Friday, 26 September 2008

Squeezebox Duet: My Impressions

Having recently had my little whinge about setting up the SqueezeBox Duet it's about time I said something about the box itself. Both professional and user reviews around the web are pretty much universally glowing with praise for it and I have to say to a large extent I agree.

First of all, there's the hardware which is sleek looking with a glossy black finish. The hardware is in two parts (ignore the odd cable here and there), the SqueezeBox Receiver:

Which, while not belittling the technicality of it, is to the consumer essentially just a dumb receiver box. It takes an audio stream over either a wired or wireless Ethernet connection and spits it out through your stereo using a digital or analogue audio connection. Then there's the controller:

Which is an altogether more exciting piece of kit. It's a wifi-device that can talk directly to your wifi router or be bridged onto your wired network via the Receiver if you don't have wifi. It features a rather strangely arranged set of controls that become familiar after a little usage. There is a jog dial with selection button, then buttons for playback, volume, control of the playlist and navigation around the menus. As you can see, it's got a nice full colour LCD display too. This means you can wander around anywhere within wireless range, control your music and get feedback directly on the device on just about anything you might want to know.

Software wise, things also come in two parts (well three if you count the firmware on the receiver). There's the software on the controller and some software to run on your PC which is listed as optional but I would consider very much essential. Both of these parts are open source with decent plugin interfaces and documented APIs you can access.

The controller runs a customised embedded Linux distributions known as Squeeze OS which is responsible for running the user interface application on the controller called Squeeze Play. The nice thing about this is you can take the user interface part, Squeeze Play, and run it on your desktop too. While the controller software is open source and pluggable, I haven't found anybody having written any useful applets to run within Squeeze Play yet but it's still early days so hopefully those people producing screen savers will come up with some good ideas for applets. That said, I can have a bit of a hack around too to see how easy it is to program for and whether I can produce something useful too.

The open source server software is called Squeeze Center and should be run somewhere with access to your local music collection. It supports a huge number of formats including flac, ogg and mp3 of course. Squeeze Center is hugely flexible and configurable, mostly through a bunch of supplied plugins. It provides a web interface as well as access to other interfaces so it can also be used to control the music playing as well as being the configuration hub for the entire setup.

Out of the box Squeeze Center provides access to your local music collection via a number of sorting methods (such as by artist, album, song, genre, etc) as well as providing standard playlist functionality. It also allows you to listen to Internet radio through a number of free and paid for services such as shout cast streams, mp3tunes and (a scrobbler plugin is also included). It gives you a favourites menu so you can tag anything as a favourite and later get quick access to it through this menu. Last but not least there's the Extras which doesn't do a huge amount out of the box (this is where most 3rd party plugins are accessed) but it does give you access to podcasts - you can subscribe to RSS or OPML podcast feeds and have them streamed to your hi-fi, cool!

I like to use dynamic playlists and that's some functionality that doesn't get included by default so I've found some plugins that do that for me now. Being a UK resident I want access to the BBC audio content and some kind person has written a plugin to access all their content too, including Live Radio streams, listen again streams as well as BBC podcasts. The final plugin I'm finding useful at the moment is one that automatically adds tracks to my music collection when I copy them to my music directory using a groovy Linux kernel feature, Inotify, otherwise you have to rescan your collection manually after adding new tracks. The plugins I've installed are tagged in Delicious.

Overall, the system seems to work very well. It's great having the flexibility of having an entire music collection at your finger tips ready to play, no messing with things that spin any more, and having access to all the additional content over the Internet is another real bonus. The packaging and interface of the components are really nice and are only set to get better over time, particularly as they're open source. This means I can get my hands on extra code in the form of those useful plugins as well as writing my own. But it also means when Slim Devices get caught up in adding support for new products or bug fixing as they inevitably will, new functionality will always be progressing at least through the community. So now I've got everything fixed up in my config, listening to music at home is quite a cool experience, happy days!

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