At 2008's SEMA Show, I took a spin in a Toyota Sienna with a rather unique feature designed and installed by AT&T: CruiseCast Satellite TV. I have to say after seeing the system, I'm impressed.
We here at CNET Car Tech have test driven vehicles equipped with satellite TV, such as the 2009 Dodge Ram and Durango Hybrid vehicles with their Sirius Backseat TV systems. These systems have two fatal flaws. First, the signal is poor even at its best. At its worst, it's unwatchable because of spotty reception. Secondly, the selection of channels is extremely limited.
The system consists of three parts: the satellite receiver, the set-top box, and an RF remote. Bring your own monitors.
The satellite receiver mounts on the top of the vehicle and is about the size of a popcorn bowl, unlike many of the mammoth satellite receivers of yesteryear. This system takes up much less space than older designs. The receiver needs exposure to the southern sky to pull down the signal. Sirius' system has an even smaller satellite receiver, but Sirius' system wasn't designed with TV in mind. More on this in a bit.
The next part of the system is the confusingly named set-top box. It doesn't sit on top of anything. Rather, it is tucked away in the vehicle. In the Sienna's case, AT&T's installers hid it under the back seat. This box operates just like the cable/satellite box in your living room, except in your car. It decodes the signal coming down from the satellite and outputs it to the vehicle's monitors. The unit in place in the SEMA test vehicle was a prototype model. AT&T's reps assured me that the final model would be even smaller. Not that it was huge to begin with.
The system's interface includes an onscreen display and a channel guide that shows a list of channels, shows and times. Users of digital cable and satellite services should be familiar.
The final piece of the puzzle is the RF remote which is used to change channels. It's not unlike any other remote you've ever used, except that by using radio frequencies instead of infrared light, the remote doesn't have to be in line-of-sight of the set-top box, which is good when your box is in your trunk or a wheel well.
AT&T has combated the spotty reception problem by using a redundant satellite signal with a two- to three-minute buffer and an algorithm to interleave the signals and the buffer. In plain English, this means that the system stores up to three minutes of video in its memory to be called upon when the satellite's signal drops out or is degraded due to tall buildings, bridges or tunnels. Of course this means that if you spend a long time sitting in parking garages, the signal will eventually drop, but in our run around the streets of Las Vegas, we never saw the image or audio cut out.
On the subject of image quality, the CruiseCast's image quality was also head and shoulders above any other in-vehicle satellite broadcast I'd ever seen, even on systems with the huge 3-foot dishes. AT&T's reps say that the signal is standard definition and is optimized for screens from 7 to 12 inches.
Where Sirius Backseat TV had a laughable three channels and the full Sirius lineup of audio channels, CruiseCast delivers 22 TV channels and 20 satellite radio channels. Channels include Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, the Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, three Disney Channels, Discovery, Animal Planet, and many more.
The system will be able to be purchased in Spring 2009 from dealerships and 12-Volt retailers, and eventually ordered through AT&T Stores with third-party installation. It's expected to be priced at about $1,299 with installation running extra, after which a $28-per-month subscription fee is also required.