Philips Streamium SL400i initial impressions

My sister bought me a Philips Streamium SL400i for my birthday. I’ve set it up and played with it a little bit; here are some initial impressions.

The first thing I noticed when I took it out of the box is that it’s much, much bigger than it could be; it’s so light that the case is obviously mostly empty space. I assume it’s big so it looks like a “real” piece of A/V equipment and so there’s room for the multi-line display on the front.

The front-panel display is crisp and has a pleasant blue tint. The UI is about 75% usable with that display, but you can’t quite finish setting the machine up initially without having it hooked up to a TV for a couple of steps that could easily have been made to work with just the front panel. (For example, entering the security key for a WEP-protected wireless network; the front panel display doesn’t scroll to show you the characters you’re entering, while the TV does.) A lot of the time the front panel gives you no feedback about what the machine is doing, while the TV display shows something informative: when you select an Internet radio station and the system does the initial buffering, the TV says “Buffering…” while the front panel continues to show the menu of radio stations as if you hadn’t made a selection yet.

It is clearly made by Europeans. When I turn on one of the audio visualizations, there are little pauses at very regular intervals in the video display that look to me like it’s generating its graphics at 50Hz (the PAL refresh rate) instead of 60Hz (the NTSC rate.) Data entry uses the number keys on the remote exactly like sending SMS messages from a cellphone, an interface that I think will be less familiar to Americans. I’m not used to it, so I found entering my E-mail address slightly frustrating, especially since I was trying to do it using the front-panel display. You only have to do that once, so it’s not too onerous, but I almost would have preferred a TiVo-style onscreen keyboard. By the way, use the “1″ key for both the hyphen and the underscore, though only the underscore is labeled on the remote.

You can tell it to play any audio stream that’s in MP3 or MP3Pro format, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t support other streaming formats like Real or QuickTime or Windows Media. That’s a shame since a lot of commercial and public-radio feeds out there are in those formats. To play random audio streams, you have to sign up for an account on a Philips web site, which you use to manage your streams. Not sure what I think about that — entering URLs with the remote would be tedious and error-prone, but on the other hand it’d be nice to be able to use the box fully without registering anywhere.

The most questionable UI choice, though it doesn’t affect me personally, has to be the use of colored buttons on the remote. At one point the UI prompted me to hit the red button to go back or the green button to continue. I was surprised by that, given that 5-10% of adult men have some degree of colorblindness, and that by far the most common form of colorblindness is an inability to distinguish red from green. They could have chosen any two other colors, or used different shapes instead, and not frustrated those people. You would think any usability expert would have flagged that one pretty early on.

There is a “shuffle” button on the remote, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t do anything. If I select a playlist of MP3s, they’re played in order, start to finish, even if I hit that button. Maybe it works if you’re playing everything by a particular artist (which I haven’t tried yet.)

If you’re running Linux rather than Windows on your media-server PC, you’ll have to grab a third-party app, TwonkyVision UPnP Server, to access your music files. That app is not very full-featured — I’m tempted to write my own replacement — but it appears to get the basic job done. The package includes a USB wireless network adapter for people without an existing wireless network; an initial Google search didn’t turn up any Linux drivers for it. Understandable given the realities of market share, but I was hoping I’d be able to make it work. I’ll search some more later.

Once it’s set up, it appears to play music and videos without much trouble. I haven’ t tried feeding it any high-bitrate MPEG-4 video yet, but it streams from iFilm just fine, all the built-in net radio stations sound reasonably good, and it seemed to have no trouble with any of the ripped tracks from my CD collection. Once I track down MP3 streams for some of the radio stuff I listen to (NPR shows, mostly) it’ll make a good replacement for a radio tuner.

Not a bad device all in all. It’s clearly a first-generation product, but it does what it claims to do. I’ll be sticking with my existing HTPC for this functionality on my main A/V setup, but the SL400i will be a nice addition to my bedroom stereo system.

One Response to “Philips Streamium SL400i initial impressions”

  1. simon Says:

    what is the audio/video quality like? can it stream from network connected storage?