Heavenly Music in Your Hand

Portable satellite radio is a palmtop cornucopia of music

I grew up on classic FM rock radio. (Yes, I'm a dinosaur from the ancient Boomer Age.) The late 1960s and 1970s encompassed a golden era of musical diversity on the airwaves; a multiplicity of bands, styles and vernaculars appeared on eclectic, free-form playlists that were leavened liberally with B sides, live versions, alternative recordings and obscure ditties. And then there was the mystery factor: you never really knew what was cued up next, not until the first bars sounded. But when the DJ struck the right vibe for your mood with an unexpected gem, it was pure magic.

Today FM radio is a wasteland--repetitive, overprogrammed, market-niched to the max, seemingly with more commercials than music. The only strategy that makes it somewhat bearable is to keep switching among several preprogrammed stations, a frustrating enterprise that gets tough on the index finger.

Then there's the portable digital music player--iPods, MP3 players and the like. What's not to love? Nearly distortion-free recordings of your favorite songs (presented randomly if you choose) to listen to anywhere you like. The players require a bit of work to produce your personal soundtrack, but not much. Of course, there is no way around the fact that you are always playing your favorites. And as anyone who has owned an extensive collection of LPs, cassette tapes, CDs or iTunes knows, listening to even a large set of well-loved recordings can get boring after a while.

So now comes personal satellite radio, a medium no longer only for the car. It arrived in the form of the Delphi XM2Go MyFi--the first satellite-radio portable music player. I toted around this little marvel of miniaturization for a month to find out whether it's worth the $300 price tag and the $12.95 monthly usage fee. Built by electronics maker Delphi to receive the XM satellite radio service, the device offers 100 channels devoted to whatever musical genre you can think of, each in all its variations and derivations--rock, pop, hip-hop, country, classical, soul, jazz, Latin, world, vintage songs--with little static and commercial-free. It's like old-school FM on steroids. Add to that handy info on track titles and artists' names, streaming sports scores and stock quotes, as well as a wide selection of audio news, sports, weather and traffic reports, talk, comedy and kids' shows.

Satellite radio signals are broadcast to Earth by powerful transmitters circling in geosynchronous orbit rather than from conventional radio towers on the ground. This means one can hear the same programming on the same station anywhere in the continental U.S., a feature that is especially useful for long-distance auto trips or reception in the rural hinterlands. Until recently, however, pay radio units had been designed for use in vehicles or in stationary locations at home or the office. The Delphi MyFi is one of a new generation of handheld satellite radio receivers--a nifty gadget that represents the first real alternative to the iPod in the ongoing battle for the limited space in your pocket.

Whether the MyFi is truly pocketable is debatable, though. At 4.5 inches tall by 2.8 inches wide by 1.2 inches thick, the seven-ounce unit is a bit bulky to slip easily into your pocket--unless you're wearing painter's pants. It is noticeably heavier and thicker than a 20-gigabyte iPod, for example. In addition, if you put it in your pocket, you would have to attach the clip-on antenna extension wire to get a clear signal. So the MyFi is really much happier strapped to your waist in its belt clip or protective case. And with a five-hour battery lifetime, full-day operation without plugging it into a wall socket is out. In general, however, it did a fine job of delivering quality tunes whenever I took it out jogging or hiking.

Despite the device's chunkiness and limited battery life, its engineers nonetheless did an impressive job of shoehorning all the necessary components into the palmtop gizmo, including a lithium-ion battery, antenna, tuner, memory and display. The monochrome screen is easy to read, and the clickable thumbwheel control permits scrolling through programming and feature menus readily enough. And, like a conventional radio, preprogrammed buttons let you access 30 channels quickly. One cool feature is a built-in transmitter that can be set to relay the satellite radio signal to nearby FM receivers in your house or car.

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