In Europe, the Web radio appliance, a dedicated hardware device that connects to a home network and then to the Internet to play live audio streams from the Net, is already a well-established product category.
A Google search turns up a half-dozen or more products. Most, however, are available only from UK and other European online sellers. In North America, Web radios first appeared a few years ago, but apparently did poorly. Most disappeared. Now theyre beginning to come back.
Asus, the fast-growing Taiwanese computer and electronics manufacturer, introduced its AIR Internet Radio last year. The product, which won an International CES Innovations Design and Engineering Award for 2008 in the lead-up to the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show (CES), is now available online for as little as $165.
The AIR radio plays WMA (Windows Media Audio) and MP3 streams at bit rates up to 320 megabits per second (Mbps). The radio comes pre-programmed with 10,000 stations or so the company claims, we didnt count. You can also add more stations.
Maybe AIR is the Web radio that will finally turn North Americans on to computer-free Internet radio listening. Asus, its interesting to note, is pushing the environmental anglea Web radio draws less power than a PC.
Like other products in this category, this one boasts quite a pleasing industrial design: a kind of retro industrial chic. It looks something like an old-fashioned table radio, but with cleaner linesand a small monochrome screen on the front panel. Its available with black or wood-grain framing.
Industrial design is a non-trivial consideration with this type of product, since the idea is that you can put a Web radio in your living area, where you wouldnt want to put a clunky-looking computer. It has to fit in.
The AIR radio measures about 9.8 x 5 x 7.5 inches (250 x 128 x 190 mm) so it could easily perch on a bookshelf, a shelf in a stereo cabinet, or on the kitchen counter.
Also, like many other Web radio appliances, the speaker system in the AIR is monaural, and the speaker is necessarily, given the radios dimensions, small. This is not, on its own, a hi-fi device.
However, it does have a surprisingly full and pleasing soundcertainly better than most clock radios weve heard. (It also works as an alarm clock.) And you can listen in stereo over headphones or by using the line-out jacks to connect the radio to a stereo or home theater receiver.
To get the best possible audio quality, you have to connect the Asus AIR radio to your stereo sound system. How good is it?
To find out, we conducted a side-by-side comparison with the highly regarded Logitech Slim Devices Squeezebox wireless media player connected to a stereo system. We connected both to a receiver, to different input channels, tuned both to the same Internet radio station and flipped back and forth between input channels.
The Squeezebox sounded better, but not by much. And that is very much to the Asus radios credit.
Hardware set-up was simple enough. You plug it into the wall socket, flip the power switch on the back and use the included 26-key remote control to select Configuration from the main menu displayed on the radios small screen.
While AIR is designed to work as a Wi-Fi appliance, it also has an Ethernet jack in the back for optional wired connection. We set it up as a wireless device.
Selecting Network on the Configuration menu takes you to a submenu where you can choose Auto Setting if youre using a router that works as a DHCP server (which most do), or Manual Setting if you need to manually input IP address, Subnet Mask, etc. We kept the default Auto setting.
Back at the Configuration menu, we selected Wi-Fi Configuration. The next screen took so long to displayit simply said Empty for many secondsthat we backed up through the menu system and tried again. The second time, it displayed a list of available access points much more quickly, including our desired network.
Selecting your network in this list takes you to a submenu where you can choose Enter WEP/WPA, to enter an encryption key, or Direct Connection if you dont have WEP or WPA security in place.
Aside from the one noted hiccup, network set-up went flawlessly.
Using the AIR radio is also pretty simple. You can use the remote control or the buttons and dials on the front panel. They include a four-way direction control with Enter button for navigating menus, a big Volume dial, a Home button that takes you automatically to the home menu and five pre-sets for selecting favorite stations.
To get started, select Radio Stations/Music from the Home menu. Like most Internet radio applications, AIR presents available stations by genreit lists over 75 genres.
While we did not count the stations, we know its a substantial database. Even the Classical music category, never one of the most popular, included over 140 stations, including many wed never encountered before.
AIR also lets you select stations by Country/Location. Virtually every country in the world is represented. For the U.S., you choose by state.
We did encounter stations in the radios list that would not play. But, this is the nature of Internet radio. Some Internet-only stations are not professionally operated and may be off the air for any number of reasons. Some may have a limit on how many users can connect simultaneously. Others are scheduled to be off the air at certain times. And sometimes stations change Web servers and IP addresses.
Asus updates its database regularly, though. Selecting Version Update from the Home/Configuration menu refreshes the station list in under a minute and returns you to listening to the station that was playing before you started the process.
Stations cut out slightly more often for rebuffering than they do when listening on our test computer or Squeezebox media playerbut it still didnt happen often enough to be a serious problem.
Rebuffering happens when the network connection cant get data to the device quickly enough to keep up continuous music playor the devices processing or input/output systems choke on the data flow.
The process for adding a new station to the radios database is tortuous. Its a matter of keying in a URL for the stream, which you can usually find at the stations Web site or by looking in Properties for the Listen Now or Listen Live link at the site.
But, to enter it into the AIR radio, you have to press the up or down arrows on the remote (or on the front panel) to cycle through the alphabet, numbers, and special charactersall in one long listfor each character, then click right arrow to go to the next character.
We input one address of over 40 characters, and then the link didnt work. Bah!
Adding existing stations to the My Favorites menu or to the presets on the front of the radio is only slightly easier. To get a station into the favorites lists, you only need to select it in the Radio Stations/Music menu and press the Add Favorite button on the remote.
But, if you want it to be one of the top ten favorites that you can select by pressing the five presets on the radio or the number keys on the remote, you have to move it up the list from the bottom where its automatically inserted. This involves two button clicks for each position you move it, which is tedious if you have a long list of favorites.
Bottom line? Despite these annoying interface problems, the Asus AIR radio is a fairly impressive product. If youre hooked on Internet radio, already have a Wi-Fi network, and would like to bring the experience into your living area, this is a great way to do it.
Gerry Blackwell is a frequent contributor to Wi-FiPlanet.
This article was first published on Wi-Fi Planet.