Imagine you buy a Honda Civic - a perfectly reasonable car. But the day you go pick it up from the dealer, you notice there are no headrests. You ask the dealer why this is the case and she tells you it has something to do with the company that owns the rights to headrest technology imposing regional restrictions and, long story short, sorry, but you can't get headrests in Canada.
It's not really a big deal, right? Lots of products have different features in different countries. You don't even use headrests, you have neck muscles like a mountain goat. But still, you would be angry, and rightly so. It's the principle of the thing - you are paying for an inferior product than you would get if you lived in the United States.
Keep this analogy in mind when reading this review of the Squeezebox Internet Radio from Logitech.
Let's get this out of the way first: Squeezebox is just a weird name. It sounds like something a quarterback would yell right before executing a particularly gimmicky play. Squeezebox 45! Squeezebox 45! Hike! Sack.
Still, Logitech's Squeezebox line has done pretty well with customers. Last year's Squeezebox boom was well-received across the board, and the company has a bunch of other Squeezeboxes out or due out soon, including a touchscreen radio that looks like it might be very pretty, though I have yet to get my hands on one, and a $2000 (U.S.) digital music streamer called the Transporter that, I assume, also does your grocery shopping.
At around $200, the Squeezebox Radio is one of the more affordable options in the line, though still not cheap. It is essentially a high-end alarm radio with Internet-based superpowers.
The radio looks a bit like a small loaf of bread on its side, with a smooth rounded back and a flat front where the controls, the display screen and the speaker live. Logitech makes a big deal about how you can watch images of what's playing on the display, but given that the screen is the size of a 2-by-2 matrix of nickels, I'm not sure why anyone would be all that interested in a thumbnail of whatever album they're listening to. You can also download a Flickr app and view photos on it, though again, I don't know why you would.
Out of the box, you get the radio, a power adaptor and a line-in cord to plug your portable audio player in (I tried plugging my iPod in and it worked perfectly. I'm told other Mp3-players work pretty well, too).
What makes the Squeezebox more than just your run-of-the-mill alarm radio is its ability to stream music via a WiFi or Ethernet connection (the WiFi is the interesting part). Simply download the free Squeezebox player on your computer, and it syncs your music and iTunes library to your Squeezebox. If you've bought a computer any time in the last half-decade, you probably have the system requirements to do this. The result is a carbon copy of your play lists anywhere you put the radio. I'm not sure how it'll do in a big house, but it ran fine pretty much everywhere in my shoebox condo.
Setup is designed to be simple, and unlike some other Logitech products (that square-shaped Harmony universal touchscreen remote comes to mind), it is. The primary method of navigating menus is the scroll dial, which also doubles as a slightly tedious keyboard when you want to do things such as enter a password for a WiFi network. Despite this, setup only took me a few minutes, and installing the server software was fast and painless. Five minutes later, I had achieved my life's dream of listening to Godspeed You! Black Emperor in the shower.
Even before you sync it to iTunes, the Squeezebox radio's menu system will look very similar to the iPod's. The main dial does most of the scrolling, and also functions as a pushbutton. There's a also a second smaller dial for the volume. Three favourites pre-sets sit along either side of the display screen, and you can set them to songs, play lists or Internet radio stations simply by holding down the button. Alarm, home and back functions are all easily accessible, and there are dedicated play, pause and skip buttons. Setting multiple alarms is intuitive, and you can set the display to switch to a digital clock. As someone who mistakenly bought a bedside clock whose glaring neon-blue screen turned my bedroom into a lightning bolt, I admire the Squeezebox's subdued display. You can also set it to give you a break from the alarm on certain days.
Besides streaming your music wirelessly, the Squeezebox also allows you to select from thousands of Internet radio stations. The selection is broad and pretty similar to what you'd expect from something such as the iTunes radio list. Connection time is swift and the one time the radio crashed, it had the good manners to come back to the same menu it was at before. My computer, however, crashes pretty much on the half-hour, every half-hour, but this didn't seem to do much more than momentarily startle the Squeezebox.
Adequate is probably the best way to describe the radio's sound quality. The mono speaker handles your average MP3 just fine (the Squeezebox also supports a variety of other formats, including lossless ones). Don't expect it to turn your kitchen into a music hall, though. This thing is designed to, at the very most, fill a single room with sound. There's none of the crispness you'd find in a pair of high-end speakers, and the bass sounds like two fat guys bumping into one another. But if your primary musical experience is listening to computer speakers or a pair of iPod headphones, this won't sound too bad at all.
As per the Mandatory Web 2.0 Act of 2009, all future electronics tools must come with an app store, and the Squeezebox radio is no different. The selection is pretty much a joke, and includes tools to tell everyone on Facebook what you're listening to. Maybe there are developers lining up around the block to build Squeezebox apps, but I doubt it. For now, the app selection is pretty limited.
And if you're in Canada, really limited.
All the promotional material I got hyping the Squeezebox radio mentioned that you can use it to listen to Internet music services including Pandora and Rhapsody. Now Pandora used to be one of my favourite sites; it's where I discovered tons of artists whose CDs I later bought and concerts I went to. Then one day I tried to log in and was told that because I was not in the U.S., I could no longer use it. When I saw all the marketing about Pandora on the Squeezebox, I momentarily allowed myself to believe I could finally get that service back.
But no. Flip through the radio's many menus and there's no mention at all of Pandora or Rhapsody. There isn't even a message saying, "Sorry chump, not in Canada." Those features are simply non-existent when you run the Squeezebox radio here.
It's a shame, because otherwise the Squeezebox is a lovely little device. Maybe a bit expensive for a high-end alarm radio, but a great and easy way to rock out to web radio stations or your own MP3s without a spaghetti-dish of cables or a more complex solution involving a hacked Nintendo Wii or some such thing. On its core merits, I recommend it wholeheartedly. And to be fair, it's not entirely Logitech's fault that regional restrictions are keeping Pandora and the like away from Canadians - Logitech's engineers aren't the joyless ghouls trying to erect fences in a fenceless medium.
Nonetheless, be aware that if you buy a Squeezebox radio, it may say Pandora and Rhapsody on the box, but you'll be paying for a product that doesn't carry these services. You'll be getting a Honda Civic without the headrests.