Satellite Radio Blog

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Tuning in to satellite radio easy with SkyDock, XMp3

I NEVER GAVE satellite radio much thought until late last year.

Cruising through Arizona in a cramped Ford Mustang rental (she had to have a convertible), the wide variety of music and other programming helped the mood immeasurably — almost as much my buffalo burger at Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner.

On request, XM Canada sent me a sampling of its current product line. Included were the Pioneer XMp3 portable satellite radio/MP3 player and the XM SkyDock. The SkyDock is fairly new to the Canadian market. It’s a unique tuner that uses an Apple iPhone or iPod Touch as the control panel.

Satellite radio units installed as add-ons are generally clunky, full of hard to use buttons. They also clutter all but the most spacious interiors.

The SkyDock, however, incorporates a common gadget that may already be along for the ride and plugs directly into your vehicle’s 12-volt power adaptor. The fit is secure. No worries about the unit coming loose on bumpy roads.

The SkyDock ($130) is easy to install. The most difficult part was running the external, magnetized antenna to the exterior of the vehicle. Since it was a short-term loaner, I just closed the back door on the wire and stuck it to the roof. Worked like a charm.

skydock XMp3

After downloading the free SkyDock app from the Apple App Store, it was good to go. The app will run in either portrait or landscape mode, but stops working if the user switches to another app. Unfortunately, this rules out using the iPhone’s GPS function while listening to music.

There are two ways to get the sound to your car’s audio system, a line out to an auxiliary port or by using XM’s PowerConnect FM transmitter. I opted for the transmitter and sound quality was better than regular radio. I did, however, find that sound quality varied from station to station, but not to the point of being bothersome. Music stored on your iPhone or iPod Touch can also be played.

Like every XM radio I’ve seen, the device allows you to tag favourite artists or songs so it emits an audible prompt and display any time they’re being played.

The SkyDock also acts as a charger and really didn’t look terribly out of place in my car. Since my iPhone goes with me anyway, this configuration allowed me to have access to XM programming without having to haul around yet another gizmo.

Next up was the XMp3 portable device. It’s less than 10 centimetres high with a small antenna at the top, weighs only 88 grams, including battery, and uses a familiar navigation wheel with a central button for most functions. It sells for about $200.

Initially I had trouble getting a signal. Had I taken time to read the instructions, I would have pointed the external antenna toward the south sky instead of east. Once the antenna was sorted, everything else fell into place and reception was solid and consistent.

Menus are easy to navigate and an included remote makes listening from the couch a breeze. However, given the device’s small size, you’ve got to have eyes like a freaking superhero to see the screen from a distance.

As an MP3 player, it does the job. Sound quality is decent but not fantastic and it plays MP3 and WMA files. In addition to two gigabytes of storage, a microSD slot is built into the top next to the headphone jack.

As a portable satellite radio, its reception is hit or miss — mostly miss.

My favourite feature was that it can record up to 100 hours of programming from as many as five channels at the same time and it can be set up to do it automatically. In my opinion, this gives the unit a lot more utility and value.

Of course, in order to listen to XM, you have to pay for XM. Its 130 channels and access to online streaming will run about $15 a month.

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