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I had company recently on a bike ride around a blissfully traffic-free Central Park. Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, and my favorite, Richard Pryor, were making me laugh as I huffed up Harlem Hill. I came across these comedy legends while channel surfing on the Delphi (DPH ) MyFi XM2go portable satellite receiver I had clipped to my jersey.
The first generation of portable satellite radio receivers, the Delphi MyFi and others offer a real alternative to the iPod in the fight for your pocket space. The models I tried offer cutting-edge features -- such as digital recording -- but also suffer from spotty reception. That won't surprise satellite radio's early adopters, who tend to be diehards. Indeed, XM (XMSR ) reports that Delphi is racing to meet demand. More than 5.3 million subscribers pay $12.95 per month to get more than 120 digital, CD-quality channels from one of two services, XM or Sirius (SIRI ).
Portables are the latest step in satellite broadcasters' push to give listeners access wherever they are. Three XM2go models represent the cutting edge of this trend. Delphi's $200 MyFi version is already on sale, and two other functionally identical but differently styled models are due by summer under the Tao and Pioneer brands. All three come with most of the attachments you need for home or car. An easy-to-read, five-line monochrome screen shows program data and can also scroll stock prices. Inside, there's a transmitter, which lets you relay an XM signal to a nearby FM radio.
Handhelds face an even tougher reception challenge than their car-based predecessors, which use an egg-size external antenna. So it's impressive that XM managed to squeeze an antenna into such a small form. XM2go delivers sharp audio when there's a clear view of the southern sky, from where the signal originates, or if you are near one of the repeaters XM has installed in most major cities. But in many of the places you most want to use a portable -- in the gym, inside at work, or shopping -- the signal fails, even with the clip-on antenna extender.
In these cases, the XM2go offers a neat alternative: Its five hours of built-in memory let you listen to audio you've already recorded. Just hit the "2go" button to start recording what you're listening to. Or you can program the XM2go in advance to record the shows you want to hear while you're not around.
Despite their miraculous miniaturization, the XM2go models are still a tad bulky. The MyFi weighs 7.3 ounces, 25% more than an iPod 20 GB, and is half an inch thicker, too chunky to strap on your arm. At five hours, battery time is only O.K. (Newer iPods can run for 12 hours.)
These bugs aside, the XM2gos will find plenty of fans. They're ideal for mellow outside activities that allow you to tinker with the antenna, such as gardening or walking. Sirius' sole portable offering fits this niche, too. The XACT Stream Jockey ($100), coupled with a battery pack ($90), is too big to wear but would be at home at the beach or on a boat. For fans of NPR or Howard Stern -- who moves to the network next year -- Sirius is the way to go.
If you are less committed, stay tuned. Sirius plans to roll out a true pocket-size portable later this year that may improve on XM's first offering. Sirius' debut version, and XM's update after that, are sure to be smaller and offer better reception. Until then, if you're the type who sits in the driveway to catch the end of an XM show, grab a MyFi and take it with you.
By Adam Aston