Hi. My name is Andrew. I’m a music junkie.
Because my wife and I own upwards of 1,000 CDs, storage has become a problem, not to mention a decorating nightmare. Sure, an additional rack would accommodate another couple hundred discs, but at this rate we’ll have racks in every room of the house. Although CD jukeboxes take up less space, they’re expensive, hold only 400 discs, and you can daisy chain only two of them. Even then, how would one quickly scan the collection for a particular album or assemble a playlist for an evening? After all, a library is effective only if its contents are accessible.
MP3 presents an attractive option, given that hard drives are physically small and cheap, and player software affords yummy sorting and playlist filtering. With a sufficiently capacious hard disk (or multiple hard disks), I could conceivably store the entire collection, even at a hefty bit rate that minimizes loss of quality. Clearly an MP3 server is the answer, with an easy interface and perhaps a remote control. But how to get the MP3s to the stereo and its high-quality speakers?
Our computers live in our den, where the sounds of typing, printing, and whirring hard drives are safely sequestered from the living room’s media bliss. I don’t own a laptop (and buying even a used one would be expensive), so we won’t discuss perching one atop the stereo cabinet (where it would be a decorating problem as well). Since the computers aren’t anywhere near the stereo, an inexpensive minijack-to-RCA adapter cable clearly isn’t an option. On the other hand, my house is wired with Ethernet, and augmented with 802.11b wireless. Perhaps we could use the network to deliver the digital media to the stereo for analog playback?
A SLIM Solution — The $230 SLIMP3 from Slim Devices, Inc. bridges the gap between the computer and the home stereo. It includes player hardware (a network device that attaches to your stereo receiver’s RCA inputs), a remote control, and server software that runs on a remote computer. The software parses your iTunes Library (including playlists) and then streams MP3 files over the network to the player, which decodes them into analog audio for the stereo.
The player’s sole visible feature is a bright green, two-line, vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) that shows the software’s menu structure, playlist, and current track. The back of the player contains only jacks for power, 10Base-T Ethernet, and RCA left and right outputs. At a svelte 8.5 by 2.5 by 2 inches (21.6 by 6.4 by 5.1 cm) and perched atop a smoky grey stand, the player exhibits stark simplicity. Clothed entirely in black, the SLIMP3 player is the model of Johnny Cash cool.
Installing the SLIMP3 is quick and easy. First, download the latest version of the software for your operating system (a 1.4 MB download). In addition to Mac OS X, the SLIMP3’s software officially supports Windows 95/98/Me/XP/NT/2000 and Linux. Other Unix operating systems can install from a source code tarball. For Mac OS X, launch the installer, choose whether the preference pane should be available to just yourself or for all users, and click Install. The installer automatically opens the new SLIMP3 Server pane in System Preferences. Choose whether the SLIMP3 software should launch automatically at boot or login, and click Start. Next, attach the player to your home stereo with the included RCA audio cable, and to a 10Base-T Ethernet network (or 802.11b wireless bridge, such as the Linksys WET11). Plug in the power adapter, answer the yes-or-no startup configuration questions and Shazaam! You’re listening to MP3s on your home stereo.
Since the SLIMP3 is an IP networking device, the simplicity of configuring the device depends on the configuration of your network. If you have a household router that allocates IP addresses via DHCP, an answer of "No" to the configuration question directs the player to use DHCP to get an IP number, and ZeroConf (Apple’s Rendezvous) to locate the SLIMP3 Server. If you need to specify anything manually, those options are available by answering "Yes."
When the SLIMP3 Server starts, it scans the iTunes preference files to learn the location and contents of the music library. Along with files, artists, albums, and genres, all playlists are parsed for display and selection. The SLIMP3 can also play MP3-based Internet radio stations; if any are defined in an iTunes playlist, they are available as well.
You control the SLIMP3 player with either the included remote control or the server’s embedded Web interface. Via either interface, you can browse the library or search for music according to songs, artists, albums, genres, or playlists. To add an item to the player’s current playlist, press Add. The new item, whether one song or a grouping of many songs, is immediately available for playback. Once items land in the current playlist, you can remove or re-order the individual songs. Just press Play to begin listening. I tend to prefer the Web interface, as only two lines of text display on the player. Although the player’s display and remote control are highly functional, scrolling through a lengthy library can be tedious.
SLIM Pickings — With such a painless setup, I expected to rejoice in the unfettered bliss of unlimited music. I imagined myself stringing songs and albums together in playlists of the moment, spinning an unending soundtrack from the virtual depths of a bottomless multi-disc CD player.
