It's here Sonos fans, finally. The new touch-screen CR200 controller is announced and ready for purchase. After making an appearance at the FCC on its way to being leaked in full, the new CR200 controller for Sonos' multi-room wireless music system is everything we heard including a 3.5-inch, 640 x 480 pixel (VGA) capacitive touchscreen with on-screen keyboard, beefier processor, and relatively tiny 2.9 x 4.5 x 0.7-inch / 6 ounce footprint with scaled-down charger to match. Those changes make the new CR200 pocketable, faster, and far more useful than the CR100 ever was. Not that the CR100 was a bad device, it wasn't, but the $399 controller (plus $40 for the charging cradle) was definitely beginning to show its age as the only dedicated handheld controller available since Sonos launched back in January 2005. What really made the CR100 archaic though, was the 2008 release of the free iTunes App Store controller for the iPod touch and iPhone. It was faster, more graphically rich, and offered an on-screen keyboard unlike the CR100.

Fortunately, the price of the CR200 has dropped a bit to $349 / €349 list, a price that now includes the charging cradle. Still, we know what you're wondering: is it worth it when an iPod touch can be purchased new for $229, or closer to $170 refurbished? Having used the CR200 for a week now, we found that the answer's not as obvious as you'd think. Click through to find out why.

Hardware

Although it may resemble a rather thick, portable media player, the CR200 is a one-trick pony that does one thing and it does it very well: it controls the music in any room where a Sonos ZonePlayer is installed. The new controller also features a user-replaceable, 1850mAh Li-ion polymer battery; a seemingly odd choice for a device that never leaves the house. That is until you consider that you'll use the CR200 controller almost daily for a long, long time (the CR100 is already pushing 4.5 years in some homes). Making the battery removable allows for an easy, $30 swap when you finally hit the lifetime recharge cap of the CR200's battery. By comparison, CR100 owners must send in their controller as part of a battery replacement program offered by Sonos at a cost of more than $100 per controller.

As much of an advance as it is, it's worth pointing out a few things the CR200 can't do in comparison with the older CR100. First, the deep-sleep battery saving mode found on the CR100 no longer exists on the CR200 -- it's instant-on or nothing which is fine by us. And while the CR100 was splash-proof (not waterproof, big difference), the CR200 is not as a result of the changes required to make the battery user-removable. Having said that, the new design introduces just a slim strip of buttons along the front-side of the device and the seams between the glass, aluminum, rubber, and plastic are tight throughout. While steering clear of calling the device splash-proof or water-resistant, Sonos did indicate to us that the CR200 design was tested to withstand casual spills prior to approval for mass production. In other words, don't use it in the shower but don't worry (too much) about setting it on the kitchen counter while cooking. If you're concerned by this change then we'd suggest stocking up on the more rugged CR100 controllers and docks that have now reached end-of-life; they should be available at discount soon enough.

Sonos CR200 hands-on

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The Experience

We've been using the CR200 for the last week and, forgetting the price for a second, found it to be the absolute best way to control our Sonos system spread across two zones: one on the first floor (living room) and another on the third floor (master bedroom/bath). The biggest enhancement enabled by the new CR200 is without a doubt, the very usable keyboard enabled by the capacitive touch-screen. Gone is the scroll-wheel used to navigate the on-screen QWERTY -- a frustrating experience to be sure, especially when searching the thousands of songs in our iTunes library or the millions or tracks offered by on-line subscription services like Rhapsody or Napster. Unfortunately, there isn't a universal search at the moment though Sonos tells us that they've considered the idea. Currently, you can only search in one library at a time, be that your personal music library stored on your home network or the vast catalogs offered by on-line music subscription services. Even then you still have to drill down one additional level -- artist, track, album, or composer -- before entering your query. We'd prefer to search at a higher level and then let Sonos sort the hits by the appropriate category just as Spotlight does on a Mac. But really, this is nitpicking -- search works, it's easy with the new on-screen keyboard, and we found ourselves using it heavily.

Remember, Sonos offers three ways to control its system: the dedicated CR200 hardware, the free 3.0 software controller that can be loaded onto your iPhone/iPod touch, and the free 3.0 desktop software than be loaded onto any PC or Mac. In fact, Sonos doesn't care which controller you use and is committed to offering as many ways to control your distributed audio as possible -- if you don't purchase a CR200, no worries, you still have full control over your home audio system without spending a dime. In total, we have 1 Mac desktop, 2 Mac laptops, 1 PC laptop, 1 CR100, 1 iPhone, and now, the CR200, all capable of controlling our two-room system. You can never have too many controllers.

