending on signal strength.
• This fee-based service has to compete with the many free Internet-radio services already available through the App Store.
As a long-time Sirius subscriber, I really enjoyed using the new
Sirius/XM iPhone app and appreciated the convenience of having my
favorite channels at my fingertips at all times. I'm just not sure I
enjoyed it enough to pay for it. I understand that Sirius/XM needs to
bring in some cash right now, but I question the price-strategy of the
online service in general. I'm skeptical that non-subscribers are going
to be enticed by a $12.95/month service when there are so many free
Internet-radio apps that offer commercial-free music and (as is the
case with Pandora) more control over the music you receive. Sirius/XM
seems to be banking on the entertainment, news, and sports channels to
sway in their favor, yet they chose to omit the big-ticket draw (i.e.,
Howard Stern). As for existing customers, if your Sirius/XM system is
tethered to either home or automobile, maybe $2.99/month is worth the
newfound portability that the iPhone app affords. And that's a big
maybe. In the big picture, why charge subscribers for channels they're
already paying to receive? Sirius/XM should reward customer loyalty by
making the online streaming service a free perk, at least for those who
are paying for one of the higher-level service packages. The DJs are
currently pushing the iPhone app pretty hard, touting that it's "free
to download." True, but it ain't free to use; when subscribers figure
that out, I suspect it will irritate more than endear. Given the
competitive landscape right now, that's probably not the ideal business