Editors' Note: As of November 2008, this product has been replaced by the Pioneer XMP3.
Following closely on the heels of Pioneer's similar Inno, Samsung's $400 Helix YX-M1 is small and light, has a powerful XM receiver to tap into XM Radio's 170 channels of programming, and can play all your MP3/WMA digital music files. So far, competitor Sirius lacks a similar option. The bad news for the Helix is that, as with the Inno, its battery goes dead all too quickly, it requires a Windows PC to transfer music, and it has only 1GB of capacity. Still, these nearly identical twins deliver audio entertainment practically anywhere, regardless of whether it's from the New Pornographers or XM's NASCAR channel.
Barely the size of a cassette tape, the Samsung Helix YX-M1 matches the Inno inch for inch at 0.6 by 2.2 by 4.4 inches, although we like the Helix's subdued black and brushed-aluminum look better than the Inno's darker, bolder design. Both weighing 4.5 ounces, the Helix and the Inno are the lightest XM radios around, as well as easily half the size and 3 ounces lighter than Delphi's MyFi receiver. While the two players use the same electronics, we like the Helix's earbuds and small button bar, as opposed to the Inno's bulky switches for Mode, Play, and Display, along with its in-ear phones. The layout is similar, with both having a four-way control at the bottom for tuning the radio, selecting tracks, and navigating through the machine's menus. While it is backlit for nighttime maneuvers, we prefer the MyFi's combination of numeric pad and scroll dial for quick channel changes.
With 1GB of storage space, the Samsung Helix YX-M1 has room for about 50 hours of stored content in XM's native AAC Plus format. This is far from ideal, and we hope that larger versions or those that can use flash-memory cards are on the way. Out of the box, the storage is partitioned for 100 percent XM recording, and we suggest adjusting it to 50/50 before you do anything else so that you can dedicate space for MP3s or WMAs. Its audio is typical fare for a pocket portable, with just enough midrange and treble to deliver near-CD quality.
The center of attention is the 1.7-inch-diagonal color screen that is slightly larger than the display on Apple's iPod Nano. It displays the most interesting information, from the channel or the track that's playing to XM's satellite signal strength or how much storage space remains; it always shows the time in the upper right. Info junkies, rejoice--because it can even scroll stock prices or sports scores across the bottom. Although the player is meant to be held vertically in the hand as soon as you snap it into the horizontal desk cradle, the screen and the switches automatically change orientation, although the Samsung Helix YX-M1's markings still point in the wrong direction. With plugs for power, line-out, and antenna, the desk dock requires that you plug the USB cable into the device directly, making for an awkward setup.
If you like the song you're listening to on The Joint, XM's reggae channel, just hit the big XM button, and the Samsung Helix YX-M1 will record the song. Because the unit has a 10-minute buffer, chances are you'll get the whole song, although it can't go backward in time more than one song, nor can you reverse in the current live song. You may also pause a song in midstream. By the same token, you can bookmark any XM song for later reference on the PC. Whether it's a live event or a BBC radio documentary, the Samsung Helix can schedule a recording, but unlike the Inno (as reviewed), it all went off without a hitch, consistently recording exactly what we wanted. Playlists are a snap to make, edit, and move back and forth between the computer and the Helix.
You can manage it all on a Windows PC with XM/Napster software for downloading music and moving it to the Helix, but there aren't versions of Macs and Linux PCs. The service's 1.5 million songs is second rate, and ripped CDs come through at a maximum data rate of 128Kbps--hardly high fidelity. The Napster interface is similar to iTunes, with the ability to drag and drop songs, move them between the PC and the Helix, and burn CDs, although not with any XM recorded content. Unfortunately, the Napster software takes forever to notice that a new CD is in the drive and sometimes requires a restart.
The Samsung Helix YX-M1 comes with all you'll need for home and personal use, with earbuds, a tiny remote control, a desk dock, an antenna, an AC adapter, a USB cable, a holster, and cables, but it lacks a car kit, which Samsung sells for $70. While the Helix was sensitive enough to grab signals that the MyFi couldn't pick up, it ran for nearly 10 hours of digital playback, but only half that for listening to XM radio--far short of Samsung's 16-hour claim, although similar to our experience with the Inno. Happily, it charges in between 1 and 2 hours, and the battery is removable, so you can always purchase an extra.
The Samsung Helix YX-M1 feels good in the hand but gets warm after a few minutes of use, and unfortunately, it doesn't work with Altec Lansing's XM3020 speaker set but will work with a new drop-in speaker that's coming out in June. As far as filling it with music, it took a tedious 2 minutes, 50 seconds to load it with 10 tracks that add up to 48.3MB. The Napster interface counts off the transfer but oddly starts at 50 percent, and if you run out of space on the Helix, the software just stops, with no indication that something's wrong.
In addition to a user guide in English and Spanish, the Samsung Helix YX-M1 comes with a quickie setup sheet and a list of XM programming channels, but the guide misses the fact that you'll need to restart the Helix after upgrading its firmware. Samsung guarantees the entire unit for a year, which is better than Pioneer's 90-day warranty on the Inno battery.