The modern way to listen to international broadcasts
"But it's not really radio!" Hasn't that been the argument made by some about Internet radio?
They have a point. Who wants to have to fire up and be chained to a computer to listen? And then there's that Ethernet wire. That's not radio.
Enter the Com One Phoenix WiFi Internet Radio. It's not a computer. Well, at least it doesn't look like one. It's wireless because it uses your home - or any other available - WiFi signal to connect to the Internet. It's compact (8.7 in/22.1 cm wide x 4.8 in/12.19 cm high x 3.1 in/7.874 cm deep, lightweight (22.5 oz/637.9g with batteries) and it runs on four NiMH batteries that are automatically recharged when the unit's power adapter is used. So it's portable. It also has a screen, preset buttons, a dial, a knob and its own stereo speakers. All this certainly looks more like radio.
But what is it?
The parent company of Com One is Baracoda SA, which principally develops and designs applications utilizing Bluetooth technology. For over a year, Baracoda has had a model very similar to the Phoenix on the French market called the Orange Liveradio, named for and sold (over 10,000 units so far) by the country's primary Internet service provider. There's even an ad for it on the Radio France International website. The Phoenix is an updated model prepared especially for the North American consumer market.
"Radio", in fact, may be too narrow a description for the Phoenix. Com One calls it a "wireless digital stereo content player". It can access thousands of radio stations streaming audio; but it also can be set to automatically load and play podcasts, as well as serve as a remote player for music libraries stored on a PC hard drive. A file of audio books is a listening option. The Phoenix also is an alarm clock that can help you drift off to sleep at night, wake you, and then allow you to snooze those precious extra few minutes in the morning.
The Phoenix is based on an Intel PXA270 processor clocked at 300MHz. It boots Linux from 8MB of Flash, and has 32MB of RAM.
In the box, you'll find the Phoenix unit, a power adapter, four 2100mA NiMH rechargeable batteries, a quick start guide and a more detailed operating manual.
The unit's design itself is simple and modern and, to my eye at least, rather attractive. When viewed from the side it has a back-leaned L shape, white in front, matte gray/silver on the sides and back.
The centre "stack" includes a monochrome, backlit six line 128x64 pixel LCD screen under which are a soft touch navigation (up, down, left, right, select) dial on the left and volume knob to the right. Between them is a pinpoint-size blue LED indicating WiFi connectivity. Arrayed across the bottom of the unit's face are eight preset soft touch keys, bisected by a "home" key and a "bookmarks" key.
Two 1.5 in/3.81 cm, wide band (170 Hz - 20kHz.), 8 ohm, 2x4W RMS stereo speakers with bass boost and spatialization enhancement lie on either side of the display. On the lower back of the unit are a socket for the power adapter, a standard 1/8 in/3.175 mm stereo jack (for powered external speakers or headphones, not supplied) and a USB port for connection to MP3 storage devices and Bluetooth transceivers.
Install the batteries, plug in the power adapter and the Phoenix comes to life. First, it searches for all available 802.11(b) and 802.11(g) WiFi signals. If the modem you select is protected by WEP or WPA security, the unit will ask for the unlock key and then retain it for future activations. The blue LED light flashes during the linking phase and connection is then confirmed both by a full-on light and a screen message. It all happens in less than a minute.
All WiFi radio receivers like the Phoenix have extremely limited on-board storage capacity. There's enough to store operating preferences (such as backlight intensity, scrolling speed, alarm times and the like) for the device itself, but not much more. So a web-based interface is used that allows the consumer to customize each unit with a wealth of listening and organizational options. Com One has developed its own proprietary interface for the Phoenix, found at www.wifi-radio.biz. (It was in beta stage and generally worked well in testing, but will have been improved and updated with the "beta" label removed by the time you read this.) The consumer registers the unit and is duly rewarded with the ability to configure it to his or her listening needs.
The Phoenix comes preloaded with about a thousand or so radio stations and a growing list of podcasting streams. At the web interface are several thousand more of these that can be added by the user to his or her personal account via the simple "drag and drop" action of a mouse. Furthermore, for desired content not already listed at the website, a facility is provided for testing audio stream and podcast links for compatibility with the player's firmware. Links to compatible content can then be added by the user into his or her personal account without resort to any third party approval or action.
Simple and intuitive
These preferences are then immediately and automatically communicated through the Internet to the user's player. It's all rather simple and intuitive, though a bit more direction and handholding than is currently provided by Com One might have proven helpful on a few occasions.
The functionality of the Phoenix is similarly intuitive. It's essentially a "tree and branch" diagram construct that starts with the functions ("Radios", "Podcasts", "Library", etc.), devolves to categories (like "Local Stations", "Genres" and "International Selection") and then proceeds to a series of geographical or topical breakouts which can be user-created. The user finds and selects these various offerings using the navigation dial.
The Phoenix supports the major streaming formats - ASF/WMA, Real Audio, MP3 and WAV-and various protocols associated with them; as well as M3U, PLS and ASX playlist formats-and RSS feeds - through server-side decoding.
A "My Network" feature allows the Phoenix to access UPnP music sources present on a home network or computer through Windows Media Player. Other useful features included a "Snooze" function on the alarm clock to provide second and third wake-up sounds and a "Sleep" function to shut the radio off after a pre-set amount of time
Commitment to product longevity
An advantage of digital devices like these is that their capabilities can be expanded and performance improved through firmware updates, eliminating a need for the consumer to continually buy new hardware to obtain this added functionality. With the Phoenix these can be automatically streamed as they become available to each unit via the Internet.
For example, the last firmware upgrade (version 1.5.2) provided improved wi-fi quality and stability with a WPA connection twice as fast as the previous version with a more reliable caching and buffering process. The ability to read MPEG-4 and ACC codecs, as well as AAC, MOV, M4A, 3GP and 3G2 formats, were added. Also, the firmware update procedure was enhanced and the security key editor was redesigned.
A new and improved website also was introduced in early March, replacing a previous iteration that was in "beta". Furthermore, a blog devoted to the Phoenix and allowing for owner interaction with the Com One technical team and between Phoenix owners and users themselves has been established at www.wifiradio.wordpress.com. Good ideas all, but more on that later.
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