In reality, I find that most often we just play from the entire library, randomly sorted. This style of listening brings unending joy as we discover forgotten tracks and even artists, but it can also result in unexpected musical pairings, such as Frank Sinatra’s "Chicago" followed by "Paradise City" from Guns N’ Roses. While I haven’t touched the physical CDs in weeks, I find myself pining for the tactile sensation of browsing and selecting music to match the whims of the moment. This is largely a behavioral issue, as I still tend to listen to music in album units. Over time I expect that my listening habits will adapt, and I’ll build more and more "mood" playlists. I’m still at a loss for the CD inserts, however, as there’s just something about thumbing through the liner notes. But long term, boxing up the discs and jewel cases is moving from a vague concept to an attainable goal.
For all its auditory wonder and convenience, I must point out that the SLIMP3 is a geek toy that aspires to be a consumer electronics device; it lacks the high SAF (spouse acceptance factor) of, say, TiVo. The SLIMP3’s very paradigm of streaming music from a server, for instance, has unintended consequences in a home setting. For example, the source of our MP3s is my main computer, which had previously been set to sleep after 15 minutes of inactivity. If I want to play music with the SLIMP3, I have to consider whether the iMac is awake, and then adjust the Energy Saver settings to not sleep. This annoyance could be allayed, however, if the player supported Wake-on-LAN. (As recently discussed in TidBITS Talk, Wake-on-LAN is a magic packet which wakes a sleeping computer for network administrative access.) In such a scenario, the player could send a Wake-on-LAN packet in response to the user’s first remote control action on those occasions when the server can’t be seen on the network. A sleeping computer would then awaken and resume playing music. In a similar vein, a network-based device is only as good as the network’s infrastructure; some owners of Linksys routers have reported degradation in network performance for other applications on the SLIMP3 Server machine.
I was somewhat disappointed that a software CD is not included in the Spartan packaging. The necessity of a download before installation is perhaps just as well, considering the rapid pace at which the software is updated, but it definitely adds effort to the initial installation process. (Indeed, software updates prompted rewrites of several paragraphs of this review.) I’d also like to see a broadcast mailing list for software announcements; currently they are announced only through company-operated Yahoo Group discussion lists.
Let it be known, however, that as a geek toy the SLIMP3 is righteous indeed. Its server software is written in Perl, and both it and the player’s firmware are GPL-licensed open source and available from SourceForge. Mailing lists for users and developers teem with discussions of user habits, bugs (promptly fixed), and feature suggestions (often implemented). The software is almost infinitely configurable from the Web interface, where you can reorder, add or remove menu items, adjust display formats, use different Web interface display skins, and activate a host of advanced features, including games. (The included SlimTris is a wonderful, albeit horizontal, implementation of Tetris which one plays with the remote control on the player’s display.) If you’re comfortable working with Perl modules and updating package dependencies, third-party plug-ins offer such goodies as a weather feed and a BBC news ticker. A given server can support as many players as you have bandwidth, either synchronized to the same stream or each playing a different stream. Because the software is a ZeroConf-compliant network service, a Rendezvous-aware browser such as Apple’s Safari easily brings up the server’s Web interface. Last, you’re not limited to the SLIMP3 hardware to listen to the server’s stream; point any MP3 player software that can tune an Internet stream (e.g. iTunes or WinAMP) to stream.mp3 on port 9000 of the SLIMP3 Server and you’re in business. (To try this yourself, you’d need to change "YourMusicServer" in the third URL below to match your computer’s Rendezvous name as shown in the Sharing preferences pane.)
The SLIMP3 is an elegant MP3 solution, but I wish I loved it more. This paradigm of streaming from a PC server to the stereo is not the solution I’d envisioned. I realize now that I wanted the MP3s to be stored on a hard disk-based device in the entertainment cabinet, just like the other stereo components. Having lived through California’s rolling blackouts a couple of years ago, I wanted the storage device to turn off when I’m not playing music. I wanted to manage it at the computer or with a pretty television interface. Basically I wanted a TiVo for MP3s, though preferably one that could have huge hard disks added to it easily.
To be fair, the SLIMP3’s paradigm is popular, as evidenced by its competitors: the Rio Digital Audio Receiver from the now-bankrupt SONICblue, Turtle Beach AudioTron, and MacSense’s forthcoming HomePod. These devices are evolving as a relatively cheap and, more importantly, a growing market segment, while expensive disk-based devices persistently flounder in the marketplace. TiVo has joined the streaming solution market as well; their stand-alone Series2 hardware can run the new Home Media Option, which plays MP3s and digital photos on your television after streaming them from your Mac or PC via the TiVo Desktop application (which, like the SLIMP3 Server, uses Rendezvous).
My own musings aside, the SLIMP3 player is a neat little device and a great way to bring the computer’s MP3s to the home stereo.
[Having pursued a career in computing, Andrew Laurence is the black sheep in a family of writers. When not battling flood waters with his new sump pump, he can often be found shopping for increasingly bigger hard drives.]
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