The appeal of a wireless media receiver -- a box plugged into your stereo to play the music saved on your computer -- got a simple demonstration after I recently moved. I had dozens of boxes to open and unpack and needed a soundtrack for the work, but all the CDs were still imprisoned in cardboard.
Fortunately, I had already set up the stereo, the computers and the WiFi access point. All I had to do was plug in two media receivers that I'd been testing, Apple's AirPort Express and Slim Devices' Squeezebox, and I had my digital-music library blasting through the speakers.
But unlike my earlier experiences with this type of hardware, these two devices actually worked, more or less, out of the box. The AirPort Express and the Squeezebox have their faults, but they get most of the basic tasks done; if you could just combine their best parts, the results would be close to perfect.
I tried the Squeezebox first, a $279 black box with a small antenna for its 802.11b WiFi receiver, plus analog and digital audio-output jacks to connect to a stereo. (A $199 version supports only wired networks.)
Setting it up involved installing its SlimServer software on my computers -- it runs on Win 98 or newer, Mac OS X and Linux and is also available as source code for use on other platforms. After this software is loaded, you'll need to let it index your music collection; when you add or remove a song from a computer, you must repeat this chore, since SlimServer can't track those changes automatically.
Then I used the Squeezebox's remote to point it to my wireless network (a relatively straightforward process, except for the irritating labor of typing out a 26-character WiFi encryption key on the remote's numeric keypad).
The Squeezebox never dropped a connection when networked to a Mac desktop. But it failed with numbing regularity when paired with a Windows laptop, even when I moved both devices to a friend's wireless network.
I've heard from enough happy Squeezebox owners to think that this problem must be rare. Still, you'd do well to give this thing a thorough test before its vendor's 30-day money-back guarantee expires.
The Squeezebox plays MP3 and Windows Media Audio music files, as well as the MP3 streams broadcast by many Web radio stations. The SlimServer software can also read AAC files created by Apple's iTunes program, but since it sends them to a Squeezebox as bandwidth-hogging uncompressed audio, don't expect reliable play over WiFi.
Slim Devices' system doesn't accept song downloads bought at such stores as iTunes, Wal-Mart or Napster. This isn't Slim Devices' fault -- this Mountain View, Calif., firm (www.slimdevices.com) has yet to get the necessary programming information from Apple and Microsoft, the creators of those sites' copy-controlled music formats -- but it's still a major hindrance.
While Slim Devices works on this point, it ought to address a few other issues. The Squeezebox crashed a few times, requiring a forced reboot. Its bright, two-line LED display is impossible to miss but difficult to read, with characters maybe half the size of those on a DVD player's readout. And the way to view the artist and album of a song, instead of just its title, is less than obvious (pressing the "Now Playing" button won't do the trick).
I had no such problem with Apple's AirPort Express -- it includes neither a status display nor a remote control. I had thought those omissions would negate the utility of this tiny gadget, but after a week of living with it I've changed my mind.
The beauty of the AirPort Express -- $129, plus a $39 bundle of analog and digital audio cables -- is its slick integration with Apple's iTunes software. Installing this device can be tricky: Its setup software works only on Mac OS X 10.3, Win 2000 or Win XP, and XP users may need to download a semi-obscure Microsoft WiFi software update. But once it's on your WiFi network, there's no other program to run; just select your AirPort Express from a drop-down menu in the iTunes window to send your songs to the stereo.
You can do this with your computer's MP3 and AAC files -- including purchases from the iTunes Music Store -- and even those on other computers at home, if you employ iTunes' music-sharing feature to broadcast their collections across your network. The AirPort Express also plays MP3 Web-radio streams. And its fast 802.11g WiFi receiver never dropped a connection, even when I tried to jam the wireless network with massive file downloads.
(Without the audio-cable bundle, the AirPort Express can serve as a tiny WiFi access point or extend the range of Apple's AirPort Extreme WiFi routers.)
But, alas, there is that no-remote-control thing: Unless you have a deep set of playlists or Web-radio picks, or you don't mind leaving a laptop in the living room full time, you'll get a lot of exercise running over to the computer each time you cue up a different set of songs.
Apple says it's aware of this; Greg Joswiak, the company's vice president of hardware product marketing, even went so far as to note that the AirPort Express's USB port would be a convenient way to add this missing capability.
Knowing how obvious this feature is, and how relatively simple it should be to implement, it doesn't seem like any real risk to buy an AirPort Express now. But it may be a real pain -- this device has been on sale for only a week, but it has already sold out through much of next month.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at firstname.lastname@example.org.