XM vs. the iPod

Will XM’s new portable satellite radio make the iPod obsolete?

Apple Computer and XM Radio both unveiled hot, next-generation portable music players this morning. Apple’s upgraded iPod Photo has 60 gigs of storage capacity, a color screen, and new software that lets you bloat it with photos as well as music. (Cost: $499 for the 40-gig model, $599 for the 60-gig version.) XM’s new MyFi player is, in short, the first satellite radio Walkman. It can tune into 130-plus channels of digital radio and even store five hours of programming for you to play back at your leisure. (Cost: $349.99, plus $9.99 per month for an XM subscription.)

My instant take on today’s game of whiz-bang one-upmanship is that both companies lost. It’s now five hours after Apple’s U2-bedecked press conference, and I still haven’t stopped yawning. This new iPod Photo is the same iPod we’re already sick of hearing about. The 2-inch color screen isn’t the start of any digital revolution—all it does is turn your iPod into a camera phone that can’t take pictures or make phone calls.

XM’s MyFi isn’t as disappointing as a gadget. Just a week ago, I was wondering why there wasn’t a satellite radio that I could wear on my hip. Now there is one. If you’re sick of the songs on your iPod or the crappy stations on the local FM dial, MyFi gives you 130 channels to flip through.

One really disappointing thing about MyFi is that it doesn’t let you create customized play lists—you can jump between the individual songs and talk show segments you record, but only in a prescribed order. The biggest problem with XM right now, though, is content. It’s got 130 channels that I don’t want to listen to. There’s no Howard Stern, no Car Talk, no Rush Limbaugh. If XM has ever played Fischerspooner or Trooper, I missed it. If you want your music, stick to the iPod. The million or so tracks available through the iTunes store are only a subset of the millions of songs, shows, and books ever recorded, but that’s still an order of magnitude more than what XM can fit on 130 play lists. You can also rip your CD collection onto your iPod, legally.

But we already know all that stuff about the iPod. Sure, it allows you to control what you listen to and when you listen to it, but the device still has one major flaw, and a tiny color screen doesn’t come close to fixing it. Apple’s player is the only way to go if you suddenly want to listen to a Clash song from 25 years ago, but if you need to find out the news from five minutes ago, your iPod is useless. You’re better off with MyFi or even a clunky, AM-only boom box. Forget that new U2 tune—the iPod theme song should be “Dancing With Myself.”

Some techies think they’ve stumbled onto a solution to the iPod’s disconnection from the real world. It’s something called podcasting, which is basically RSS for your portable music player. Dock your iPod into the computer at night; in the morning, you’ll have brand-new versions of your favorite Internet radio shows. Since the podcasting trend has only just begun, the content can be a bore. Most podcasts these days are being done by early adopting audiobloggers—imagine an hourlong recording of two guys talking about how cool it is to be podcasting.

But even if podcasting does take off, your iPod will always be just slightly out of sync with what’s happening in real time. Adam Curry, the former MTV host who came up with podcasting, admitted to me, “If Osama Bin Laden gets caught, you won’t learn about it from your iPod.”

So, XM offers live breaking news, but you’re stuck with what they pick for you. Apple gives you all the storage space you want, a cocoon against the outside world, and a mostly useless color screen. Is it just me, or is it obvious that these companies should get together? What I really want is a wireless iPod that can suck down live updates or a MyFi that lets me play every track that XM has ever broadcast. Instead, I’m forced to choose between immediacy and control—or forced to spend $700 to have both. I’ll save my money and hope they solve my dilemma for me.