Internet radio is big. Pretty much every "terrestrial" radio station of any size now streams live and many, such as KCRW in Santa Monica (one of my all-time-favorite radio stations), offer dedicated news and specialized music streams. And then there's the huge number of Internet-only stations such as soma fm with its 14 commercial-free, advertiser-supported, incredibly groovy channels (a big high five to DJ Rusty Hodge).
So, what are you going to use to listen to this overflowing smorgasbord of music? As most of these stations use standards such as MPEG or Real Audio streaming and or provide Flash-based players, there's no problem finding PC- and Mac-based solutions to get your groove on.
But what if you want to listen to Internet radio but not use a PC? I've covered a couple of options in previous columns, such as Logitech Slim Devices' Squeezebox Classic, which I reviewed last year and which is still, in my humble opinion, one of the very best products in the market (although at US$300 it's not cheap).
This week I have a new entrant into the dedicated Internet radio player market: The World Radio from Wolverine Data ($180).
I reviewed one of Wolverine's products a couple of years ago and the World Radio is curiously consistent with the company's other products -- that is, almost good but disappointing.
The Wolverine World Radio sports a retro, boxy but kinda cheap look (that my wife just doesn't like at all), has a power button, a home button, a back button, four buttons for presets, and two knobs, one for volume and the other for scrolling that you also press to select the currently highlighted entry on the puny and low-resolution monochrome back-lit display.
When I first switched on the World it immediately found my Wi-Fi access point (the device can also connect via wired Ethernet) and after I entered my access code (the user interface would make this a clumsy process but the included remote solves this problem) the World Radio was online. I browsed the available stations by countries and eventually found KCRW and, voilà! I was listening! Cool.
That said, while news and talk channels sound fairly good, the quality of the sound for music channels leaves a lot to be desired. The bass is almost nonexistent, the middle is flat and the top is rather tinny. Not truly awful, but not at all good.
The World Radio can also play music via Windows Media Player 11 running on your PC (tough luck to you OS X users).
So, does the World Radio have issues? You betcha. The user interface is poor. The low resolution of the display and poor organization make it clumsy, but it's the slowness and lack of responsiveness that really irritated me.
The World Radio also gets confused and when confused it just sits there and looks like it is cogitating but never actually does anything. The only answer is to unplug it, plug it back in, and then switch it on again. As my old friend and ex-Network World colleague Sandy Gittlen once quipped, "Who needs a radio that needs rebooting?"
In fact, that is the same problem I've had with other products that try to replace traditional devices (such as the Sony Reader): If you want to replace a radio or a book you can't deliver something more complicated unless you add a huge amount of value, and it is there that the World Radio and the Sony Reader simply don't cut it.
There are more issues with the World Radio, such as the weird and useless Web interface and the clumsy bundled vTuner service (this provides Internet-based selection of channels for your unit), but here's the bottom line: The World Radio isn't completely awful, it is just lame and buggy. I was initially impressed but with experience the Wolverine World Radio is simply disappointing. I'll give the Wolverine World Radio 2 out of 5.
Oh, and on the Wolverine Web site, don't believe the simulations of the World Radio user interface: The real one isn't in color, it doesn't have nice fonts, and it doesn't work that fast. Tut, tut, tut.