We Review the Samsung Helix (Verdict: We Like It)

XM's been in the news quite a bit as of late, mainly because the RIAA decided to sue the number one satellite radio company in the United States for, you know, aiding in the creation of new technology, something the RIAA would like outlawed. A lot's been written about the Pioneer Inno as being one of the main culprits, due to its ability to record songs onto its hard drive directly from the XM signal, but where's the love for Samsung? Doesn't their latest XM2Go radio, the Helix, deserve to be sued too? Find out how it fares with our full review of the Samsung Helix, right after the jump.

Part of the XM2Go line of portable XM satellite radios, the Samsung Helix is, to put it bluntly, a really nice machine. It shares many of the same features, including its on-screen interface, with the Pioneer Inno, which is mainly because of XM's centralized "Make them do this!" philosophy. There's one immediate factor that makes it better, however: it comes in black. Just like how Apple realized with its iPod nano and its recently released MacBook, black is the new white, or something to that effect, and people will pay a premium for it. In any event, the black color of the Helix just looks better better than the silver of the Inno. Personal preferences, granted, but we prefer the black of the Helix.

What do you get when you thrown down your hard earned $400 on the Helix? You get the Helix unit itself, which, if you've ever held or seen an iPod before (let's face it, you probably have), you've already got a basic idea as to the unit's size and weight; its 1GB of flash memory does seem a little paltry, though, especially considering the price tag. The included headphones are nothing to brag about—again, if you've used an iPod, then you already know what kind of quality to expect from these type of pack-in headphones. Then there's the assorted cables and so forth, but since this isn't Car Adapter Monthly, we'll move on.

Now, what does the Helix actually do? Being a proud member of the XM2Go lineup, the Helix can receive XM Satellite Radio not only in your house when it's connected to its docking station, but the built-in antenna let's you receive 100% XM goodness wherever you walk, similar to late 2004's MyFi, only better. In large urban areas like Manhattan, where we tested the Helix, XM has installed a series of signal repeaters, improving the satellite's signal, thereby improving your listening experience. For the most part, that is. (Those tall buildings tend to get in the way.) More than a few times, however, we found ourselves scratching our heads as to why the XM signal would suddenly cut out whilst walking on certain streets, with the Helix displaying the terrifying "No Signal" error message. This isn't Samsung's fault per se, but it still does detract from the Helix's enjoyment. So XM, get your act together and install more repeaters. People need to be able to hear your culturally significant content, such as Major League Baseball, obscure rock songs that nobody's ever heard (the Deep Tracks channel) and radio bad boys Opie & Anthony, including their exclusive stand up comedy performances from Starbucks.

Listening to XM live is all fine and good, but what's more fun than listening to something just once? That's right, being able to record and listen to something again and again.

The Helix has the ability to record live XM directly to its hard drive by simply holding the middle XM button for a few seconds. Once recorded, recorded XM content can be played back on the device at your leisure. You can't modify this content on the computer without using the special Helix software. (Oh, did we forget to mention that that included software only works with Windows? Yep, because of XM's close association with Napster, the Helix song managing software is Windows-only. So Mac heads, think long and hard if you want to buy a radio whereby you're essentially losing out on half of its capability right out of the box.) Another note is that once you stop paying for the XM service, all of your recorded content gets lost forever. You're still able to use the Helix as an MP3 player by mounting it as a removable drive on your PC or Mac and transferring songs manually...a $400, 1GB MP3 player. This is 2006, right?

As an MP3 player, the Helix is fairly basic. Choosing to put a song on loop was a little confusing, for example: hit up, spin around three times while holding your breath...you get the idea. It's not nearly as fleshed out as the iPod, but frankly, it really doesn't need to be given its main purpose is to be a portable XM radio.

Overall, navigating the menus of the Helix's full color display isn't too bad. There's a simple control scheme with up, down, left and right buttons, with the XM button in the center functioning as the select button. Play/Pause behaves exactly as you'd expect (though it actually mutes the volume when on live XM mode) and a Mode button switches between live XM and MP3/recorded content modes.

As alluded to earlier, the Helix works hand-in-hand with an XM-branded version of Napster. What does this mean for the average user? Let's say you're listening to dance music channel bpm and you hear some really far out, gotta-have-it song. You hold the XM button for a few seconds to begin recording the song and later bring the Helix back home. Once you connect the Helix to your PC, the software will recognize all of your recorded content, including that oh-so-cool song. (Recorded content, such as songs, are split up exactly how you'd want; it's not one big block of recorded material, but separated into distinct songs.) If it's available on Napster, there's a well-marked option to buy the song from right within the software. This purchased song is then yours to keep, not dependent on your subscribing to XM or Napster. (The Helix software requires that you sign up for the basic, free version of Napster in order to function properly.)

One of the nicer features of the Helix is something called Tune Select. Simply enter the name of your favorite artist or song (or choose via the XM button when it's playing live on the radio), and the Helix will alert you with a healthy sounding beep whenever that artist or song is being played somewhere else on XM. So if you're listening to the news and all of a sudden your favorite band is playing on Lucy, you're given the option to tune into that channel. The number of times that we saw "Madonna is on bpm—go there now?" is, admittedly, quite embarrassing.

So at the end of the day, you're faced with quite a question if you're in the market for a satellite radio. Assuming you choose XM over Sirius—to be frank, their music selection is remarkably similar, so it comes down to whether you like XM's radio personalities, such as Oprah (in September!) and the aforementioned Opie & Antohny, or Sirius', the biggest gun being Howard Stern who, it turns out, invented everything—the Samsung Helix, while not the cheapest XM radio on the market, is a remarkably versatile way to jump into the world of satellite radio. It's important to note that Sirius' "portable" radios don't allow you to listen to live satellite radio once they're disconnected from the home docking station, kind of defeating the purpose of portability, obviously. Sure, you could listen to that outdated-by-two-hours traffic report, but what's the point of that?

Look for the Samsung Helix this June for $399 and bite your thumb at the RIAA in the process.

Product Page [Samsung]

XM Satellite Radio Home Page [XM Satellite Radio]