When my (partly disabled) mother desperately needed a new clock radio, specifically one that would switch automatically from wintertime to summertime and vice versa, I gave her my state-of-the-art Sony clock radio. Of course I needed something to replace it. At first I looked around for a similar model, until I ran into an ad for the Logitech Squeezebox Radio. An interesting deal, it seemed, for about $200 I could listen into the world, and the device offered a sophisticated alarm system as well. I pulled the trigger and bought one.
One could argue that the Squeezebox Radio isn’t a radio at all. That is true to some extent. There’s no antenna involved, no conventional receiver circuitry as we know and love, no radio waves to pick up. Just an internet connection will suffice, either wired or wireless. Streaming is the way to go here. Personally I didn’t care much about the lack of technology that is normally associated with radio amateurs. I like listening more than talking, and this device promised to deliver just that.
Love at first sight here: the Squeezeboz Radio just looks sweet. The ‘piano black’ version I got looks distinctive, attractive and shiny. The shiny appearance however doesn’t last very long – as soon as you start to use it, it will attract dust and fingerprints faster than you can blink with your eyes. Oh well. There aren’t many connections to worry about; one for the power supply, one to connect the radio to your router, one to plug in your headphone and one to plug in an external media player. I would have loved to see RCA jacks that would enable me to connect the radio to my HiFi amp too, but they’re not there. There are other Squeezbox systems available which do offer these, but for me it wasn’t that important. After all, the radio would reside next to my bed. And, as it turns out, the internal speaker system is not bad at all.
Setting up the Squeezebox Radio
The first hint of trouble here: there’s no manual in the box, nor one on CD. The only piece of paper is a dubbed ‘quick start guide’ and the information in there is barely adequate, unless you’re a bit of a nerd who loves to decrypt alien messages. The two most important steps are 1) connecting the radio to the internet and 2) setting up an account at mysqueezebox.com. Step one is easy when you use a cable (just plug in the cable), but somewhat cumbersome if you want to use WiFi. While selecting the network of choice is easy, entering a complex password by scrolling through the alphabet is tricky and time consuming. Step two only requires entering an e-mail address and a password. The MAC address of the radio is linked to your account and used as an identifier (you can own more than one Squeezebox system, give them unique names such as ‘Bedroom’, ‘Livingroom’ and control them independently).
At this price point one would expect to get a decent manual of some sort, especially because using internet radios will be new territory for many. Although most buttons and selectors are self-explaining, some features remain hidden until you start experimenting. Pushing the main selector acts like the ‘Enter’ key for example, and pushing the volume button will mute the sound temporarily. But these are the easy things; there’s no way to find out something about the structure of the menus, let alone how you can change some settings. Again, a bit of a nerd will find out quickly enough, but if you are new to internet radio and lack basic computer skills, you will be left in the dark.
However, there’s always something called The Internet, and as Logitech preaches using mysqueezebox.com as a starting point, I started to dig for more information from there. That’s when I smelled the second hint of trouble: Logitech isn’t very good at designing & maintaining websites. As expected, the website figured out that I was living in The Netherlands and presented all text in Dutch. After scrolling down a bit, I found a promising starting point called “Tips en trucs” (Tips & Tricks) plus an indication that I would be able to download documentation. However, there was no link provided. No problem, let’s change the language to English and look again. Now there was a link, and after clicking on it I could select the Squeezebox Radio. And that’s what I did, only to find myself redirected to a German website with no option to change the language to something understandable.
Using the radio
OK, let’s forget the manual for now and look how the radio performs. Quite well actually, at least during the first week (more about that later). The sound quality is quite good for such a small package, with little or no distortion. Unless you’re willing to spend an insane amount of money on an IR remote + battery, you can control the radio in two different ways. First of all – of course – by using the buttons on the radio itself. The second method is to use a ‘remote control’ (with limited functionality) which you can access with your browser. At first it looked a bit silly to control the radio that way, but it proved to be quite useful. Not only is it easier to search for a specific station, it also opens a can of worms if you’re want to annoy your spouse… Just imagine what you can do during your night shift when you have access to the internet – you can switch on the radio at 5 AM, crank up the volume and scare the hell out of your wife!
This is where the radio fails completely. Do not – I REPEAT: DO NOT – expect the Squeezebox Radio to work at all times, let alone to wake you up in time. The reason is that, in order to work, there needs to be 1) a working internet connection and 2) a connection to mysqueezebox.com. Both variables are completely beyond your control. Providers suck now and then, and here in Europe the uptime of mysqueezebox.com hasn’t exceeded 50%. During the test period, which started one week before Easter 2010, the Germany-based server has worked only 4 out of 10 days on average. As the firmware of the radio isn’t smart enough to fall back to another server somewhere in the world, server outages in your region will leave the system dead in the water. The only thing you can do is to forget internet radio all together and use an (annoying) internal wake-up sound if you want to get out of bed in time, or set up your own local Squeezebox server if you want the darned thing to play some music. Software to do this is free and available for all major platforms. Having your own server will enable you to stream music directly from your computer’s hard drives to your radio. You will have to leave your computer switched on, of course, and user reports suggest that you should make sure that your disks don’t spin down automatically.
At the time of writing, the German server is up and running – an almost scary experience. The Logitech Squeezebox Radio itself is a nicely designed system without major flaws. Its dependency on quirky servers however can drive you crazy. For that reason I can’t really recommend the Squeezebox Radio to people who expect the system to work at all times, nor to people who expect to wake up every morning with the morning news. I also can’t recommend it to people who have less-than-average experience with computers, network connections and trouble shooting. The lack of a decent manual, plus company websites that smell like Microsoft FrontPage 1.0 in the hands of a child, are unforgivable in this case. However, if you couldn’t care less about these things, you will have a hell of a toy to play with – and yell at occasionally.