BT's decision to call this digital radio the Aviator was an oddly appropriate choice. This is exactly the kind of radio that entrepreneur Howard Hughes would have designed -- it's ludicrously big and endearingly ambitious. While every other gadget on the planet is getting smaller and smaller, BT have dived into the digital radio scene with a design inspired by Stonehenge. This radio is massive compared to everything else we've tested, about the same size and shape as a four pack of toilet paper.
The Aviator does everything you'd expect a regular digital radio to do. It does have one special trick: the ability to replay the last ten minutes of radio. You can also store this recorded radio -- either in the Aviator's memory, or on a removable SD memory card (which you'll have to buy separately).
If you have poor eyesight, the Aviator's big LCD and bulky size has its advantages. If not, there's little to recommend what is the weak-sounding and unwieldy Tweedle-Dum of digital radios.
The Aviator makes a strong statement on any bedside table: it says "There is no longer any room for anyone but me on this tabletop". If you're going to use the 10M as an alarm clock, it's worth noting that this is not a subtle addition to the bedroom environment. On the other hand, the Aviator's large size means its controls are so visible that even sleepy fingers will be able to switch it on or off.
The chassis is decked out in high-gloss black and a metallic silver. The Aviator's speaker grill dominates the front of the unit and has borrowed its cheese-grater looks from the Apple G5. In fact, this chassis would make a fantastic PC case, but it's oddly bulky for a radio.
On top of the radio there's a set of clearly labelled buttons which are used to navigate onscreen menus. These feel slightly tacky to use. The large joypad, in particular, doesn't give pleasant feedback under your fingers -- it feels spongy and inconclusive.
On the left side of the Aviator there are ports for sending an audio signal in and out of the radio as well as a regular headphone socket. On the right, there is an SD/MMC memory card slot which allows you to insert third-party cards and archive recorded radio. The writing which labelled this SD slot rubbed away almost immediately -- it seemed to have been Letrasetted on. Not that this will bother you, as the slot looks better plain.
The only button on the front of the Aviator is Replay. This either plays back the last 10 minutes of radio, or plays back the last segment of radio you stored in memory. This will depend on how you've set things up, but more on that later.
Behind the Aviator there's a regular telescopic aerial, a 6v power input and a battery cavity. The flap on this cavity doesn't so much hinge as explode at you when you prise it open. There's a lot of resistance to the pressure you apply, and then -- always unexpectedly -- it pops open and flies off in a random direction. We found this fun, but we can imagine it annoying anyone who is serious minded.
The Aviator is not waterproof and not ideal for use in the bathroom. Taking it into the shower is guaranteed to end in tragedy.
We had big problems with the Aviator the first time we turned it on -- it took two minutes or so before we managed to get it to play. This is the first digital radio we've tested that didn't begin to play broadcasts almost immediately.
Once the radio had tuned itself in, it was still difficult to get the radio to change stations -- our efforts were often met by stoic silence from the Aviator. This isn't the ideal radio for someone who is new to the DAB scene, as the control panel is far from intuitive and a huge amount of real estate has been devoted to the recording playback function. Although this is a useful feature of the Aviator, we're not sure this effort wouldn't have been better spent making the menu system more easily navigable for a first time user.
The navigation system became more responsive after a bit of fiddling around, but the interface on the Aviator is almost exclusively based in on-screen menus. There is no traditional way to change the volume or tune into stations -- almost everything is accessed by peering into the large LCD screen and scrolling though options.
We found it easy to store and recall station presets, and the Replay function was fairly easy to activate once we'd scanned the manual. Unfortunately, this radio's manual is an almost essential read if you want to operate it competently. It's almost a step back from the days of analogue.
The Aviator's strongest feature is its large LCD screen. It's extremely readable even from a metre away, but this high readability does little to compensate for the headache of changing stations. The navigation system made us want to throw the radio against the testing lab wall and call an exorcist.
One of the better qualities of the Aviator is its ability to record live radio. In standard mode, the radio is constantly caching the last ten minutes of broadcasts, which you can replay by pressing the Replay button. This is useful if you nip out of the room for some reason and want to hear what you've missed, but it will mean that you're missing new broadcasts while you're playing back the last ten minutes.
If you want to save your recording, you can either leave it resident in the Aviator's memory, or store it on a removable SD card which slots into the side of the chassis. It's also possible to insert this SD card into a computer and retrieve the recording for playback elsewhere.
Playing back recorded radio is well implemented on the Aviator. There are clear controls for navigating your stored audio. These double as channel presets when you're listening to regular radio. There is also provision for listening to old-school FM broadcasts.
We expected a high quality sound from a radio this heavy and solid -- strong cabinets typically give radios a better chance at defining lower frequencies and annoying buzzes are less likely to creep in. Disappointingly, this was not in evidence here. The Aviator strained to play modern pop with anything approaching the sound quality we've experienced with other DABS.
The low-end lacked clarity, while the high end sounded weak and tinny. It gave passable performance on spoken word stations, but double bass solos on Jazz FM lost much of their kick, and pop sounded like supermarket muzak (even good pop).
Listened to in isolation, the Aviator is not horrifically incapable of producing a reasonable radio sound, but when compared to the other digital radios we've tested in the same price range, its shortcomings become obvious.
If you like the styling of the Aviator and can forgive it's sub-par sound and often frustrating navigation, you'll find the radio fine for casual listening in a kitchen. For more demanding listening, the Aviator is hard to recommend over so many other digital radios -- most simply sound better and function more intuitively than this.