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Pair of XM satellite players appeal to range of users

I found out pitcher Cliff Lee had signed with the Philadelphia Phillies on a chilly Tuesday morning in December as I pulled out of my driveway. Where'd I hear it? On the Fan 590 or CBC? No, neither. As a diehard baseball fan, I've subscribed to XM satellite radio for the past three years and have my radio(s) tuned regularly to either the MLB on XM baseball channel or E Street radio, the Bruce Springsteen channel.

Satellite radio suits me. In the car, on an iPhone or on a kitchen dock, I find there's always content there tailored to my tastes. The one challenge I've had, though, is finding the right player. I like portability - something i can take from car to train to house - and functionality - one that allows me to pause, tag and create preset favourite channels.

I tried out two players recently from XM, both of which do the job of delivering satellite radio; one I'd recommend to power users, the other for the less savvy user.

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The ($129.99) is an iPhone/iPod Touch dock that has an integrated satellite tuner. Using supplied bumper pads, you can fit everything from an iPhone 3G to one of the new super-slim iPod touches. It sits on a swiveling arm and plugs directly into a vehicle cigarette lighter; the stalk is flexible and the dock can flip from landscape to portrait very easily.

Partnered with the hardware is the XM SkyDock app, a full-featured app you store that let's you pause, rewind and fast forward, set a dozen favourite channels and assign alerts for songs or artists so if they start playing on another channel you can flip over and listen with a press of the touchscreen.

The SkyDock app, which you install on your iPhone or iPod, only works in conjunction with the dock. However, the dock, which connects to your car radio through your FM receiver or a dedicated AUX input, can play your music or any other audio app over your car's speakers. Another nice plus: the dock also charges your phone.

Once you launch the SkyDock app, it automatically connects to the last channel you were on and stays connected even if you open Google Maps or another app. The interface is attractive and simple, though tapping a touchscreen while you're in motion is much less accurate than navigating a device with real buttons.

I like this device a lot. As a heavy mobile user I enjoy the idea of using my phone as a radio. It's portable and can deliver content wherever I go. Along with the SkyDock app, I also have the XM Canada app that allows me to access my account through various smartphones and computers.

The other device I sampled recently is the ($60), a satellite radio perfect for the driver who wants the radio but not the tech. It's a swivel-armed device that plugs into the cigarette lighter. But it's not a dock - it's a player - and a simple one, at that.

The Snap has five buttons for channel presets, a small display to show track and channel information and a function wheel that serves as the main channel changer. Reasonably priced and easy to set up, this simple player is not a bad gift for whomever drives the other car.

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One thing you should know about these types of external radios if you're considering a purchase: in general, they are neither as unobtrusive nor offer the clarity of reception that an integrated satellite radio will provide.

Unless you have a relatively new car (or radio) with an AUX port, you'll have to connect the device through the FM tuner. Because you're basically beaming a signal from player to your car radio, there's usually a little finagling that has to be done to limit the static. As well, you may find you need to adjust the link to a new FM station depending on where you're driving. I've found that on trips down the 401 from Toronto to Kingston, I've had to switch FM channels a few times to establish a static-free connection.

Another issue that's always plagued me is hiding the cords that go from the player to the magnetic satellite receiver perched on top of your roof. While there are ways to string the cord under floor mats and buried in crevices, I've installed enough over the years on a variety of cars and vans to conclude that no matter how hard you try, your five-year-old will inevitably notice a loose cord one day and yank it as hard as she can while asking, "Daddy, what's THIS?"

Now, none of that turns me off satellite radio. As I said, the content is there, and if it fills the void during long commutes or satisfies your jonesing for baseball news and games or hockey or football, it's worth it.

XM has a number of subscription plans that vary depending on how many years you're paying for, but on average you can expect to pay $15 a month for a subscription. They have various re-up deals and discounts on the XM mobile app and second subscriptions. One thing I've found is that XM is very keen on customer retention and is often willing to negotiate.

The XM Snap! is available in Canada for $59.99 and comes with a 14-day trial. The SkyDock is available for $129.99 and comes with a 90-day free trial.

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About the Author

Michael Snider started working at the Globe and Mail in December, 2005. From fall 2006 until September 2011, he edited, the Globe and Mail's online tech section. Previously, Michael Snider worked at Maclean's, The Toronto Star and the Korea Times. More

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