Review: Samsung Helix

This new pocket XM radio receiver and recorder is like "TiVo for radio." You can even record individual songs off the air by pressing a single button. If you don't

April 26, 2006

5 Min Read
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The three words that Samsung uses to pitch the Helix -- a pocket XM radio receiver and recorder -- is "TiVo for radio." Like most analogies, it's not quite right. But it's not all that far off, either.

PersonalTechPipeline recently got a chance to work with an early production model of the Helix for this First Look.

About the same shape as a Palm Treo but half an inch shorter and a bit lighter, the Helix could easily be mistaken for a cell phone. A color screen 1 ½ inches square sits above three function keys and four directional buttons with an XM button in the middle -- all backlit. On/off/hold and volume switches are along the right edge, a power/docking port is on the left edge, and the headphone jack and USB port are on the top, next to a stub antenna. The rechargeable LiIon battery is a service item but replaceable. Battery life is rated at 15 hours for playback and 5 hours of live radio listening.

A remote control, docking station, AC adapter, external antenna, ear buds, RCA and USB cables are included, as is a CD-ROM with Napster software. More about that later. A car kit is a $70 aftermarket option; the Helix itself contains an FM modulator so it can play through the car's radio.

The docking station holds the Helix horizontally. When docked, the Helix's display rotates so it is easily readable. Even more nifty is that the directional keys also rotate, so that the Up button is always the one pointing up and the Left button is always the one pointing left, whether the Helix is being held in your hand or stored in the dock.Once you register your Helix with XM, the channels appear in a color-coded scrollable list. When you press the Display button while looking at the channel list, you are shown the artist and track name currently playing on that channel -- a very nice feature. If you know which channel number you want, you can enter it directly by maneuvering with the directional keys. And it's possible to omit channels from the scrolling list.

Sound quality isn't bad, though like most satellite-based services, your mileage may vary depending on how much southern sky you see in the course of your normal working day. If you sit in an inside cube in a modern high-rise, you might not pick up much XM signal.

What's notable about the Helix is its ability to capture XM programming for time-shifted playback. At its simplest, you can set the unit to record a given channel at a given time so you can listen to it during your commute or workout or whatever. More intriguingly, you can record individual songs off the air by pressing a single button. If you don't catch the beginning of the song, don't fret: The Helix has a 10-minute buffer, so you can hit the button pretty much anywhere in a song and get the whole thing unless you're grabbing "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida, "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," or a Dave Matthews Band concert.

The gotcha here is the same one as TiVo's; you have to have been tuned to that station in order to use the buffer. If you hop to a new channel and immediately land on something you want to grab in mid-song, you're out of luck.

Another neat feature is the ability to find favorite songs or artists anywhere on XM. By setting TuneSelect bookmarks, you can tell the Helix to alert you whenever a specific song is being played anywhere on XM. Pressing a single button will take you to that track. The problem is that you need to be paying attention at the time; you'll get no joy if it's 2 a.m. and the Helix is sitting in its dock recharging. A better solution might be to allow the Helix to automatically change to the song and record it unless you say otherwise, the way TiVo does.

The Helix has 1GB of memory, enough to hold 50 hours of XM programming. As you might expect, there are tools to help you build and manage playlists to organize the material.Those same tools can manage your own MP3 and WMA files, which can be downloaded to the Helix from your PC running Windows XP or 2000. XM has a deal with Napster, which is included in the package on a CD-ROM and which you are encouraged to use as your computer's jukebox.

When you connect the Helix to Napster, you can see all the material you've recorded off the air and all your playlists. If you have a Napster subscription, you then have the ability to download those songs or other songs by the same artist. If you don't, you can buy those songs at 99 cents a pop. (Remember: whether you subscribe or download one-shots, these are heavily DRM-ed files.) You may then upload those files to the Helix and incorporate them with XM-saved content.

It's worth noting that if you let your XM or Napster subscription lapse, all the content licensed from those sources gets locked. Your own ripped MP3s or WMAs will play just fine on the Helix. It's also worth noting that Mac uses will get no joy here. Napster is PC-only, and the Helix is not recognized in iTunes. Similarly, there's no way even to authorize an XM subscription on a Mac; it requires either a Windows-based browser or a toll-free phone call.

If you want to hear live XM content as you walk or drive around town, as well as record it for later playing, the Helix fits the bill nicely at $399 plus XM subscription. It will be on the streets in mid-May.

If, however, you won't need the live listening option, Samsung will also have the Nexus, which does pretty much the same thing as the Helix but without the color screen or the ability to listen to XM live broadcasts while walking around. The Nexus puts a removable XM authorization chip in the docking station, so you can record content off the air and play it back at your convenience. The XM chip can also be removed from the dock and inserted into other XM players, so you might not have to pay for multiple subscriptions if you manage it right.The Nexus 50, which has the same 1GB memory as the Helix, sells for $269. The Nexus 25, with 512MB memory, will cost $220. Both will be available in early May. Neither was tested for this review.

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