Developer: Griffin Technology
Requirements: Mac OS X 10.2.8, USB port
I’m a sucker for good industrial design, and Griffin’s products are typically top-notch in this area. The radioSHARK, a USB-powered AM/FM radio tuner with time-shifting and scheduled recording capabilities, is no exception. This shark fin-shaped slab of glossy white plastic looks great with its blue LED-illuminated “airwave” motif and polished chrome base.
Unfortunately, function follows form here. It isn’t that the device’s appearance particularly impedes its function. Nor did Griffin “pull an Apple” and build a radio-reception device with the antenna inside a metal shell (TiBook, anyone?). Rather, the radioSHARK’s reception simply doesn’t stack up, for whatever reason, even with the USB extension cable-cum-antenna in place. I know it might be anathema to the designers, but adding a telescoping FM antenna like that found on most boom boxes would be a welcome improvement.
AM reception, unfortunately, is even worse. My house is less than five miles line-of-sight from the transmitter of a major AM station, and the radioSHARK barely picks it up. Every other radio in the house picks it up with no static at all. This makes the device essentially useless for AM radio.
There is a combination antenna/headphone jack just above the USB cable on the back of the device. Strangely, the manual bears no mention of this whatsoever, though it is now mentioned on the radioSHARK support page. Plugging a pair of headphones into this jack, as Griffin suggests, does indeed improve FM reception, but does nothing for AM. Memo to Griffin: re-work the AM antenna design entirely, and include an external FM antenna with the device. I’ve had Walkmans that got better reception without any antenna at all.
Its software, like its radio reception, leaves something to be desired. Griffin’s interpretation of the Mac OS X brushed-metal look—perhaps they’re trying for the high-end audio gear appearance?—is reminiscent of an ugly WinAMP skin from the late 1990s. The window widgets and buttons are non-standard and visually jarring, and the Presets and Preferences windows are standard Mac OS X brushed metal, making the aesthetic deficiencies of the main window even more glaringly obvious.
The interface itself is simple enough, but there are some puzzling omissions. There’s no capability to skip to the previous preset (you can skip forward through the preset list using the tab key), nor is there any way to jump immediately to a given preset, as there is on most digitally tuned radios. A means of manual frequency entry (perhaps a “Go To Station” menu item) would also be welcome, as would a “New Preset” shortcut. There is no integrated Help, though a brief printed manual is included in the box and duplicated in PDF form on the software CD.
To be fair, this version of the software (1.0.3) is a drastic improvement over the original; be sure to run Check for Update in the application menu to get the latest version, if you haven’t already. One eminently useful feature added by the newer software releases is LED control; you can now choose to leave the radioSHARK in “night-light” mode, where it will light up a bedroom quite nicely, or you can turn the internal LED off so that you can actually sleep.
The software works fairly well aside from the aforementioned quibbles. The time-shifting features are invaluable, and after one afternoon, I was already addicted. Like TiVo, the radioSHARK will change the way you listen to radio. Scheduled recording is also a great feature, and works wonderfully as long as your computer is already on and awake. The software cannot boot your computer for you, nor can it wake the machine from sleep. People who are in the habit of putting the computer to sleep when they’re away will need to break this habit if they want to record anything while they’re away.
You can choose to record—either on impulse or scheduled ahead of time—in AIFF or AAC format, and if you select AAC, you can choose bitrate and quality. Time-shifting eats about 10 MB of disk space for each minute in the time-shift buffer, while AAC recording consumes about one-tenth of that (about 1 MB/minute). A quick time-shifting tip: if you want to dump the time-shifting buffer, just turn it off (Command-T) and immediately turn it back on. Hopefully a “dump buffer” option will be forthcoming in a later software release.
Unlike TiVo, the radioSHARK software lacks a “recommended viewing” feature, nor can it display (or even get) a station’s programming schedule. This is due in large part to the lack of a centralized repository of programming information, an invaluable resource that radioSHARK’s television-based counterparts such as EyeTV have available to them. (A subscription-based service called RadioTime supports the radioSHARK, but was not tested for this review.) The radioSHARK also lacks the ability to record one program while listening to another; it can only record the active station.
I would be more willing to forgive some of the shortcomings of the software if I didn’t wonder this: why spend so much time creating—and then implementing!—custom window themes when they end up being nothing more than an ugly knockoff of brushed metal? That time could have been spent making the software much more capable, and, as a nice side benefit, it would have been far more attractive and conformant to Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines.
The bottom line, though, is this: the radioSHARK is a really useful product despite its problems. If Griffin heeds critics’ suggestions and makes some thoughtful changes to the software and hardware, this is going to be killer. If they don’t, it will forever remain a quirky niche product, and one of the greater “might-have-beens” of the Mac hardware market.