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Both Sirius and XM Radio have a lot in common, and you'll be pleased with either service.

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Choosing between XM Radio and Sirius

Similar service but with some differences
 

Satellites transmit high quality digital radio signals to your receiver, wherever in the US you are.

Choose the radio and service that best suits you.

Part 2 of a 2 part series - part one explains what satellite radio is and discusses its many appealing features.

 

 

For most people, the issue is not if you should buy a satellite radio, but rather, which service should you join.

Satellite radio is so compellingly good most people will be delighted at getting service.  You have two very similar services to choose between.


Choosing the Best Service for You

So you've decided to get satellite radio?  Bravo!  Chances are you'll quickly join the millions of us who already have and love satellite radio service.

There are two parts to your choice of service - you may wish to consider both the differences between the two service providers - Sirius and XM Radio, and you may also wish to consider the different choices in radio receivers.

We'll talk about the hardware - the receivers - first.

Receiver Choices

XM Radio and Sirius don't make their own receivers.  Instead, various manufacturers such as Delphi, Pioneer, and Audiovox make receivers.

Sadly, receivers are not compatible with both services.  You need to choose an XM compatible receiver if you'll be subscribing to XM Radio, and of course a Sirius compatible receiver if you want Sirius service.

There's no reason why receivers could not pick up both sets of signals, but there's probably no commercial reason to make such a receiver.  Almost no-one would choose to subscribe to both services, and it is unlikely that either radio service would actively cooperate with receiver manufacturers.

Some car manufacturers have a satellite receiver available with their cars, either included as standard or offered as an option.  Of course, if you accept this option, you'll have to also accept the car manufacturer's choice of service provider, which may or may not be the service you'd choose yourself.

At present, our sense is that Sirius have a wider range of receivers to choose from than XM Radio, but this may change over time, and the differences in receivers aren't major in any event.

When choosing a receiver, there are several things to consider :

Look and feel

Obviously you want a unit that you are attracted to, and one which you find easy to use, especially if you want to use it while driving at the same time.

A display that is sufficiently bright and easy to read is also an important consideration.  Displays with three or more lines are able to show your more data at the same time (eg adding a stock or sports ticker).

You want to choose a receiver with a layout you can intuitively understand, and buttons that are easy to find and push.  You don't want to take your eyes off the road while driving and hunt around a tiny control console to find the button you need.

Unit Size

Although these units are small, they still do take up an appreciable amount of dashboard space, especially if they need extra space for a mounting cradle.

Try and figure out where you'll mount the unit.  You'll agree the smaller the unit, the easier it can be placed.

Display Size

We've just said that the smaller the unit, the better.  But, conflicting with this, the larger the display, the easier it is to read what is shown on the display, and the more information that can be displayed.

Try and choose a unit with a large display - it is possible to get a small unit with a large proportion of the panel used by the display as the best compromise between overall size and display size.

One related issue - make sure you can dim the display sufficiently for night driving.  Some units allow you to change the color of the display lighting, and most units allow you to change the brightness and contrast, but at least one popular model remains way too bright, even on its dimmest setting, for night driving.

Multi-purpose

Is this receiver only going to be used in one place (eg in your car) or will you want it to be capable of being used in different settings?  Some units can be plugged/unplugged from different adapters, and so can be used in the car (or in multiple cars), plus also in a boombox as a portable unit, and even connected up to your home stereo as well.

If you're wanting a receiver that can be used as part of different music systems, make sure the unit you are considering has this capability.

Inclusions

What does the unit come with?  Do you have to pay extra for an antenna?  For a car mounting kit?  For other kits?  For a cassette player adapter?

Be sure to cost out and compare the total system you need, not just the simple receiver unit by itself.

Special features

If you think you could make use of, for example, a receiver's memory feature to store programs while you're not in the car, be sure to get a unit with adequate memory storage.  This varies from a few minutes to as much as five hours of capacity.

If there's some other special need you have, make sure the unit you choose can handle that, too.

Car Installation

How will the unit be installed in your car?  Will you do it yourself or get a professional installer to do it for you?

If the latter, it can often be preferable to buy the unit from the installer - that way if there's a problem, it doesn't matter whether the problem is related to the receiver or its installation, you still only need to deal with one person to get it solved.

