News

Radio player a little too late

Eric Benderoff
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

I've been testing a type of gadget I've wanted for some time - a pocket-size, iPod-like radio player that delivers the variety of programming available from satellite radio.

There's only one problem: It's two years too late.

If Pioneer's XMp3 player had launched in 2006, I would have given it a hearty endorsement. Today? It's a hard sell because the market has changed significantly.

Sure, iPods, Zunes and a bevy of other MP3 players would have been competing products then, but the difference today is that iPhones and BlackBerries can play digital music files and stream audio for free.

That's what the XMp3 does - for $279 plus $13 a month (or $17 a month if you want to hear Howard Stern).

Still, I like this flexible and robust product quite a bit. But I don't think it will give Sirius XM Radio the new subscribers it covets. Drawing paying customers to a device in an era where free choices are abundant is a lot to ask.

But, boy, the XMp3, introduced last month, is nice.

It's smaller than a standard iPod and nearly as light as an iPod Nano. It fits comfortably into a shirt pocket and navigation is intuitive. On top sits a squat and unobtrusive antenna to receive a satellite signal. But if you're inside and not close to a window, receiving a signal is difficult.

To compensate, this player can store 100 hours of recorded content from XM. Five channels can be recorded simultaneously and you can schedule recordings of your favorite shows.

Best of all, individual song titles and artists are displayed separately.

Also, you can add digital music files to the built-in MP3 player. This Windows-only function worked well in my tests, as I dragged songs onto the XMp3 using my computer's media software.

But doing so makes little sense. Why would I pay a monthly fee for satellite radio and then use it to play songs I already own?

The XM in the name stands for the XM satellite service, which provides the channel lineup for this unit. For an extra $4 a month, you can purchase a "Best of Sirius" package, which includes Stern, Martha Stewart and NFL games. Otherwise, for $13 you only get XM's offerings - including Oprah, the National Hockey League and a variety of music channels.

Sirius XM is developing a player that will integrate both services, but that's not expected until next year.

The XMp3 ships with a home dock and separate antenna to maximize reception. You can plug the device into a home stereo receiver with included RCA cables or plug it into portable speakers using the headphone jack.

It also ships with an unnecessary remote control but not car adapter, a huge oversight.

Why? Because satellite radio has one clear advantage over new smart phones that can stream music: You can drive from Maine to California and not lose the signal. You can't do that with the iPhone 3G, as you won't get a consistent wireless signal through rural America.

On the other hand, free streaming services on the iPhone offer a wealth of content that Sirius XM doesn't offer paying customers. For instance, there is only one channel for the BBC world service on the XMp3.

But if you have downloaded the Flycast application for your iPhone, you have a choice of about 20 BBC feeds, including the world service, and other news programs. Two years ago, that content wasn't available on a portable gadget. But today, no matter how elegant a product may be, it's hard to justify paying for programming that is increasingly available for free.

___

(Eric Benderoff writes about technology for the Chicago Tribune.)

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