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Review: Samsung Helix Is Like TiVo For Radio

This new pocket XM radio receiver lets you record, rewind, and find the programs you want to hear.

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.

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