REVIEW: XM Satellite Radio XMp3

So, I was one of a few lucky bloggers given the new XM XMp3 player to test out a few weeks ahead of its Canadian release date. It's billed as a 'portable' satellite radio, something that's easy to carry around to the gym, the office,  the car, whatever. As a device designed to integrate into a mobile lifestyle, you could call it XM's answer to the iPod.

But is it? The answer has to do with the 'three pillars' of iPodishness: design, content and function. And in the end, the XMp3 falls a little short.

From a design perspective, this is an attractive little unit. The XMp3 is smaller than a credit card, and not much thicker than an iPhone. The screen is nice and bright, and the controls are reasonably efficient. It takes a while to scroll through the 240+ channels on the rather clunky click wheel, but Pioneer has done a nice job in cramming a lot of features into a very small package.

And you can't argue with the range of content offered by XM. The provider recently merged with rival Sirius, so you really get the best of both worlds. CNN? Good stuff. BBC World? Love it. As an old punker, I also enjoyed Marky Ramone's show on FACTION XL. And if you like sports, this thing rules. Channel after channel of baseball, hockey, football, you name it. But XM also carries  a lot of chaff in the schedule. I mean, I like AC DC as much as the next guy, but do we really need a 24 hour channel devoted to the inveterate rockers? Probably not. Still, in the two weeks I've had the XMp3, I've heard a lot of things that just don't get played on regular radio.

Of course, all that content is only good if you can access it. Reception is a real problem for the XMp3, and it's a real stretch to call it "portable". The player has a beefy looking built-in antenna, but I'm forced to assume it is largely ornamental. The signal is decent, if spotty, when walking around outside. But inside, or in a car, you'll need an additional external antenna to get any kind of reliable reception. All this extra gear gets a little tricky to haul around. And it ain't cheap- between $50 and $100 for a car kit.

This is really too bad. The places where I would actually really like a satellite radio - like driving in my car, commuting on transit, or working out at the gym - are all the places it doesn't work, or requires an external antenna to work properly. The "portable" tag emerges more as wishful thinking than an actual feature for the XMp3.

Presumably to compensate for the reception problems, the XMp3 lets you record up to 100 hours of programming. You can also record up to five channels at once, meaning you won't miss any of the all-Elvis station while getting the latest financial news from Bloomberg. You can also listen to Mp3's on an SD card (not included). Which is all fine, except this is supposed to be radio. You know, live and immediate. I'd happily sacrifice some recording functionality for more consistent reception.

Oh, and XM also offers some software to help you manage all your recordings. Unfortunately, the software only works on PCs, and is therefore totally useless to me. What is this, 1995? Make your software compatible across multiple platforms, or you risk alienating the gadget-happy Apple Army.

So, I'm a little lukewarm on the whole 'portable' satellite radio idea. The device is well-designed, and the content is impressive. But the reception issue kind of sours the whole deal. If you love radio and want a low-home satellite player that takes up very little space, get the XMp3. But if you're looking for something to listen to on the go, get an iPod. It may not be live, but it plays thousands of songs, all of which programmed by you. And you're never left cursing the heavens for somehow blocking your precious satellite signal.

The nice people who gave me the XMp3 to test would like you to fill out a survey. If you're interested, go here.