With its somewhat bulky contours and shiny silver case, Delphi's MyFi portable satellite radio evokes an old transistor radio. And the selection of programming it offers -- a hundred-plus XM Radio channels, all but a few included in a $9.95 monthly fee -- might also remind you of that bygone era before radio stations gave themselves over to market-tested playlists.
This seven-ounce, $350 device isn't much smaller than other XM receivers, and it's bigger than most digital-music players, but in its two core functions, it has no equal. It can both tune into XM's signal when it's available and can record up to five hours of radio, complete with title and artist information, for later playback.
The Dephi XM MyFi, capable of tuning in more than 130 XM channels, will retail for $349.99.
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___Personal Tech E-letter___ Washington Post personal technology columnist Rob Pegoraro answers reader e-mail and expands on themes he touches on in his weekly newspaper column. The e-mail version of this weekly feature includes links to the latest gadget and software reviews.
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That recording capability is essential because the MyFi's reception in the field can be shaky. Unlike an FM or AM radio, or even a cell phone, the MyFi we reviewed frequently dropped the satellite signal, both indoors and outdoors. (The MyFi doesn't have a regular AM or FM tuner; it's XM only.) Just wrapping your fingers around its candy bar-sized portable antenna or holding it too close to the ground was enough to block the signal.
That brings up a second potential hang-up: fashion. This antenna hangs off of a separate cable and includes a clip, which XM suggests you use to fasten the antenna to your shirt just above your shoulder blade. It's not possible to do this without looking like an escaped science fair project. We don't know why Delphi didn't attach the antenna to the headphone cord, like the remote controls on many MP3 players.
The MyFi comes with car and home antennas that can't be worn around town but pull in the XM signal more reliably. In a car, we lost reception only in underground parking garages; at home, the radio was even more dependable.
The MyFi's sizable, backlit screen displays data about the station, artist, song, volume, mode and signal strength; you can even view a ticker of selected stocks and your favorite teams' scores. By pressing its barrage of buttons in the right sequence, you can add station presets, set it to record programming and even to alert you when your favorite songs or artists come on. About the only other feature we'd like to see would be the option to have the MyFi automatically keep the last few minutes of radio play, so you can hear the beginning of a song you stumble into a few minutes too late.
Unfortunately, figuring out how to use all these features will take some learning. The MyFi's controls are neither clearly labeled ("2go" means "record") nor well placed (the tiny thumb-wheel on the side doesn't control volume, as you might expect, but instead switches between XM channels). Expect to spend some time getting to know the MyFi's manual -- this thing is no iPod.
XM music broadcasts aren't audiophile quality, but they're fine for everyday ears, especially in the noisier settings where a portable radio would be used. But its five-hour battery life was much worse than we expected, considering the hefty size of the MyFi's rechargeable cell.
As if to make up for the MyFi's high price -- more than double that of almost every other XM radio -- Delphi throws in almost every accessory you might want. The MyFi includes a built-in FM transmitter than can play XM broadcasts through a car or home stereo, plus a cassette adapter for car stereos and a cable to plug it into home stereos. In the box, you'll also find a wireless remote control, a docking station that recharges its battery, a car charger, multiple car mounts, a belt clip, protective case, remote control and its set of portable, car and home antennas.
MyFi's best feature remains the programming it receives. Flipping through dozens of XM's music channels is like the early days of MP3 downloading, just without the guilt (and with that monthly fee). Any other XM radio -- or, for that matter, a radio tuned into the competing Sirius service -- will offer that as well, but only the MyFi lets you discover your next favorite tune when you're walking down the street.