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Psion mounts £299 digital radio land grab

Zippo, Beetle, Fender Strat... soap on a rope

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Would-be Nathan Barleys will have another gadget to flourish next month when Psion ships its "smart" digital radio tuner, Wavefinder.

It's the first mass-market device for picking up DAB (Digital Audio Broadcast) transmissions, according to Psion and the BBC. Wavefinder is just over two feet long (including cable, obviously), looks like a soap on a rope, plugs into your PC's USB port - Mac users are shunned, for now - and can pick up both of the main transmission standards, L-Band and Band III. You can't actually do anything much with the L-Band capability right now, but a patch for the software is pending.

The PC provides the user interface for selecting channels, as the only display on the Wavefinder is a strange pulsating light. But a Psion exec hoped it would become a design classic alongside the Zippo, the VW Beetle and the Fender Strat...

It'll cost £299 including VAT, although more importantly the make-or-break bundles are beginning to roll. Dixons will promote a PC bundle with Wavefinder for £999 in all of its stores it said, on launch day, 17 October.

It's a bulky device containing over 400 components on the circuit board. Psion has a roadmap to integrate these to produce something cheaper and smaller, but that first requires a critical mass to justify the investment of course.

But it could happen. Strip away the flashing light, the antennae and the translucent plastic, and the actual circuit board is only as long as and only slightly wider than your correspondent's packet of Rothmans King Size. A friendly Kingswood Warren techie from the BBC looked it over and decided that with further integration, and by removing one of the two DSPs, it could easily become something the size of your little finger. And at that stage we're talking PC Cards, or something that could strap to the back of a Quartz communicator. Plus aerial...

If it seems like digital radio has crept up on you while you weren't looking, that's probably because it has. Local multiplexes were only opened for business this spring, and London receives 35 stations. But Psion MD David Levin today described it as broadband's best kept secret, and the specifications are really quite impressive.

There's no back channel, but you can in theory receive data at 1.5Mbps. Bandwidth is flexible: you can say, be broadcasting a concert at 256Kbps, drop back to 56Kbps for a speech interlude, and while that's broadcasting, simulataneously send down some data at high speed.

Yes, data - and that includes streaming video, applets, and URLs. The interactivity only works when you've got a parallel internet connection. With GPRS set to trickle data out at less than 20Kbps to begin with, and 3G unlikely ever to top 128Kbps, that's a tantalising prospect.

One that left network representatives who were present at the BBC Portland Place preview today scratching their heads. Remember these folks have paid £22 billion for the right to do much the same in the UMTS auction. By contrast, Digital One turned up at the DAB auction on its own, received its franchise for peanuts, and now covers 80 per cent of mainland Britain...

Given the pent-up demand for broadband here in the United Kingdom, DAB strikes us as one of these technologies that chimes with the particularly British genius for improvisation.

Psion launched a Wavefinder Web site today. DAB is the standard for Europe, Africa and Asia, but not the US. Which is at best two years behind. With an inferior technology. Again. ®

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