Receivers - Evolving Technology

Satellite radio receivers are evolving at an appreciable rate.  The best receiver today will doubtless seem obsolete and underfeatured in a year's time, and you may be tempted to upgrade for that reason.

This has two implications for you.

Firstly, don't make your receiver choice the dominating part of your decision as to which service to choose, because when you come to upgrade, quite possibly the other provider will have a better lineup of receivers.  Don't ignore this issue, but don't make it the only issue you consider.

Secondly, while the Sirius lifetime service plan - you pay a single flat fee of $499.99 and get unlimited service on a single designated receiver as long as you keep it - sounds appealing, you have to keep the receiver for about four years to break even on this deal, compared to a regular discounted monthly rate.  If you're the sort of person who replaces electronic gear regularly, then maybe this isn't a good deal.  But if you're able to confidently predict you'll keep the radio you're buying today for five or maybe even ten years, then this is a great deal.

Choosing between XM Radio and Sirius for Service

Let's first of all talk about what the two services have in common.  Then we'll look at each service individually for a more detailed look at their distinctive points and differences.

Both offer over 60 channels of advertising-free music, and a similar number of additional channels with various types of entertainment, news, talk and commentary shows, and traffic and weather reporting.

Both stations even offer some identical channels (eg BBC World Service).

Both give excellent coverage with very few signal 'dead areas' throughout the USA.

Both give good quality stereo music, although XM Radio is perhaps slightly superior to Sirius; although the difference is hard to detect with regular music playing through a car stereo.

Both have similarly priced receivers with similar features.

Both have similarly priced monthly subscriptions.

Both have websites that can stream most of their content to your computer, in addition to your receiving it through your satellite receiver.

So, to sum up this part, there's very little difference between the two services, and whichever you choose, you'll almost surely be happy with.

A word of caution.  Programming lineups can change without warning, and if you're making a decision based solely on one particular channel that is on one service but not the other, be warned that the channel could be discontinued at any time (this is happening to me at present, with my favorite channel being discontinued 'temporarily').

Financial Strength

Both companies are consistently and continuously losing money.  A bit like an airline, their business model is typified by very high semi-fixed costs (satellites, programming, marketing, etc), but extremely low variable costs per each extra subscriber.

Their challenge is to grow their business to the point where the subscription income is sufficient to cover their fixed costs.  Neither company is close to that at present, and the point at which it may occur seems to be a bit of a moving - receding - target.

Sirius is losing more money than XM.  In the third quarter of 2005, Sirius lost $180 million and in the nine months through 30 Sept 2005, it lost $552 million.  If it continues its present rate of cash burn, Sirius will need additional financing in the next six months or so.  It will probably secure the extra money it needs with few problems, but both companies have to be feeling a bit concerned that they have yet to reach break even - especially XM with its over 5 million subscribers.

An earlier attempt by the two companies to merge was rejected.  It is possible this issue may be revisited in the future.  This need not intrude on your choice of service now, however.

If the companies were to merge, any prepayment you'd made for service would doubtless be protected in large part, so you needn't be overly concerned at prepaying your plan - I prepaid for three years of service just a month ago, myself.

Distinctive features of XM Radio

XM Radio is the larger of the two satellite radio companies, as measured both by subscribers and by channels of programming, and was established slightly earlier than Sirius.

At the end of September, 2005, they had over 5 million subscribers - twice as many as at the end of September 2004.

Although they have over 5 million subscribers, they are consistently losing money each quarter at present.

Satellite technology

They broadcast their programming from high altitude geosynchronous satellites, and supplement this coverage with over 100 ground stations that provide 'fill in' coverage in areas of marginal satellite service.

Driving around suburban Seattle, sometimes I'd be in an area with perfect satellite coverage but little or no ground coverage, and then a block or two away there'd be no satellite coverage but excellent ground coverage.  Fortunately, the two sources seamlessly swapped backwards and forwards, and with very few exceptions, the end result for me was consistent high quality radio reception, free of distortion or interference.

Fees

XM's fees are sometimes slightly lower than Sirius.  The month by month rate is $12.95 a month, but if you choose to prepay for a year or more, the equivalent monthly rate drops.  The XM and Sirius rates for monthly payments and one or two year prepays are identical.

But XM Radio also offers a lower rate for three, four or five year prepays, working out to $9.99/month for these longer terms.

