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TECH & YOU PODCASTWalking through the streets of New York recently, I tuned out the cacophony of honking horns and other big-city noises and listened to the soothing sounds of KT Tunstall, Good Charlotte, and other artists on XM Satellite Radio's (XMSR
) Hitlist channel. Descending into the subway, I settled back with some MP3 dance tunes I had ripped to the same device earlier. Back in the office, I caught up on the day's top stories with the BBC World Service, glancing occasionally at the screen to keep track of a few stocks I've been watching.
Not too long ago getting my day's media fix would have required carrying three devices. Now, with two new pocket-size satellite players -- the Pioneer Inno and Samsung Helix -- life has gotten a little easier. These are the latest players built on XM Satellite Radio's XM2go platform, and they're essentially the same device, save for a few cosmetic differences. Pioneer opted for a more industrial feel, with brushed metal and black accents; Samsung chose glossy black with silver accents. Each model crams a slew of useful functions into one 4.5-ounce device with a bright 1.7-inch color screen.
These new players can set you on a voyage of discovery, and rediscovery. For $399 and a $13 monthly subscription, you can troll through 170 live channels of the satellite provider's programming, enjoying a blast from the past with an old Doors tune or keeping up with the latest hit from the Pussycat Dolls -- often delivered with CD-quality sound. Built-in memory lets you transfer to each device a few CDs' worth of your own MP3s or Windows-encoded music, or you can record up to 50 hours of XM content.BOTH RADIOS ALSO HAVE A NIFTY FEATURE called TuneSelect, which sounds an alert if a favorite song or artist is playing on another channel. Even better, XM's tie-in with the online music service Napster (NAPS
) lets you mark songs you like with the press of one button, and then buy them the next time you sync the player with software on your PC. Once you learn the options, you never run out of something new to listen to.
The best thing about the Inno and Helix is the powerful built-in radio, which, unlike previous generations of portable satellite devices, can grab programming even deep inside some buildings. But it's not quite time to dump your iPod. For one thing, battery life ran just a little over three hours on both devices in my tests. If you're just listening to recorded content, you can count on about 10 hours. That's less than the iPod, and only a fraction of the battery life promised by other MP3 players on the market.
Unlike the iPod, XM2go players are an exercise in cord management. At home, you plug the radios into a dock that has long cords for power, and to connect to your stereo for better sound. A $69 car kit comes with what seems like another 50 feet of cords. No matter what I did, the cords quickly tangled.
I also found the menu system less user-friendly than that of the iPod and other players. In order to save space, the manufacturers have assigned multiple functions to each button. These are determined by the order in which you press the buttons. And both models dock on their sides, making the sequences doubly confusing.
Another problem: The features you get today may not be available in the future. The music industry is suing XM because the radios let you record satellite content and mix it with your own digital music. They argue that this remixing of song tracks is the equivalent of piracy, though a royalty fee is included in the subscription charges.
Even with all these concerns and annoyances, I've found myself craving the company of these XM2go devices more and more. Maybe they don't provide a simple way to subscribe to podcasts, on the model of Apple and iTunes, and maybe you can't hear Howard Stern, who's only on Sirius Radio. Still, you get excellent audio quality, access to sports and talk radio, and the ability to add in your own music. That makes these radios worthy competitors in my book.Steve Wildstrom is on vacation. For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Technology & You at businessweek.com/go/techmaven/ By Cliff Edwards