Charles Arthur On Technology

A pause in the future of radio

Don't judge a book by its cover, they say; yet contradictorily, give a dog a bad name and it's expected to live up (or down) to it. Clearly, the challenge that faced the designers of the new Pure Digital radio, following their hits of the Evoke-1 and Evoke-2 models (which almost single-handedly sparked off the digital radio revolution in 2002) was what to do next. And once they had done it (with the results pictured above), what name should it have so casual shoppers would be intrigued and enchanted?

Don't judge a book by its cover, they say; yet contradictorily, give a dog a bad name and it's expected to live up (or down) to it. Clearly, the challenge that faced the designers of the new Pure Digital radio, following their hits of the Evoke-1 and Evoke-2 models (which almost single-handedly sparked off the digital radio revolution in 2002) was what to do next. And once they had done it (with the results pictured above), what name should it have so casual shoppers would be intrigued and enchanted?

Clearly, there would be all sorts of options. You could try something hard and high-tech - something like Kryptonite (except that's been taken by sturdy bike locks, which turn out to be fallible to attack by Biro casings) or Titanium (except it isn't; this is made with fairly cheap materials).

Instead, the engineers opted for the disarming, and called their new product - designed by Wayne Hemingway of the Red Or Dead fashion label - The Bug. But behind that cutesy moniker hides a ground-breaking piece of thinking. This is a device that treats digital radio streams just like any other piece of digital information - as something to be stopped, rewound and saved as the user wants. Just as with hard-disk-based personal video recorders (PVRs) - like Sky+, which takes the digital TV streams and puts them on to a hard disk so you can pause and play it back as you like - The Bug does the same with digital radio, which comes to you as an MPeg-2 stream. (MP3s are MPeg-1 encoded; the full name is MPeg-1 Layer 3. MPeg-2 is, thus, a newer version.)

If you've missed something that John Humphrys asked David Blunkett, then press the rewind button (which will take you back a maximum of five minutes or so). If you want to answer the phone but also listen to the chart show, just press pause. Or even record. You can set two different timers to record shows each day, or week. Heaven - Archers fans need never rely on the BBC's Listen Again website, fabulous though it is.

And here's where the people of Pure Digital showed that the people they're really trying to impress are their customers, not the broadcasters. You can record tracks - and put them on to a Secure Digital flash memory card that plugs in the back.

If you like, you can then transfer the song, programme or talk you've recorded on to your computer or digital music player, either through the USB port on the back, or directly from the card. (Though most hand-held MP3 players can't play MPEG-2 tracks directly, plenty of music encoding programs - such as Apple's free iTunes - can "transcode" them into a format you can download on to such a player.)

This might seem like a trivial point to bring up, but it's important. Pure could have sided with the broadcasters, who, no doubt, would prefer (if they've ever considered it) that people don't tape their programmes and re-play them in other formats. Had Sony been the makers, my suspicion is that that company's fierce (and I think misguided) ring-fencing of any intellectual property would mean that their version would store the file somewhere deep in its recesses in a proprietary format. (Look, for example, at how its newest hard-drive music player will only play songs in the proprietary Atrac-3 format. No, I haven't seen anyone using one either.)

Through this customer-minded attitude of Pure Digital, I was able to enjoy an episode of the latest BBC series of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy (which ended last night) that I had missed and yet wasn't on the BBC's Listen Again site; a friend also reviewing a Bug had recorded it, and sent over a copy. Result: the BBC gets another happy listener who has been able to keep abreast of the series. Get enough people swapping Bug-recorded files and you'd have a peer-to-peer version of Listen Again.

Except, of course, it's not only BBC stations that are on digital radio. Dozens of commercial stations have a presence, and with radio reception (and the detection technology) improving all the time, it's no surprise that you can now buy digital radios for cars, and - finally - mini hi-fi systems with a digital audio broadcasting system built in.

For commercial stations, I think The Bug's pause/fast-forward system eventually poses just as much of a threat to their advertising model as do PVRs to TV advertisers.

I don't like radio advertising; I tolerate it. Functions like The Bug's will surely be taken up by others, and pausing the radio might soon become reflexive for drivers.

Having considered the metaphysical implications of The Bug, it's hard to wrench oneself back to simpler questions - like, how easy is it to use, and what the build quality is like? That's because, while it is a fantastic concept, some small details are disappointing; but those are comprehensible as part of an attempt to keep the price down by not going overboard on materials. Core to that is the use of a four-way rocker switch which moves from side to side to control the volume, and up or down to change station. To turn the radio on or off, you press the same button.

The problem with this is that it's easy to change station when you mean to turn the machine off, or vice-versa. The forced combination of those three unrelated functions seems odd - perhaps growing out of a desire for symmetry that would be broken if there were a separate power button.

Similarly, the liquid-crystal display showing the time, alarms, station and other settings, as well as the 10 station presets, all housed in the "head" of The Bug, looks coarse, because the pixels of the display are large. Again, that's a cost-saving measure which is hard to argue with; no doubt future generations of The Bug will have bigger displays with more pixels.

But one has to hunt for such flaws. The benefits are easier to find: compared to the previous Evoke models, The Bug can tune in to weaker signals, as well as offering different sound equalisation curves: bass- and treble-heavy for music; boosted mid-range for studio voice.

It's hard, in fact, to know how it could improve, aside from those elements held back by cost. Those should be solved if, and when, it gains a deservedly huge audience.

One thing also worth mentioning: it's a British product. Nice to know that we do still have areas where we can lead the world.

Bug digital radio, from Pure Digital, £150 (01923 260 511; www.pure-digital.com)

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