There is no extra saving when buying a four or five year service contract, in terms of monthly rate, compared to the three year contract.  The only possible advantage might be if you think XM may increase its monthly rate at some time - if this happens, you've locked in the lower rate.

One would think that as the subscription base for both XM Radio and Sirius grows, they might choose to reduce their rates slightly to reflect their greater economies of scale and presumably profitability.  But, rather rebutting that, while Sirius' rates have stayed fairly steady, XM have increased their rates (up to the Sirius levels), and it seems an even bet as to if rates will go up, down, or stay unchanged over the next five years or more.

I'd probably choose to sign a three year contract, but not a four or five year contract.

XM have a discounted rate of $6.99 a month for up to four additional receivers on your account.

Programming

XM Radio has 67 commercial free music channels, and at least another 67 channels of sports, news, and various other types of programming (they activate channels for specific sports event coverage.  They claim in their promotional materials to have over 150 channels in total.

Distribution Partners

XM Radio can also be found on JetBlue and AirTran flights, in some Hyatt hotels, as the music feeds for DirecTV, and the music channels on AOL.  Receivers are also in some Avis rental cars.

Distinctive features of Sirius

Sirius has fewer subscribers than XM Radio, but seems to be investing more heavily into its content at present to grow its subscribers, with one result of this being in September 05 it picked up a 56% share of new subscriptions compared to 44% to XM Radio.

At the end of September, Sirius had 2.2 million subscribers, up from 662,000 at the end of Sept 2004.  While the good news is their subscribers more than trebled, the gap between Sirius and XM Radio actually opened - XM added 2.5 million subscribers while Sirius added 'only' 1.55 million.

Sirius has slightly fewer channels, and charges similar or slightly higher fees.

Like XM, Sirius is losing money every quarter.

Satellite Technology

XM Radio uses a single satellite, located in a fixed position above the US, to send its programs down to earth.  Sirius instead uses three satellites that orbit around the planet, with each spending about 16 hours of every day above the US.  This means there are always one and sometimes two or even three Sirius satellites in the sky above you.  Same as XM, Sirius also adds some ground repeater stations to boost the signal in problematic areas where its satellites can't get good signals.

Which is the better approach?  Based on user reports, it seems that both methods work excellently, with no apparent difference in overall quality and coverage.

While the difference in how the two companies send their programming to your radio is interesting, in practical terms it seems to not be an issue to consider when choosing your preferred service provider.

Fees

Sirius charges a base rate of $12.95 on a month by month basis, with discounts for one or two year prepurchases (eg the monthly rate drops to $11.33 on a two year prepurchase).

It also has a novel $499.99 plan which gets you unlimited future use for the life of your radio.  At a monthly rate of $11.33, this would represent almost 3 years 9 months of service; if you kept the linked radio for longer than this, you'd be starting to save money.  But with the rapid technological advances in satellite receivers, it is quite likely you might want to get a new radio before you started to actually save appreciably on this deal, so we recommend you don't accept choose this option.

You can activate up to three additional receivers on an account for $6.99 a month each.

Programming

Sirius has a similar mix of music channels, with 65 different commercial-free channels to choose from.  In addition, it has 55 other channels including sports, news, talk and other programming, with such things as extensive NFL, NHL and NBA coverage, and coming soon, shows featuring Martha Stewart and Howard Stern.

Sirius' sports programming is probably better than found on XM, and Sirius is also betting heavily that the addition of Howard Stern will greatly increase its audience.

Distribution Partners

Sirius programming can be found on satellite receivers inside some Hertz rental cars.  It also is featured on the DISH satellite service.

Which Should You Buy?

Notwithstanding the 2500+ words preceding this final paragraph, in the ultimate analysis, there's very little to choose between the two services.  If you have specific interests or tastes, use the free web trial of both services to get an exact understanding of the programming provided and its respective suitability.

Otherwise, make your choice based on the best deal you can find, and the equipment you want to purchase.

If the choice of service is unclear, there is however one thing that is very clear.  Do choose one or the other, because you're almost sure to love the resulting experience.

Read more in Part 1

In Part 1 we explain what Satellite Radio is and why it is so good.

 

If so, please donate to keep the website free and fund the addition of more articles like this. Any help is most appreciated - simply click below to securely send a contribution through a credit card and Paypal.

 

Originally published 25 Nov 2005, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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