Enter a new style of satellite radio device: a portable that doesn't actually get live content. You see, the Sirius S50 receives a live satellite stream only when it's plugged into a car or home dock and connected to a satellite antenna. When you're carrying the S50, it plays recorded content, as well as MP3 and WMA files. Leave it turned on and tuned while docked and it'll happily fill all its 1GB of space with recorded content, with nothing more to set, so that you can listen to it later.
The idea left us cold at first, but after testing it, we've warmed to the concept. If you're listening to a music channel, it doesn't matter whether it's live. Plus, listening to recorded content gives you the option of fast-forwarding though songs you don't like. Tne S50 isn't for everyone; its several limitations (more on those later) and its steep price will keep many away. Still, we think the Sirius S50 should find an enthusiastic audience, especially among car commuters. Samsung's Nexus is a similar MP3/satellite radio device for the XM service.The first reason to love the Sirius S50 is its elegant black design. The portable unit is attractively small, measuring 3.9 by 1.9 by 0.7 inches and weighing just 6.5 ounces, with a brilliantly vivid TFT display showing 262,000 colors. There are no controls on the front to mar its sleek surface. The hold button and the volume controls are on the left side, while power, menu, and playback controls (most of which pull double duty if held for a few seconds) are on the right.
The Sirius S50 is available only with a car dock, and the combo lists for a steep $329.99. A Sirius representative told us that the vast majority of satellite radio listeners listen in the car. A home dock costs $99.99. This inflexible bundling is a major hurdle for anyone who wants the S50 purely for home or portable use.
The car kit, which we didn't use for testing, holds the Sirius S50 upright along the dashboard and includes an FM transmitter for listening to songs through your car's stereo. The large and spongy five-way navigation control is easy enough to use while driving. It also offers audio navigation, which speaks the names of the channels and setting screens as you turn to them so that you don't have to take your eyes off the road for long while using it. The car combo also includes headphones and a belt clip for portable use, as well as a USB cable for connecting to a Windows 2000 or XP PC.
The home kit, which we did use, has a matching black dock that features a large tilt button for selecting options. Either kit can connect to your PC via a USB 2.0 connection (cable included) so that you can load your own MP3 or WMA tracks, manage the S50's content, or download firmware updates. Sirius has already released a crucial update that broadens the S50's recording options so that you can schedule recordings of music channels, not just talk channels. We're disappointed that neither dock has numbered buttons for quickly tuning in a station; you'll need to scroll to them.
Both the car and home kit include a slim remote--apparently for backseat passengers, in the case of the car kit.The satellite-radio-based Sirius S50's features seem odd at first since they're mostly built around saving content for later use instead of live streaming. However, we found that they work well as long as you remember to record the content you want.
When in the car or home dock, the Sirius S50 functions much like any other satellite radio receiver, although it has some handy extras. Click the heart icon while a song is playing to store not just the title and artist info, as with other receivers, but the whole tune. It's then added to your song list and is available any time you want. You can also pause live streams, which seems ideal for talk radio or entertainment. All in all, though Sirius has been a step behind competitor XM in terms of subscribers, the $12.95-per-month service is robust, with more than 120 channels, including virtually every musical genre; talk shows; NFL, NHL, and NBA broadcasts; and of course, Howard Stern.
The Sirius S50 has 1GB of storage (a bit low for an MP3 player), and half that can be used for your own tracks downloaded from a PC. These can be either MP3 or WMA songs, and the player supports WMA DRM 9, so you can load purchased songs but not subscription content. The other half of the storage space--or all of it, if you don't manually load any tracks--is for Sirius content. The S50 keeps track of the three music stations you listen to the most and automatically records content while on and tuned to that station. Sirius content is in a proprietary compressed format and at a variable bit rate. When the S50 is full of recorded Sirius content, you'll have approximately 50 hours of music. You can use the settings to delete a channel that you don't want automatically recorded but not to set a channel, which we find too limiting.