Here is my attempt at reviewing the SliMP3 from Slim Devices, Inc. I say attempt because I always feel sketchy giving a glowing review of a product. As you read this, the enthusiasm isn’t driven by some ulterior motive but instead pure geek and audiophile ecstasy. The SliMP3 is a network-based MP3 player designed to connect to your component audio system (or anything else with RCA line-level inputs). It costs approximately $250 and is available directly from Slim Devices as well as a few other vendors.
I ordered the device last week after Adam pointed me at a review of the unit on Tom’s Hardware. After reading that review (and several others), I felt like I was having a geek wet dream, and I simply couldn’t help myself… (Speaking of ulterior motives, I am convinced that Adam forwarded me the article knowing this would happen… He gets roommate access to the device.. :P).
I received the unit this morning (left by FedEx at the door… Why is it they require a signature when I order a box of Milk Duds, but when I order something for $250 they leave it at the door?) before I left for the dentist and decided there was no need to be 30 minutes early for my appointment and set it up quickly. I had already downloaded and started the server (added ‘server.pl’ to the init scripts) on my linux-based firewall/file-server. Once the server is running you bring up its interface in a web-browser and tell it where your mp3 files are stored. There are many other options, but that’s the important one… If you are a setting tweaker, a quick read of the Tom’s review will make it clear how detailed you can get…
I took the gimzo out of the box, cast the directions aside, hooked up the cat5, power, and RCA cables (all included) and the unit powered up. This is when I noticed the absolutely beautiful vacuum flourescent display brightly beaming it’s goodness towards me… Compared to other home-stereo MP3 solutions (like the Audiotron or the Rio Receiver), this display is large and bright, and even readable from across the room… Continuing on with the setup, I realized that the remote control that it came with was just a generic Sony universal remote, so I decided to pick up the directions to see what I needed to do to set it up.. Six or seven keypresses later the remote was ready to go. The SliMP3 asked me if I wanted to configure it, so I said yes. It asked me if I wanted to use DHCP and the “Slim Discovery Protocol” to obtain the IP address of the unit and of the server (respectively), and I said yes. After a second or two it was up and running. Really. That was it.
The first menu option was “Music Library”, so I pressed the right arrow on the remote and it showed me my directory hierarchy (this took approximately 6 seconds for 170 directories, but caching of this info was activated on the server, so subsequent access were almost instantaneous). Just looking to see if it would make noise I kept pressing right, descending down the left-most branch of the directory tree until I hit a file. I pressed play and amazingly it started playing…. I couldn’t hear any weird electrical noise, or any other distortions, but it was kinda early and I didn’t have too much time, so I didn’t have too much time to scrutinize it… I looked at the remote control guide in the manual and figured out how to add songs to the current playlist… I pressed left a few times then down a few times, and found another file and pressed the proper button. The UI informed me that the song had been added to the end of the playlist… The evil geek in me said “I betcha I can’t add a whole directory to the playlist”, so I tried it and lo-and-behold it didn’t even flinch, adding the directory to the playlist…
After turning it off the display dimmed and displayed the current date and time (which was wrong, because the server’s clock was off.. :P), and I grinned as I headed out to the dentist (and later, work). At work, Carlos was curious about it and wanted to see the web interface at work, so I sshed to my firewall and allowed access to that port from work. I was pleased to notice that the playlist that I had quickly built before I left was still there waiting for me to hit play again when I got back. The web interface is straightforward, a split-frame approach, with a table of links leading to music-browsing and settings pages on the left and the current playlist on the right. From the webpage you can add and remove songs to the playlist or even play them right away. I clicked on a song on the playlist and it started playing it right away (or at least that’s what it told me, I was at work… :P)
While at work I spent a few minutes tweaking various things like how it displayed the filenames on the display, and how dim it got when turned off… I was impressed by the flexibility of the naming options… You can name based on the filename, or the ID3 tags, and you can create custom formatting strings if you aren’t satisfied with their tastes in display.
I got home and started playing with it right away, this time letting my ears really pay attention to the quality of the playback…. Even when I cranked it I couldn’t hear any interference or electrical noise in the signal, and I also was pretty pleased with the tonal qualities of the audio (although I did end up tweaking my receiver’s equalizer a bit later, but it would have been fine on its own). I pressed the various display buttons on my remote to look at the settings I played with at work… It was nice to see that the display had both a two-line mode and a one-line mode of display (the one line mode is easier to read across the room, but displays less info and looks shittier, IMHO). I then did an experiment where I cut a single MP3 into about 9 chunks and put them in a playlist in order. I pressed play and listened to them play back without any gaps, meaning that as long as you have properly ripped MP3’s you won’t hear any gaps between album tracks (unless they were there in the first place)…. I also played around with something I generally don’t touch, but figured I would for
I could really go on and on about how nice the user experience is, but I think I will spare you… If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment and I will get back to you.
Moving on, one of the things that drew me to this device was how open it is…. From the Slim Devices website you can download the source to both the devices firmware and the server. An open system like this is nice because in a competitive industry such as this one it is nice to know that even if the company that made your device goes kaput (which in this case I hope doesn’t happen), you can still keep it alive yourself (and probably with the help of many others). The server software is written in surprisingly understandable Perl, and should run on any OS that supports v5.6.1 of the language… It is officially supported on Linux, OSX, and Windows, but has been run on many other OSes like Be and Solaris, to name a few… My guess is that if your OS supports Perl 5.6.1 and IP operations, you are good to go.
One of the other things that interested me is that the actual hardware is a dumb-terminal, and only knows how to decode MP3 frames and display text… The server does all actual work, right down to telling the unit what’s on the display at any given moment…. This is a bit chatty, but the network traffic appears to be negligible…. The unit only has a 10Mb interface in it, and it doesn’t seem to saturate that, so given the typical 100Mb network in homes today, it shouldn’t even be a concern. What this allows, though, is for fairly unlimited functionality to be added on the server side and the dumb terminal just does what it is told. Even the IR codes that come in to the unit are sent to the server for processing…
Given this flexibility, people have been doing some fun hacking with the software, and the unit even comes with a few games that you can play using the remote control. The neatest one was SlimTris, which was a horizontal four column tetris-like game. It also came with a defender-like game that sucked, but again, it is a neat hack. While the player itself only supports playback of MP3’s, it is a simple leap to imagine transcoding formats (taking an Vorbis file and encoding it to mp3 on the fly for playback on the SliMP3 unit) and lots of other cool features. The player can apparently also play back streaming/shoutcast sites if you have them listed in a playlist, but I didn’t try this at all.
I have to say that this unit hits the mark on almost every aspect, and has fully pleased both my inner geek and inner audiophile. But I feel that every review is incomplete without some criticism, so here are some “problems” I came up with so I didn’t seem like a patronizing nancy-boy:
- I couldn’t find a way to specify more than one spot in the filesystem where files were stored (but I managed to work around this by creating a symlink to the other mountpoint)
- I couldn’t find a way to save the current playlist in memory to a file Update: This can be done from the web interface (look at the bottom of the right-hand playlist frame)
- I actually did have a problem where the 4 pixels, starting from the lower left and going vertical stayed lit and it required a power-cycle to fix this, but I haven’t been able to reproduce this
While I probably don’t need to say this explicitly, this seems like a wonderful purchase… At $250, it could be considered a bit pricey, but I maintain that the price is justified based on the display and the capabilities of the unit (not even considering how it will be extended in the future). Looking at the change log of the server software and the many postings to the developers message boards, it appears that this product has sprouted an active development community around it…
Feel free to ask questions below, I will do my best to answer them….