CR200 vs. iPhone App

During our testing we commonly had the iPhone in one pocket and the CR200 in the other. At 0.7-inches thick, the CR200 is almost twice as thick as the iPhone and its sharp edges and rubberized, non-slip battery cover means the CR200 doesn't slip into the ol' trouser sack as smoothly as the curvaceous and slippery iPhone. Still, it's very pocketable, something the older CR100 absolutely wasn't.

Why carry two devices? Easy, the CR200 is dedicated to controlling our music experience. When the urge strikes to "turn it up" or when Hakuna Matata accidentally sneaks onto the playlist, nothing beats the CR200 for instant access to your system. With the iPhone you to have turn on the device, swipe the unlock slider, quit any running app, navigate to the page where the Sonos app lives, launch the app, wait for WiFi to connect, and then wait for the app to load. Of course you could, for the price of the CR200, easily justify the purchase of a dedicated iPod touch just for Sonos. However, you'll have to avoid the urge to take the device out of the house loaded with music, apps, and games in order to keep the Sonos app loaded into memory and always available to control your home audio. Something we suspect you, or your family members won't do, at least not for long. Even if you do manage to dedicate an iPod touch to the Sonos it still won't be as fast as the CR200 riding Sonos' proprietary 802.11n-based SonosNet wireless mesh network -- it's not even close.

Unfortunately, the CR200 wasn't designed to be carried in a pocket. It's intended use is as a shared controller for all members of the house-hold. In other words it was meant to sit stationary on a tabletop like a standard living room remote. While you can lock the buttons by holding down the "Zone key" (the one with the house icon) for a few seconds and even turn off the very sensitive accelerometer-enabled instant-on function, the CR200 lock-screen display still turns on automatically whenever the physical buttons or capacitive touchscreen get jostled -- something that happens all the time when carried in a pocket. Granted, the capacitive touchscreen works best with bare fingers, but it will turn on, and stay on anywhere between 10 seconds and 1 hour depending upon how you configured the "undocked sleep-timer." Naturally, we dialed it down to 10 seconds but we still managed to nearly deplete the battery by the end of each day. Surprisingly, Sonos didn't consider this usage scenario even though the CR200 is clearly portable. Nevertheless, we've been told that the controller's behavior can be modified via software update if it proves problematic. Otherwise, we found the battery to last at least a few days between charges (we didn't have time to conduct formal tests) when leaving the CR200 on the table as Sonos intended.

The CR200 also features a new "Info" icon that provides easy access to information like artist biographies and side projects, album reviews, and even concert dates (when using Last.FM) at the tap of a button. We found this feature to be pretty impressive when curled up on the lounge browsing through Last.FM radio or Rhapsody's 6 million strong subscription service. Unfortunately, it's not available when browsing your own music library. The feature's a big value add when you're lost in the act of sampling new music. Look for the info feature to be included in the free 3.0 Sonos app for the iPhone / iPod touch any day now, just as soon as it clears the App Store approval process. You won't find it on the 3.0 update for the CR100 (understandable) or on the 3.0 PC or Mac controllers (huh?).

The value of using a subscription music service with Sonos can not be overstated. Being able to stream just about any track you can imagine to any room in the house whenever you feel the urge easily justifies the $13 per month (or less with Napster) subscription fee in our opinion. It's absolutely seamless, instant, and deeply, deeply awesome if you enjoy playing and discovering new music as much we do.

Wrap-Up

First off, let's differentiate between those looking to get into their first Sonos configuration and those who want to enhance their existing Sonos system with a new controller. For first timers, purchasing the CR200 is a no-brainer as part of the BU250 bundle. For $999, you get the CR200 (plus cradle) and ZP120 (amplified, just add speakers) and ZP90 (good for home stereo hookup) ZonePlayers -- almost everything you need for a two-room setup. However, since most homes won't have fixed Ethernet drops in the rooms where you want your audio you'll probably have to add a $99 BR100 ZoneBridge to the purchase in order to bridge the Sonos network of devices with your home WiFi network.

Now the hard part: what if you already own a Sonos system, does it make sense to purchase the CR200? Well, you probably already have the original CR100 controller in addition to a PC and/or Mac controller and maybe even have the Sonos app loaded on your iPod touch or iPhone. That makes it difficult to justify that $349 price tag of the CR200. If you think of the CR200 as just a remote control (and let's be honest, it is), then its price is $150 less than the Logitech Harmony 1100 remote with 3.5-inch touchscreen and $100 more than the Harmony One, each of which can control thousands of different devices. In fact, they'll control pretty much any device except your Sonos.

So we guess it boils down to this current Sonos owners: if you have more time than money then the answer is no, don't purchase the CR200. If you have more money than time then absolutely, the CR200 is the best Sonos controller money can buy. If you have neither time nor money then perhaps you'd be interested in something from Creative?

Sonos CR200 Press Images

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