The Mini-Tuner is actually the third name of this product, which was originally unveiled at the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show (it was previously known as the XM Passport, and later as the XM Pass). It also shows up in some catalogs as the "Audiovox CNP2000" (Audiovox manufactures it for XM), but rest assured, it's all the same device. At 1.3 inches wide by 1.65 inches long by 0.44 inch deep, the XM Mini-Tuner is about the size of three CompactFlash cards stacked together. That's small, to be sure, but in this age of clip-size iPod Shuffles and MicroSD cards, it's not the tiniest gadget or accessory you'll see this year. The bottom edge has a proprietary connection that snaps into compatible hardware. It draws power from the host device, so there's no battery worries.
As of early 2007, few if any products have a slot that accepts the Mini-Tuner directly. But it's the promise of future product compatibility that makes the Mini-Tuner so potentially attractive. We'll soon be seeing car stereos, tabletop radios, and even GPS systems on the market that accept the Mini-Tuner. (While the first wave of products will likely require an adapter dongle, later models will offer a slot to fit the Mini-Tuner directly.) Eventually, anything from portable DVD players to home theater products will be fair game. As more products with the Mini-Tuner slot become available, the utility and value of the little accessory will only increase.
In the meantime, there's a workaround: The Mini-Tuner Home Dock (CNP2000H) ($30). The Home Dock includes a small cradle for the Mini-Tuner, a standard XM antenna, and the necessary connecting cables. With the Home Dock in place, the XM Mini-Tuner becomes backward-compatible with any product that's XM-ready. That includes the majority of top brand A/V receivers produced over the past few years. Of course, those XM-ready home audio products could already use the Mini-Tuner's predecessor, the CNP2000 Connect and Play (essentially a tuner/antenna combo). But that older solution didn't have the portability of the Mini-Tuner, nor its potential to be used in portable and car audio devices.
In everyday use, the Mini-Tuner is about as straightforward as it gets. In conjunction with the Home Dock, we tested the Mini-Tuner with two typical XM-ready products: the Polk Audio I-Sonic and the Denon AVR-2307CI. In both cases, the Mini-Tuner lived up to its plug-and-play billing. Once you get your satellite subscription up and running--it takes only a quick phone call to XM customer service or a visit to the company's Web site--you just plug it in and you're good to go. We toggled between the Mini-Tuner and the older CNP2000 without any discernible difference in reception or audio quality. The Mini-Tuner also had no problems receiving the two "XM HD" surround-sound stations on compatible receivers such as the Denon. About the only knock was that the Mini-Tuner gets a little warm while operating. But it's never so much as to be considered hot--and it cools down within a couple of minutes of being removed from the receptacle.
As we mentioned, the real draw of the Mini-Tuner won't come to pass until more compatible products hit the marketplace. But that's not to say there's no room for improvement. As small as the Mini-Tuner is, it may still be a little too big for ultraportable iPod-style portables. It's too bad it's not even smaller--the size of an SD card, for instance. Case in point is the Samsung Nexus 50. It was one of the first products to ship with the Mini-Tuner, but it's affixed to the player's recharging dock rather than the player itself--which means the Nexus can receive live satellite transmissions only when it's docked. By comparison, products such as the Pioneer Inno and the Samsung Helix--which utilize a built-in tuner--can receive live XM transmissions at any time, but the inclusion of a Mini-Tuner slot would make them bulkier. (Imagine plugging a GameBoy cartridge into your iPod Nano and you'll get the idea.)
Similarly, the Mini-Tuner doesn't change the basic equation for satellite radio. In addition to the monthly subscription, you'll still need an antenna with adequate signal exposure for optimal reception. The Home Dock includes one, and Mini-Tuner-ready products will include built-in or detachable antennas as well. The antenna is not a drawback per se--just be aware that you might need to stretch a 30-foot cable from your stereo to the window when first setting up in order to hear your favorite stations. Likewise, for legacy products that require the Home Dock, you'll need to have a couple of extra wires visible in your home entertainment rack; it'll be much more convenient when A/V receivers simply have the Mini-Tuner slot available on their front panels.
Compared to the competition, though, the XM Mini-Tuner shines. Rival Sirius offers the SiriusConnect Home module for $50, but it's comparatively bulky and not nearly as transportable. It's also compatible with a far smaller number of products. The XM alternative lets you enjoy your satellite radio subscription with most of the leading home audio products available today, with the promise of even more coming in the future. When it comes to satellite radio flexibility, the XM Mini-Tuner is about as good as it gets.