Slim Devices' Squeezebox and Roku's SoundBridge series are the two best products in the point-to-point digital media receiver market for music. Unlike the AirTunes functionality in Apple's AirPort Express, both products allow you to navigate libraries at the point of listening and neither requires you to turn on your television to hear music as multimedia offerings from a number of other companies. Operating over standard Ethernet or WiFi networks, the third-generation Squeezebox surpasses the sleek industrial design that marked the company's freshman effort, and retains the line's reputation for excellent sound quality when used with capable speakers. The bright vacuum fluorescent display that has long characterized the device illuminates a surprisingly effective and intuitive interface, although the dearth of navigation cues in its two-line presentation can sometimes result in disorientation.
The minimalist appearance of the Squeezebox is actually a facade for a complex array of options. It's actually a client for two content sources -- SlimServer, the browser-accessible open-source server that can run on Linux, Mac OS X or Windows XP, and SqueezeNetwork, a set of Web-based content options. Much of the device's versatility can be chalked up to these sources. SlimServer, for example, has a plug-in architecture that allows the use of iTunes libraries, graphical screensavers, an alarm clock, and what may be the least fun Tetris clone ever created. It also has a large number of arcane configuration options for the advanced user.
While SlimServer is flexible, though, its browser-based UI lacks the grace of its hardware companion and can return duplicate songs or empty libraries if not configured correctly. SlimServer also lacks detailed status updates for tasks such as updating music libraries; it would benefit greatly from an AJAX makeover. SqueezeNetwork aggregates an eclectic mix of Internet content, not all of it music or even audio-based. The free service hosted by Slim Devices can deliver not only podcasts or Internet radio, but also text-based RSS feeds. The Squeezebox is actually an effective Internet appliance for scanning headlines.
Other digital media receivers have long offered Internet radio and some, such as Netgear's MP101, can stream premium services such as Real Networks' Rhapsody. However, the Squeezebox recently became the first non-PC device that can stream Pandora channels. Pandora is a Web site that creates ad hoc Internet radio channels based on musical attributes of songs or artists that you enter. You can rate songs with a TiVo-like thumbs up or thumbs down, which affects the dynamically created playlist, and save the information for songs that you like in a favorites list available online. You can't go back and listen to those songs because of the terms of Pandora's license with content providers, but you can link to samples at Amazon.com or the iTunes Music Store, where you can also purchase the track as a download or part of a CD.
When paired with Pandora, the Squeezebox becomes the best home music streaming product for tailoring new music to your tastes. Next week's column will discuss more details of the Pandora service, including how it makes its often spot-on song recommendations, and its implementation on the Squeezebox.
Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.