Psion Wavefinder 

15 August 2001 tbs.pm/3167

There have been many calls of “the future is here” in radio through the ages. From the regional scheme to VHF-FM, from stereophonics to quadraphonics, and now from analogue to digital. Digital Audio Broadcasting is now the future, the direction we are hurtling toward, mainly because it allows for many more services in a smaller bandwidth and also because it allows the Government to sell the old frequencies to companies with money to burn and put television and radio somewhere more convenient.

But DAB is expensive, and the currently available models don’t benefit from the subsidies that reflect the competition in the digital television market. So, a bare-bones solution had to become available. While television and computers (or more specifically, the Internet) are threatening to collide, DAB has managed it in the Psion WaveFinder.

The Wavefinder antenna

This frankly odd-looking antenna allows your computer to do the hard work by decoding and amplifying the sound. The antenna simply perches high on a wall looking ugly with trailing wires and bizarre flashing lights shining from the opaque central node. However, at £300, it is less than half the price of a hi-fi or in-car model, so its unusual looks and flashing multi-coloured lights may be forgivable if everything else is up to scratch.

The unit itself connects to your computer’s USB interface, so setting up is a doddle. The printed Quick Start Guide gives the setup steps in a different order to the on-screen instructions, meaning a bit of common sense needs to be applied by the user and a slap needs to be applied to Psion. However, without incident the setup was completed and after a restart and – oddly – a second search for drivers by Windows, the unit was ready to scan for multiplexes.

Having failed to get my head around the exact concept of digital broadcasting, the easiest way I can think to describe it is to say that stations, rather than being sent individually, are sent in a big ‘ball’, with the radio doing the hard work once done by the transmitter. There are several other steps to this process, but you get the general idea.

Therefore, the first job of the WaveFinder software is to find as many of these ‘balls’ (really called multiplexes) of stations as possible and decode what stations lie within them. The process, here in a bad reception area in the West Riding, took just under five minutes and produced two multiplexes – Digital One and BBC-DAB.

The WaveFinder console

The WaveFinder console
The WaveFinder interface

The WaveFinder interface

The software gives you two methods, initially, of viewing the stations – by multiplex or by format. However, here another issue appears – a truly dreadful interface. Not using a standard boring Windows styling is an obvious temptation. However, it has one benefit – instant familiarity. Instead, the WaveFinder software opts for muted blue and curvy edges, non-standard button designs and a 3D look that appears crowded and awkward. The software is also odd in its choices for what’s tagged ‘always on top’ and what isn’t, leaving permanent panels in places you don’t want them and leaving you to hunt through nests of different controls looking for an icon that you’re not quite sure will do what you want.

WaveFinder on your desktop

WaveFinder on your desktop

The huge screen real estate used by the station selection screen could have been better used – for instance by the other programs you may wish to use while listening. Instead, virtually the whole of a 1024×768 screen is eaten up and even then the main controls dip down behind the Windows start-bar, making tooltips invisible and menus appear with only half an option. A more sensible arrangement would be to use the format chosen by RealPlayer for its stations – favourites up front, everything else tucked away in themed menus. Instead, everything is up front, in a random order no matter how you choose to view the choices. On anything smaller than 1024×768, scrolling to see all choices, both horizontally and vertically, is necessary and thoroughly unwelcome.

Stations are selected by giving the appropriate icon a single click – and if you forget and double-click like you do with most icons, the software halts until you agree with an error message that pops up to admonish you for not reading the designer’s mind. Once you’ve managed to get used to just giving a single-click, you then have to wait for up to ten seconds while the station is found and piped in your direction.

Station choices are the obvious ones – BBC national and overseas networks, the three national Independent stations and a scattering of other, less well-known additions. Missing entirely are any local services, BBC or ILR, let alone out-of-region stations like BBC Radio Cymru or Scotland that listeners may have wanted to hear. Of more interest are the ‘plus’ services. From the BBC, these are a second, much more ‘sporty’ version of BBC Radio Five Live, both versions of BBC Radio Four and several test channels for the more technically-minded amongst us.

From Digital One, there are no enhanced versions of existing stations – excluding Virgin in a higher quality. However, both multiplexes offer new data services – DigiZone from D1 and BBC Vision Radio and BBC Travel News on the BBC multiplex. These can be used whilst listening to a station on the same multiplex, and fire up your browser to display what amounts to a page from the internet received over the air. Shame on the BBC, though, for failing to update BBC Vision Radio for 4 days – old news stories and old weather forecasts are an embarrassment given that the source – BBC Online – is one of the best websites in the world and is updated 24/7.

As mentioned before, reception in my area isn’t very good for analogue, and the same unfortunately applies to digital. The signal-quality meter hovers around two-out-of-five, giving a quality similar to FM radio. However, the software is very resource hungry – meaning that powerful applications requiring room, like paint programs and Office 97, become too sluggish to use practically on my 333MHz Pentium 128Mb Win98 PC. Even humble Notepad, used to type this article because the machine now lacks the ‘oomph’ for Word, shows a noticeable delay between hitting a key and reacting.

The situation is the same on the second test machine, a 400MHz 128Mb Windows ME laptop, with the system obviously struggling to keep up and moving windows causing the WaveFinder to stagger and the sound to break up.

All in all, the unit and software appear to have been rushed to market too quickly. The iMac-style design of the antenna is interesting, but the requirement to affix to a wall, dangling wire and all, is annoying and the lighted centre is ridiculous at first and annoying later. The software is a techie’s dream, with everything up front and lying about where you left it, but for the average user it is unwieldy, slow and unfriendly. A better choice would be a RealPlayer-esque front-end and a unit that could sit on your monitor. Until that comes, avoid this or wait for the price to halve – then you might get what you paid for.

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