Walter S. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

A Portable Player For Both Satellite Radio, MP3s

Great songs, like chocolate-covered strawberries, can be sampled once and adored immediately. This is good news for online digital-music stores, where anyone with an Internet connection and a buck can log on from a computer and download a new favorite tune seconds after hearing it.

Now, XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc. is making this audio gratification even more instant. Last month, it introduced the first portable combination XM radio/MP3 player, the $400 Pioneer Inno XM2go. Anyone with this device who likes a song playing on XM can simply press a button and record the entire song onto the player. No computer is required, but you do need an XM subscription, which costs $13 a month.

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The $399.99 Pioneer Inno XM2go combines portable satellite radio with a digital music player, but watch out for reception problems.

These recorded songs can’t be transferred to PCs or other players. But they can be bookmarked for purchasing online at Napster’s music store the next time the Inno is plugged into a Windows computer. This purchased version of the song can be used on computers and other devices (but not the Apple Computer Inc. iPod).

The new XM device, made by Pioneer Corp.’s Pioneer Electronics (USA) Inc., uses flash memory rather than a hard disk, and can store 50 hours of recorded XM Satellite Radio, plus about 8 hours or 150 digital songs copied from a computer. One half of the player is reserved for XM recordings, while the other half is reserved for MP3 or WMA music files. You can switch between the two modes by pressing a button.

The Inno is at the center of a lawsuit filed yesterday by members of the Recording Industry Association of America, who are challenging the legality of the device’s recording feature.

This week, we tested the portable Inno all around town. We liked the device itself, and enjoyed listening to various satellite radio stations on the go. But we were deeply disappointed with its radio reception, which failed in too many places. And we really didn’t like working with the Napster software when we synched the player with our PC. It was a hassle.

Our verdict: adding live satellite radio and the ability to record it onto a device is a good idea, and may appeal strongly to satellite radio lovers willing to pay $13 a month to subscribe. But, for people who just like music, the radio and recording features didn’t seem like reason enough for us to want to buy the Inno over, say, an iPod — especially given the downsides we encountered.

We liked the overall feel of the Inno, and it wasn’t too tough to get the hang of its buttons and functions. It measures 3.7 inches by 2.2 inches by 0.6 inches — just slightly smaller, overall, than a full-size iPod and a little bit thicker — and its 4.5-ounce weight makes it a tad lighter than a 30-gigabyte iPod. A 1.7-inch color screen on the front doesn’t take up the entire surface, and compared to an iPod’s 2.5-inch color screen, its size was more like the one on the tiny iPod Nano, a 1.5-incher.

The back and front sides of the Inno are decorated in cool gun-metal gray. Shiny black edges give it a modern feel, while its stubby antenna resembles that of a smart phone, but thicker and perfectly cylindrical. This antenna is the device’s only means of receiving radio. That’s a breakthrough, since satellite radio usually requires a large separate antenna or a car antenna. Unfortunately, we found the Inno’s little antenna was too weak.

It’s hard to overstate the reception problems that plague the Inno. We lost reception while driving through a short tunnel, walking through a row home and wandering through our office, away from the window. Even in an office with an entire wall of windows, we had to sit right next to the glass to get XM Satellite Radio reception.

Walking around downtown Washington, just a few blocks from the White House and a few miles from XM’s headquarters, the Inno constantly dropped the XM signal, even though Washington, by law, has no office buildings taller than about 12 stories. Walking just a few feet into a Starbucks killed the signal altogether. When we sat down on a bench in a small park, the reception got much better, but still wasn’t perfect. For a device that’s primarily a radio, this is a killer flaw. Of course, you can listen to the Inno’s stash of recorded music during these signal dropouts, but, when the failures are as frequent as ours were, this need to keep switching modes turns a supposedly pleasurable experience into a huge annoyance.

Optional headphones with an antenna disguised in the headpiece can be purchased for an additional $40, and these added slightly better reception, but not much.

