I’ve had an MP3 player for my car since I bought my first empeg back in 1999. The empeg is an absolutely brilliant MP3 player, but I’ve never had anything that compared for the the home.

I own a bunch of Rio Receivers, which were designed by the same team as the empeg, but the software on them is just too flawed (largely thanks to the Rio marketing department I fear) to make them anything other than mediocre MP3 players.

I’ve looked in the past at the Sonos system, but it is always looked very expensive and restricted in its functionality. I also looked at the previous SlimDevices players, but the big problem with those was that even though they had a clear bright screen I can’t read the screen from across the room without first finding my glasses.

So when I saw that SlimDevices (now owned by Logitech) were working on a system similar to Sonos, with a screen-less player and a Wifi enabled remote with a screen, I was very excited. So I bought one as soon as they became available.

Anyway, enough of the waffle, on with the review (the Duet has a lot of functionality, so we are going to be here a while).

Physical

The Squeezebox Duet is made up of two parts, the player itself called the Squeezebox Receiver and the remote called the Squeezebox Controller. The Receiver is much smaller that I was expecting, it barely covers the palm of my had. The Controller looks and feels much like a typical mobile phone, through without a keypad and about 25% longer.

They look like this:

Logitech Squeezebox Duet

The design and the finish to both equal to Apple devices that I have had my hands on recently, as you can see the design is very clean and uncluttered. The Receiver has just a handful of external connections: left/right phono out, optical/coax out, an RJ-45 network port and the power socket. It has no buttons or switches on it at all and just a single LED on the front which cycles through a whole rainbow of colours while it is going through the various stages of connecting to the network, but thankfully settles down to just white when it is playing.

Correction: the Receiver does indeed have a button, the LED on the front also doubles as a button that pauses or unpaused the Receiver and appears to reboot the Receiver when held down for a few seconds

The Controller has 2.4 inch (6 cm) colour screen, 10 buttons and a scroll wheel. The screen is reasonably good, with not bad viewing angles, certainly much better than my HTC S710 phone for example. It certainly looks good when it is displaying flickr photo streams, more on that later…

The buttons on the Controller are:

  • Add – adds the item to the playlist
  • Play – plays the current item immediately
  • Back – backs up to the previous menu
  • Home – take you back to the home screen (pressing it again switches to the “Now playing screen”, pressing and holding it powers the Controller off)
  • Select – selects the current item (the select button sits in the centre of the scroll wheel)
  • Volume up and down
  • Rewind and fast forward – skips tracks with a single click
  • Pause – pauses the current playlist

The buttons are flush with the surface of the Controller, but that doesn’t cause any problems when using in it dim light as they are all beautifully back-lit in white.

The scroll wheel is a mechanical one, rather than the solid state ones on the iPods. It doesn’t have a phsyical clicking mechanism as you scroll it (though by default the Controller uses its speaker to simulate a click as you move between menu items). Using the scroll wheel was the first disappointment that I had, because the surface of the wheel has the same smooth finish as the rest of the Controller it sometimes slips under your finger as you scroll it. It isn’t that much of a problem, just a minor annoyance.

I do hope that the rotary encoder behind the scroll wheel lasts better than some of them do. It would be very annoying to find that it two years the Controller became unusable because the scroll wheel was behaving erratically.

The Controller is charged with a very slick looking docking stand. The stand itself is very small and looks like it will topple over easily. However when you pick it up you realise that your concern is unwarranted as the stand is nicely weighed to stop that happening.

Thankfully because Logitech are not Apple the Li-ion battery in the Controller is user replaceable, yah !

How it works

The old Slim system and the Rio Receivers both worked the same way, the player has a screen and an infra red remote to control it. The music files are stored on you PC and you have to install some sort of server software on the PC.

The Duet works like the Sonos system, the screen moves to the Controller and which is connected via Wifi. The Controller doesn’t connect to the Receiver directly, instead it talks to the SqueezeCenter server. The Receiver also talks to the server to stream its music. You can have more that one Receiver connected and can control them all with a single Controller.

You can also control older Slim players using the Controller just the same way as you control the Receiver.

The geeks among you will be excited to hear that the Controller is a complete Linux computer in the palm of your hand, with 64MB of RAM and a reasonably powerful ARM processor.

Getting started

I must quickly mention the packaging, someone at Logitech has clearly been looking at Apple’s packaging. After you remove the out “marketing blurb” box you find a matt black box with black musical scores printed in gloss black. You realise that it isn’t an Apple product however when you have to go and find a knife to open the box and its compartments.

The Duet doesn’t come with a CDROM or DVD, so one of the first things you need to do it download the SqueezeCenter software from the SlimDevices website and install it on your computer, you can run SqueezeCenter on Windows XP, 2000, NT, Vista, OS X 10.3.5+, Linux, BSD or Solaris. SqueezeCenter is very easy to install.

Getting the Duet setup was pretty straight-forward, you fit the battery to the Controller, plug the Receiver in and away they go detecting your network settings. The Controller’s battery has more than enough charge in it to get you through setting everything up and having a good play with it.

Once it has examined your network the Controller displays a list of Wifi networks to you, I expect if your Wifi is set to hide itself then at this point you have to enter your SSID yourself. So you select your network and move onto entering your pass phrase or key.

This bit was a little painful as the Controller has no keypad at all, so you have to select each character by scrolling up and down with the wheel. My pass phrase is stupidly long, so this step took me a few minutes. At least I shouldn’t have to do this too often (thankfully settings like this survive software updates).

