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Review: Grace Allegro Wi-Fi Internet Radio takes your tunes to the air

Cross-border licensing restrictions continue to keep Internet radio services like Pandora -- a popular web-based music recommendation system enjoyed by our southern neighbours -- from making their way into Canada, but there are still plenty of ways for Canucks to get a web radio fix. Consequently, there's good reason to consider picking up a portable Internet radio.

Like , a Wi-Fi Internet radio available for $189 from the company's Canadian website that doubles as a wireless PC music streamer. Allegro is designed to make the most of Pandora -- it has dedicated buttons for navigating and ranking the service's songs -- but its features and functions go well beyond Pandora perks, keeping it a contender even if Pandora remains outside our grasp for the moment.

The Allegro makes listening to Internet radio away from a PC blissfully simple.

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Once connected to a wireless network -- simply a matter of turning the radio on, scanning for a signal, and entering a network password -- users are provided with several web radio menu options. Live365 serves up loads of free stations that can be surfed via name and genre, and a dedicated menu slot for Sirius Internet radio makes it easy for account holders -- not me, alas -- to cue up their favourite stations. Looking for something a little less mainstream? A simple search function provides access to thousands of stations in Grace's database. If a station you want isn't listed, you can write Grace and request it.

Within minutes of powering up the Allegro I had its 10 memory presets programmed to a wide variety of stations, ranging from a small community radio station I was once a part of in Saskatoon to several CBC feeds to an obscure German electronic music broadcaster.

Podcasts are just as easy to find and add. Users can either select from popular podcasts in the main menu or search out their favourites in much the same way they look for radio stations.

The Allegro streams music stored on networked PCs and Macs, too, though it takes a bit of doing. I needed to reconfigure my PC's sharing options according to the radio's instruction manual, which involved creating a new folder in the public directory and copying over the music I wanted to listen to. It only took a few minutes, but it the process would benefit from automation.

I've been keeping my Allegro in the kitchen for the most part, but it's just as at home elsewhere in and around the house.

Like the bedroom. It functions as a competent alarm clock, complete with multiple alarm and sleep settings as well as a broad, easy-to-whack snooze bar.

Or the yard. The Allegro's Wi-Fi connection is rated for around 100 metres and it can run off of a sextet of double-A batteries for eight hours or longer. Bonus: the radio will automatically juice up NiMH batteries whenever it's plugged in, eliminating the need to perpetually pull out and power up your rechargeables.

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What's more, a strong little amp makes the Allegro loud and clear in open spaces at medium to high volumes. It can't effectively compete with the voices of dozens of guests, but it ought to prove plenty powerful for smaller outdoor affairs.

However, as much as I liked the Allegro's features and capabilities, I couldn't conjure much love for its aesthetic. It has a minimalist boxy look that could have been classy, but its chrome plastic buttons feel cheap. Plus, its high contrast blue and white LCD makes menus look as though they've been pilfered from a BIOS screen.

It's also slow. The unit would occasionally freeze for long, frustrating seconds during menu navigation without offering any indication as to what might be gumming up the works. And scrolling through letters to enter passwords and station names was a chore (though, on the bright side, most users won't need to enter text very often once the device has been set up and favourite radio stations programmed to memory).

Final beef: I was keen to try Grace's custom iPhone app, dubbed Grace Remote, which allows users to forego the no-frills IR remote that comes in the box to control the radio from afar via a wireless connection and a snazzy touch screen interface, but I found it took so long for my phone to discover the Allegro each time I turned it on that it was quicker to just get up and walk over to the radio.

But these imperfections don't trump Allegro's utility and portability. It can find use all around the house, both inside and out, offers good sound quality, and is priced affordably. If I had my Internet radio and music streaming druthers I'd opt for a more elegant and powerful system, like, say, the $1,300 , which I fell in love with while testing. However, the Allegro is a respectable alternative for anyone who sees price as an important factor.

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About the Author
Game and Gadget Reporter

Chad Sapieha has been writing about video games and consumer gadgets for the Globe and Mail since 2003. His work has been published in magazines, newspapers, and Web sites across North America, and he has appeared as an expert on television and radio newscasts. More

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