A well-designed button on the right side of the Inno powers it on or off when pushed downward, and puts the device on hold when pushed up. Volume controls are just below this button, also on the device’s side. Three buttons line the bottom edge of the color screen — Mode, Play/Pause and Display — and four directional arrows surround an XM select button below these three.

We checked out XM’s 20 categories of music, over 170 stations altogether, by pressing the right arrow button. We paused in the Decades category to listen to “Sunshine Superman” by Donovan on the ’60s station before skipping to Hits where Daniel Powter’s catchy new pop song “Bad Day” was playing on the “Top 20 on 20″ station.

To record “Bad Day” onto our Inno, we pressed the XM button, chose Record and Record Song. A red “REC” icon appeared at the top of the screen, and went away when the song ended. In one case, we were listening to a station when a new song that we wanted to record started before we could press the right buttons. Thanks to the magic of satellite radio, recording automatically started at the song’s beginning, rather than halfway through.

If you’d like, you can schedule times for your Inno to start and stop recording, and these can be set to record on the current day, every day or on a specified date.

When listening to Elton John’s “Something About the Way You Look Tonight” on a romantic music station appropriately named “The Heart,” we opted to Bookmark the song so that it was set aside in a special category of songs for buying when we connected our Inno to our PC. An option called TuneSelect can be chosen while a song or artist is playing; from then on, a message will flash across your screen whenever that artist or song plays anywhere on XM, so you can tune in.

Before synching our Inno with our computer, we used an included CD to load XM + Napster software onto our Dell PC and typed in a special promotional code given to us by Napster for testing.

The Napster software program is confusing, to say the least. Napster offers three types of accounts: Napster Lite, music-store usage with no monthly fee that allows online listening and purchasing of songs à la carte; Napster Membership, a $9.95-a-month program allowing unlimited music downloads onto the PC — but not for transferring to a player; and Napster To Go, a $14.95 monthly membership that allows unlimited music downloading and transferring to a device.

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If that doesn’t confuse you, add the fact that because Napster offers music rentals rather than just buying of songs — like iTunes — it considers purchased tracks to be different than downloaded tracks. Overall, your purchased tracks or previously owned tracks (in MP3 or WMA file format) can be transferred to the XM2go. Downloaded (not purchased) tracks can’t be transferred to the XM2go, but they can be transferred to special, more advanced devices with what’s known in techie land as DRM 10 compliance. XM plans to introduce devices with this technology in the future.

The Inno connects to a PC using a standard USB cable, but it must be simultaneously lying in its special sideways dock, which also powers the device. When the Inno is turned sideways in its cradle, its screen automatically rotates, as do its directional arrows. This cradle also has plugs for an additional included antenna and a line out, for using the Inno with a stereo system.

In Napster’s software program, our Inno was identified, as were the songs that we had recorded and bookmarked. Songs recorded from XM can’t be exported from the player, due to copyright laws. Most of the songs we had bookmarked, including Elton John’s tune, had a Download icon next to their track titles.

But instead of seeing a Buy icon next to our bookmarked tunes, we could only purchase songs by right-clicking on tracks and choosing Buy Track since our account type was designed for streaming music rather than buying it. This type of navigational confusion was abundant in the program, and users would easily and understandably be befuddled by what account type they had and what was or wasn’t included in it.

We dragged and dropped songs onto our Inno player without a problem, and they showed up in the MP3 section of the player when we started it up again. We even created playlists, right on the Inno, combining music recorded from XM stations and our own MP3s. Switching between the live XM stations and our MP3s and WMAs was easily done with the Mode button. XM estimates that the Inno’s battery will last for 15 hours in playback mode and five and a half hours in Live XM Mode.

When it’s all said and done, XM’s Inno is fun to use on the go, as long as you’re not underground or in room without windows. But its spotty reception, confusing software and monthly fee make the Inno a no-go, except for hard-core XM fans.


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