The Controller also takes charge of setting up the Receiver, which is good because the Receiver has no screen or keypad.

Once they are both connected to the network the Controller displays a list of SqueezeCenter servers, so you pick your server from the list. At this point if there is a more recent firmware for the Controller it downloads it, installs it and restarts (I think the Controller has an SD slot hidden somewhere so you can update the firmware if you need to and can’t connect to the network).

In use

The Controller is very easy to use, even Eryl my wife said “this is so much easier to use that the Rio Receivers”. As you’d expect you just scroll with the wheel and click.

The top level menu on the Controller has the following items:

  • Now Playing
  • Music Library
  • Internet Radio
  • Music Services
  • Favorites
  • Settings
  • Extras
  • Turn Off Receiver

To play some music you open up the Music Library menu and select from:

  • Artists
  • Albums
  • Genres
  • Years
  • New Music
  • Random Mix
  • Music Folders
  • Play Lists
  • Search

Most of these menu items take advantage of the SqueezeCenter database, that has read all the tags from your music files to build up the list of Artists, Albums, Genre, Year etc. As you would hope when you drill down into Artists you get a complete list of all the Artists in the database. If you then pick a artist you get a list of all their albums, if you have cover art for your albums then they are also displayed in the list of albums (the cover art takes a couple of seconds to be displayed, but it is intelligently cached by the Controller).

At any point in these menus you can use the Add or Play buttons on the Controller to either add the current item to the end of the play list or to immediately play the item. For you empeg users, the Controller doesn’t current appear to allow the clever playlist manipulation tricks that the empeg can do. I must go and suggest some new functionality on the SlimDevices forum.

Correction: the Controller does actually have one trick up its sleeve in this area. If you press the Add button the item you have selected is added to the end of the current playlist, whereas if you press and hold the Add button it inserts the item as the next item in the playlist.

The Music Folders item lets you browse the directory structure of you music files on the server. For you empeg users, this almost gives you the same functionality as hierarchical playlists, but obviously only if your directory structure is neat and tidy. However I believe a SqueezeCenter and Control plugin combination could give you the same playlist functionality as emplode+empeg. I need to go an brush up my perl and learn lua (SqueezeCentre plugins are coded in perl, Controller plugins are coded in an odd scripting language called lua).

The Search menu lets you search for Artist, Albums, Songs and Playlists. To search you enter, using the scroll wheel, part of their name. The search doesn’t start until you have entered all the characters you want to and started the search. It would be better if it started searching as soon as you started entering searches, though I think their might be an old plugin to do this that just needs to be ported to the new system.

Once you are playing some music you can see what is playing via the Now Playing screen. It shows you the Artist, Track and Album for the current song, along with a progress bar for the song and a “x of y” display for the running order. It also displays the cover art for the album if there is any.

Pressing Select on the Now Playing screen brings up a list of the current running order which again shows the Artist, Album, Track and cover art. You can skip straight to a song by selecting it and pressing the Play button. Selecting a track and pressing the Add button at this point removes the song from the running order.

Pressing Select on one of the tracks in the running order list brings up detailed information on the song and also shows an Add to favorites item. The information items that it shows like Album, Year, Artist etc are all active. By active I mean that if you select Album you can use the Add button to add that whole album to the running order, press Select to explore the album’s tracks or use Play to play that whole album. All very well thought out.

All of this functionality is very quick to use, there are no annoying pauses to frustrate you. The only time you see any significant pauses is when you are using some of the other functionality that has to go to the Internet to fetch data (like the RSS feed browser, flickr screen saver, Internet Radio streams etc).

Expandability

One of the reasons why the Duet looked more appealing to me than the Sonos system is that the Sonos software is pretty much completely closed. If people want to add new features to it they pretty much can’t. In comparison SlimDevices actively encourage their customers to get involved adding new features to the product and to help fix existing features.

Both SqueezeCenter and the Controller support use added plugins and there is a wide range of them available for SqueezeCenter already. One of the most impressive of the existing plugins is called Alien and it allows you to listen to BBC Radio live transmissions and “Listen Again” content via your Receiver.

When you install the Alien plugin a new menu is added to the “Internet Radio” menu on the controller. The Alien menu then lists all the BBC radio stations and you can either pick one of them to listen to live or choose from a list of the “Listen Again” content that the BBC makes available on its website. That means that I can listen to Radio 4 live using it or go an listen to yesterday’s Archers…

Conclusion

There are large chunks of the Controller’s functionality that I haven’t even touched on yet and this review already has too many words. I think I shall stop for now and do a second part to this review covering the rest of the functionality.

I love this thing, it really is much better and more complete than I was expecting. I thought it would be a typical version 1.0 product, with gaps in functionality, compromises and bugs. But it isn’t, it has a very full feature set and works very well.

I can definitely recommend this to anyone, geek or newbie alike. I plan on buying another couple of Receivers as soon as they are available and then I can also test out the synchronised playback feature.

I’ve had the Duet less than 24 hours so far, so I don’t know yet how battery life on the Controller is goin g to work out. That said it is looking fairly promising so far, I’ve had the Controller sat next to me and played with it occasionally for the last couple of hours and the battery guage hasn’t moved off of full yet. The Controller goes to sleep when you don’t use it from a while, cleverly it wakes up when you pick it up again, which is another neat touch.

See also part 2 of this review.