Logitech’s Squeezebox series of devices have ranged from “hmmm, interesting,” to “wow, that’s pretty cool” in the past, and the new Squeezebox Radio ($200) is definitely in the “cool” category. We’ve been playing with it today, and apart from some little issues—ones that won’t bother some people—we’re so impressed by the little Wi-Fi Internet Radio and speaker unit that we wanted to share some early pictures and details with you ahead of a more complete article later. (Editor’s Note: We updated this article on November 6 with additional thoughts, found at the end.)
The star attraction in Squeezebox Radio is a bright little 2.4” LCD screen, which is quite simply far better than we’d have expected from any of Logitech’s prior Squeezebox devices. It’s brightly backlit, pops with color, and has a bunch of sharp-looking backgrounds, fonts, and icons that really look pretty great given the size and nature of this unit. There’s a clean, easy to navigate list of menu options, all accessed through a ratcheting, soft touch rubber scroll wheel that is clicked inwards to make selections. When you’re not using one of the system’s other features, a clock appears on screen, as shown in the photo here.
Apart from a fabric speaker panel on the left front, which hides a .75” tweeter and 3” woofer, the unit is made almost entirely from glossy black plastic, which looks cool but is one of those “little issues” in that dust and fingerprints appear almost instantly on its surface. We don’t mind much given the design of the rest of the unit, but some people—particularly those planning to use its rear handle to pick it up and carry it around—might. Logitech packs it with a wall power adapter and an audio cable, nothing more; it runs only off of wall power rather than any rechargeable battery.
Click on the title above or Read More link below for bunch of shots and details showing off just some of the unit’s various cool features.
The Internet Radio feature starts by letting you access local radio stations, determined by the device with very little user intervention, and then continues with myriad international stations. We’ve been having some issues getting streaming to work reliably from some of the international ones. Pandora and Slacker access are also offered
Squeezebox Radio uses its color screen to offer Facebook integration, including sharing of song information and full browsing of your wall, news feed, and photos. We were surprised at how well these features worked; photos look pretty excellent given that we’re talking about a radio screen.
iTunes integration is also offered via a free Squeezebox Server download for Mac or Windows users. The program lets you wirelessly play iTunes content directly from your computer through the speaker, providing an iPod-style scrolling list of options, as well as album artwork. DRMed content is obviously not available—nor are videos—but for music, this is a cool little feature.
The single biggest pain point for most users, in our view, will be the initial setup process—one which requires you to use the dial to dial in your wireless network password, your Squeezebox account information, and other username/password combinations if you add applications such as Facebook to the device. It’s hard to get around this hurdle for any device that’s going to join your network, synchronize with a web-based collection of settings, and then access separate web-based accounts, but Logitech has at least tried to make it straightforward. An Ethernet port on the back of the unit and an auxiliary input are both included to provide wired access to your network and/or iPod/iPhone should you prefer to use them.
We have a lot left to explore in the Squeezebox Radio, but it will suffice for the moment to say that we’re impressed so far by almost everything it offers. There will be more to say soon.
Updated November 6, 2009: After much playing around with Squeezebox Radio, we’re ready to share those additional thoughts we promised. The simple summary of our feelings is that Logitech is continuing to make these devices better and better, and Squeezebox Radio is so close to great that it feels like it could have been an Apple product apart from some small rough edges—the fact that Apple doesn’t have anything quite like it makes this particular product seem especially worthy of iPod, iPhone, and iTunes users’ attention.
Essentially, the $200 price gets you something that’s a cross between a speaker, an AirPort Express, and an Apple TV: a unit that can connect on its own to the Internet, grab music from your iTunes library, and play Internet Radio content—all browsable from its own screen. Though the four-choices-on-screen menuing interface doesn’t make as effective use of the display as Apple does on its devices, and Logitech has loaded up the front of Squeezebox Radio with a whole bunch of buttons that you need to learn to use or ignore—reason if there ever has been one for the next-generation version of this product to go touchscreen—the screen is so beautiful and the choice of different backgrounds is so welcome that we actually found the interface a pleasure to use. We actively enjoyed just turning on the screen to see what was on there.
Sonically, Squeezebox Radio isn’t a “wow” sort of system due to its single-channel design, but for most Internet Radio purposes the speakers are entirely acceptable, and enable Logitech to fit everything here into a package that’s extremely easy to carry around—roughly 8.5” wide, 5.25” tall and 4.5” deep, the handle on the back has gotten a lot of use in our testing. The fact that you need to pay extra for the rechargeable battery and remote combination, however, is a serious bummer: Squeezebox Radio feels as if it was meant to include both, and their omission is felt every time you want to bring the system from one room to another and realize that you need to find an outlet for the power supply—similarly, you’ll want to keep it nearby so that you can access the controls with some frequency. The ability to use “apps” to access Slacker, Pandora, and other services with track-skipping, streaming content is great, assuming you’re able to actually skip tracks, and we were impressed by Logitech’s partnership with Queen to offer free streaming access to the Queen album Absolute Greatest, which as with content streamed from your iTunes library demands some interaction with the screen and large control knob, then the track reverse and forward buttons to skip songs. We had zero problems accessing DRM-free iTunes library content as long as the Streambox Server software was installed and running; installing it was simple, too.
Problems we reported in our early testing of Squeezebox Radio with streaming certain international Internet Radio stations persisted a month later, so we’re not exactly sure what the issue was, only that stations with problems kept having problems, while others worked fine. The system’s lack of meaningful feedback on what was going wrong—or a solution—was somewhat disappointing, though its inclusion of separate apps for different radio catalog services such as ShoutCast, RadioTime, and Radioio makes up for tuning failures that specific stations may have. On the flip side, though we suspected that our need to use the dial to enter in passwords and e-mail addresses letter by letter would end after an initial set-up period, various apps and also a change we made to one service’s password brought back the long, tedious letter entry prompt. It goes without saying that an iPhone or iPod touch app as an alternative remote control, keyboard, and streaming source would make Squeezebox Radio even more worthwhile.
Apart from the small hiccups, what Logitech has accomplished with this product is laudable. It has created a largely easy to use, powerful little audio streamer with some Internet photo and text browsing functionality that’s fun to play with when you’re not by a computer, and gifted it with the ability to work entirely without wires if you’re willing to spring for the battery pack. The system looks great, sounds good, and generally works well. If you’re hunting for a cool Internet radio and/or a way to stream iTunes content from your computer to a convenient, browser-equipped speaker, it’s worthy of very serious consideration.