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The Phoenix Wi-Fi revives the tabletop radio

Obituaries for radio as a popular medium have been appearing since television invaded the homes of the 1950s. But radio survived TV, and it looks like it may survive the Internet Age as well.

Do you want to listen to audio without hovering over your computer or isolating yourself with a pair of headphones? You may want Com One's Phoenix Wi-Fi radio.

The Phoenix is a slickly-designed 802.11b/g device (in profile, it looks a bit like an italic "L") that connects to your wireless network (or, via a USB port, to a USB drive or media player) and plays your audio out loud.

And not badly. The two stereo speakers offer good sound, especially for two relatively small speakers placed close together -- I didn't crank it up to its maximum for fear that a neighbor would call the police, but I did get some good sounds out of it. The speakers are located on either side of a 128- by 64-pixel LCD; below that is the play/pause/directional button and a nicely old-fashioned volume knob. The Phoenix also offers eight buttons that you can use for presets.

When you first start the Phoenix up, it immediately brings up a wizard that helps you connect to your wireless network. While it's a bit of a hassle when it comes to entering a WEP or WPA key (you have to use the volume knob to scroll through the all the letters and numbers, and then use the play/pause button to choose one), once I had gone through the process, the Phoenix immediately connected to my network, and I didn't have to trouble with it again.

The radio comes with a bunch of preprogrammed Internet stations; you can choose by location (either from "Local Stations," which means U.S.-based stations, or "International Stations") or genre. If you don't see anything you like, or have a favorite streaming feed that you want to connect to, Com One's Web site offers a wider selection of stations -- once you log in to the site, you can add the feeds to your own radio's list or import any unlisted feeds manually. Once you've configured your feeds, you can listen to them via the Phoenix whether your computer is on, off or in the shop.

The site's configuration page has a rather unfinished feel to it (the word "beta" is prominent), and I had a bit of problem getting it to accept a feed that was not on Com One's list. (I kept getting an error message saying that it couldn't find the feed -- and then, after I gave up, the feed suddenly showed up on my list.) There is also very little support information aside from copies of the user manual and a rather short FAQ. With any luck, Com One will do some work on this.

Another problem with the Phoenix is pretty predictable -- namely, the unpredictability of the feeds. At least 50% of the stations I tried were unavailable -- they either never got out of the buffering phrase, reported "Radio service overload or broadcasting interrupted," or generated an error message in French that (having taken Spanish in high school) left me in the dark. And, of course, there's the unpredictability of your wireless network -- if your laptop doesn't pick up the signal in your basement office, the Phoenix won't either.

The bookmarking feature, which is supposed to let you bookmark favorite songs, is only somewhat useful, since few stations support the technology yet. And you can expect the occasional pause as a station goes into caching mode.

Battery life on the four AA Ni-Mh rechargeable batteries wasn't great -- I clocked about four hours of continuous play -- but since the radio is most likely to be stationary, and therefore plugged in, I don't consider that much of an issue.

All that being said, it was nice having a bedside radio that could hook me into a huge range of stations and podcasts -- and could let me listen to the music on my media player without the discomfort of earbuds (it handles MP3, WMA, and WAV formats). The Phoenix is small enough to easily carry around the house; it's not bad to look at, and great to listen to. If you've got US$249 to blow on a handy household audio player, you could do worse.

In Short

Product: Com One Phoenix Wi-Fi radio.

What is it? Internet radio without the computer

What does it do? Connects to your Wi-Fi network and lets you listen to countless Internet radio streams and podcasts as though it was an old-fashioned radio

What else does it do? Lets you set eight presets, bookmark stations and wake up on time using the alarm

How well does it work? Pretty well, although some stations are unlistenable because of caching problems

How much does it cost? List price is $249