November 30, 2004

Product Review: Decent Debut for MyFi

NEW YORK -- It was when Vanilla Fudge's "You Keep Me Hanging On" came blasting through my earphones that I began to see the appeal of the MyFi, the new portable satellite radio from XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc. and Delphi Corp. with a built-in digital recorder.

I don't think I'd ever spend 99 cents to download this song. But that doesn't mean I wasn't grooving hard to these forgotten FM furballs when the song was played on "Deep Tracks," XM's homage to obscure classic rock.

This, I realized, is precisely why my initial instincts to size up the MyFi as a potential "iPod killer" missed the mark: It's a different animal altogether.

Indeed, hard-core iPod lovers would probably laugh at the notion.

The MyFi can record up to 5 hours of XM programming to its 128 megabytes of memory - about 100 songs at the most. Compare that to the 5,000 songs that fit on the entry-level 20-gigabyte Apple iPod, which at $299 is $50 cheaper.

Then there's the fact that the MyFi can't interface with a computer, so you can only store songs recorded from XM's stations. There's no way to get the music off the device.

The appeal of XM's service, however, is hearing music you've never heard before, or old favorites you've forgotten about, plus such programming as talk radio, sports, traffic, even old-time radio plays.

And the MyFi's portability appeals to people like me who don't spend a lot of time in the car, probably the most popular place to listen to satellite radio.

XM does a good job of delivering diverse variety on its commercial-free music stations. As the MyFi was passed around the office one day, I was hit with instant messages from co-workers thrilled to hear everything from indy rocker Bob Mould to Kermit the Frog's "Rainbow Connection" on the radio.

Hey, to each his or her own.

So the $10-a-month subscription charge is justifiable, in my opinion. The MyFi's $350 price, however, strikes me as too steep, especially since many less-portable satellite radios can be had for less than a third of the cost.

When I first turned the MyFi on, I immediately got crystal clear reception at my desk at work, which is a good 30 feet from the nearest window on the 13th floor of a Manhattan office building.

However, using it in the company gym just one floor above was an exercise in frustration, though I was only a few feet from the window.

Reception was equally hit or miss on the train ride home to central New Jersey and on my bike ride home from the train station- both disappointing, since these were the places I would have had the most use for the MyFi.

There is a solution, though, if you don't mind looking geeky: a 3-inch wearable antenna. This delivered better reception in the gym and on the train and allows the radio to be placed safely in a pocket for the bike ride.

The MyFi also comes packaged with docking ports and more powerful antennas for the home and car, and everything you need to hook it up to home or car stereos, though it can also send its signal wirelessly to any FM radio.

My favorite use for the MyFi was to record a bunch of music programming while not listening to it. On playback, you can skip songs you don't like, though it would be nicer if you could delete them individually.

There are two ways to record programming.

You can schedule two sessions to record any stations at any time, as long as you leave the radio in its docking port and the session times don't overlap. Or you can actively record programming as it's aired. I liked this alternative better, since it allows for more variety.

I let the radio play on my desk and toggled between stations without listening at all, while the MyFi loaded up on classic and alternative rock, the sweet R&B of the "Soul Street" station and reggae from "The Joint" station.

The device itself is easy enough to use, with a dial on the side to change stations and a screen that displays the name of the song and the artist, as well as stock quotes. There are also buttons on the front to punch in station numbers.

All said, it's a nice debut for a Walkman-style satellite radio. And XM's competitor, Sirius Satellite Radio Inc., doesn't offer a comparable device.

But unless $350 is pocket change for you, I'd wait to see if the next generation of the MyFi is cheaper or contains more features.

In a perfect world, it would offer more of the features of an MP3 player - more storage space and the opportunity to swap songs with a computer. Of course, in a perfect world, Vanilla Fudge would be on MTV more often.


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