Even though the iPod is the undisputed champion of portable music right now, it's had the unfortunate side effect of getting people to listen to the same damn few hundred songs over and over and over again. Sure, there's the iTunes Music Store — where you can preview tracks, buy them, and even get suggestions on what you might like — but it's all too dependent on the user; an iPod simply can't simulate the familiar scenario of overhearing a cool new tune and thinking, "I gotta have this." (The first person who suggests an FM-tuner accessory gets a slap.)
And so comes the Samsung Helix
, a portable music player that's all about bringing you a constant stream of new tunes, courtesy XM Satellite Radio's 69 music channels. Even when you cut through all the hype, the Helix (which is functionally identical to the Pioneer Inno
) is actually a pretty groundbreaking product. Not only does it bestow its owner with portable XM — for which you still have to shell out $12.95 a month, of course — but it lets you record specific songs to flash memory, something no other product for either XM or its competitor, Sirius, has done before. There's only a gigabyte of space, but since XM compresses its music, that's good for a fairly excessive 50 hours of recordings. Still not impressed? Feel free to mix in your own ripped MP3 and WMA tunes. You can tell a product is blazing trails when it attracts serious litigation, and the Helix earned that badge of honor when the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) sued XM radio
a couple of months ago over its song-recording ability. Not bad for a player that weighs just 1.4 ounces.
The Total Package
And for the most part, the Helix delivers the goods. Recording songs? Check. Saving music is super simple, though it's a little too easy to accidentally stop recording by hitting the wrong button. Importing your own music? Check. I had some issues connecting the player to my Mac (it kept saying I had way less free memory than there actually was), but copying songs was as easy as drag and drop. No, the only time the Helix got a little twisted was in its core function: tuning into XM. The built-in tuner isn't that robust, dropping out occasionally as I walked around Manhattan, particularly when I was between some tall buildings. For somebody used to the unskippable iPod nano, it's pretty frustrating. You can buy a pair of antenna headphones
for $40 that actually do help quite a bit, and they don't look too
dorky… I guess.
Sound quality of the XM tunes was pretty much what you'd expect from music that's heavily compressed, with challenging sounds like cymbals sounding pretty smushed. And bass? Fuhgeddaboudit. Switching between an XM recording of Good Charlotte's "The Anthem" to an MP3 version that was ripped from the CD at 160 kbps (kilobits per second)… well, let's just say I'm not throwing away my iPod. Or the CD, for that matter. The earbuds worked fine with XM, though if you're going to mixing in a lot of your own music, I'd invest in a better pair.
At the End of the Day…
Satellite radio's sound-quality issues are well documented
, but compression doesn't seem to bother most people, so it can be forgiven. Signal dropouts are pretty annoying, though, and if you don't want to join the geek squad by wearing antenna headphones, I'd recommend opting for the Samsung Nexus
instead. The Nexus has no built-in tuner, so it loads up on XM music only when it sits in your home or car dock. You can still take your XM with you, you just can't listen live on the go. It sounds crippling, but it's surprisingly not. Clearly the best way to listen to satellite radio is an issue that's still up in the air.