So, a neat little package arrives through the post, and it turns out it’s a Sky Gnome, a “can’t call it a radio for legal reasons”, er, device.
So, you want to listen to Virgin Radio Classic Rock in decent stereo quality wherever you are in the house. If you live in London, you’ll get it with a DAB Digital Radio - though you’ll be lucky if you get it in every room in the house, because DAB coverage is a bit patchy - and if you live anywhere else the only way you’ll get it is by a wifi-operated internet radio, a broadband connection, and a degree in geekery.
But not any longer with a Sky Gnome - now I can listen to literally hundreds of channels - all the main radio channels, and every single television channel, in any room in the house. And the television can stay off. Hurray.
Setting it up is fairly easy. Just plug the base station into the back of your Sky box (it needs a plug socket, and to be plugged into your RF socket, and to be plugged into the data output, and to be plugged into the RS232 connector), and then take the Sky Gnome anywhere in the house or the garden and listen to the audio from your Sky box wherever you are.
Now, we upgraded to Sky+ about two years ago, so I have a moderately old Sky box lying around. And, as luck would have it, I also wired in an extra satellite feed to what used to be the main bedroom, so it just so happens that I have a spare Sky box, perfect for plugging the Sky Gnome into. Perfect because otherwise if I want to listen to RTE Europe while the wife is watching Premiership Plus, then one of us will be a bit let down, since it really does only give you the audio from your Sky box.
So - of the unit. It has a battery in it, which means it will last for eight hours away from the mains. Want to listen to the football commentary in the garden? Go right ahead. It’s got a line out, so you can plug it into the hifi, and a headphone out, so you can plug it into, er, your headphones. The unit is triangle-shaped, and has speakers on two of the three sides, so you get a reasonable stereo separation. It’s probably not the best audio quality, but certainly has improved from the test unit I saw at Sky headquarters a few months ago.
The number buttons on the front of the unit act either act as buttons like the Sky remote - tap ‘501’ to get to Sky News, or (currently) 934 to go to Virgin Radio Classic Rock. Alternatively, if you hold them down for two seconds, they act as rather slow presets. (Release, then wait while the unit types 8, then 5, then 1, very slowly.)
The best thing is the display. Clear and backlit for the first few seconds, it displays (rather slowly) the station/channel name, and the name of the current programme. While there’s no “now playing”, like DAB Digital Radio will give you, this is a really useful system - and, hurray, no horrid scrolling.
Other interesting things include the unit having four broadcast channels, so it won’t matter if your neighbour gets one; and it copes well with ‘Autoview’, where you put your Sky box on timer - you can even cancel the timer event from the Gnome itself.
- It takes over your Sky box - so anyone retuning the Sky Gnome in the garden will be retuning your telly in the front room. Plug it into the bedroom Sky box.
- If you’re an avid listener to Music Choice or other interactive services, you’ll not be able to use the Gnome to listen to it, by the looks of things. This is probably bad for, say, the BBC’s interactive Glastonbury coverage.
- It’s quite a large unit. Carrying it about on your person while gardening, for example, probably won’t be a good idea.
- If you play a programme back on your Sky+ box, you can still hear the audio on your Gnome. However, Sky’s continual refusal to have anything to do with a decent EPG on radio channels means that this is a lovely idea, but in practice is really rather fiddly - that manual record screen is the devil incarnate. Badger Sky for a decent radio EPG. Please. For all our sakes.
- Presets are a bit fiddly to set and retrieve. You probably want to write some channel numbers down somewhere, and stick them to the base of the unit, rather than try and use the horrid presets.
- The channel display appears a few seconds after the audio tunes in. This isn’t a unit for flickers.
- There’s no ’now playing’ information, like DAB. There’s no technical reason why not, incidentally - badger Sky for it, since radio stations would love to provide it.
All in all, though, it’s a really nice unit. It doubles the amount of decent speech-only stations this household can get, so it’ll be living on the bedside table, for when Radio 5 Live gets too banal, Radio 4 gets too dull, World Service gets too boring, and there’s rubbish drama on BBC7. It’s absolutely perfect for this household’s radio habits - to be able to get WRN, RTE Europe, and more esoteric speech will be lovely.
Is it a DAB killer? Bearing in mind in many marketplaces it’s cheaper to get onto Sky than get onto the local DAB multiplex, you’ll always get more choice. LBC, BBC Radio Scotland and other ’nations’ stations, and extra channels from Virgin Radio are available everywhere within the UK. If you can cope with the box-sharing problem, and don’t listen to local radio, this is a winner.
Do Sky know what they’ve got here? I doubt it. If Sky was really clever, they’d produce a Sky Gnome Mobile for the car - picking up live satellite transmissions on the motorway, and XM/Sirius-style terrestrial repeaters where required in urban areas. Now, that would kill AM, FM, and DAB in one fell swoop. Don’t go telling them that, though - we don’t want Murdoch controlling the gateway for radio as well as television. Do we?