They don't get the hype that iPods or AV receivers do, but Wi-Fi radios are some of the more satisfying products a gadgetphile can own, opening up access to thousands of free Internet radio stations. VTech is best known for its cordless phones, but the company has entered the increasingly crowded Wi-Fi radio space with the IS9181 Wi-Fi radio ($160 street price). Instead of putting out a generic Wi-Fi radio, the VTech has a truly unique set of features, with a color LCD display, portability (with six AA batteries), and a downfiring subwoofer that puts out plenty of bass.
On the other hand, some features that are standard on other radios are noticeably missing: the IS9181 lacks Pandora support, a headphone jack, or the ability to stream podcasts. Overall, the VTech IS9181 offers up a compelling Wi-Fi radio package at an attractive price--and its currently the best portable option on the market--but it's definitely worth comparing competing products, like the Grace GDI-IR2000, to see what set of features fit your needs best.
The VTech strikes a pretty pose in pictures. The speaker grilles are matte black with a glossy black finish surrounding the display in the center, with more glossy black covering the entire top of the unit. It mostly looks as good in person, although the finish on the top picks up fingerprints really easily, tainting some of its slickness. It has a rectangular shape with rounded corners and comes in at 12.4 inches wide by 3.5 inches high by 6.3 inches deep. There are two 3-watt speakers on the front of the unit, plus a 10-watt subwoofer on the bottom.
Navigating the VTech is done using the disc on the top of the unit. Spinning the disc works a little like a rotary phone; stick your fingertip in the indentation and spin. It's a mostly comfortable way to browse menus and music stations, although we do prefer the knob-based navigation on radios like the Grace GDI-IR2000 and Livio Radio.
Using the disc is a little more trying anytime you need to enter text using the VTech's onscreen keyboard, as spinning the disc to move the cursor can get tedious. A regular directional pad, or again, knob, would be easier.
The star of the VTech's design is the 3-inch color LCD screen in the middle of the unit. Most Wi-Fi radios (with the exceptions of the Philips NP2900) are stuck with plain-old text displays, so the color display is nice upgrade. It's a relatively high-resolution display, which allows it to display several lines of text, a playback progress bar, time, and other icons, all on one screen. We were disappointed that it couldn't display album art from our personal MP3 collection, as can the NP2900, but it's still better than the vast majority of displays.
There's also an analog stereo output, if you'd like to connect the VTech to a larger stereo system. The two missing connections are a headphone jack and Ethernet port; neither is essential, but we still like to have them.
Another unique feature of the VTech is that it's capable of battery-powered operation. Flip the unit over, take off the cover, and there's a tray for six AA batteries. It's a great added feature, because it allows you to bring your Internet radio tunes with you anywhere in the house that you get Wi-Fi reception: out on the deck, in the kitchen or a den. On the other hand, relying on AA batteries isn't ideal; either you need to use fresh batteries (expensive) or buy rechargeables with a charging station, which requires you to constantly shuffle them in and out. Still, the VTech is the best portable solution we've currently tested; the Sony VGF-WA1 has a superior design with a built-in lithium battery, but it has too many limitations in the stations it can stream.
The VTech can also stream music (MP3, WMA, Real Audio, AAC formats) off a network connected PC. The VTech uses shared folders to access music, instead of running a uPNP server, and that makes setup a little more difficult. That being said, it immediately allowed us to stream music off a NAS drive on our network. Unfortunately no matter what track we played, the VTech couldn't properly display the artist and track information; we got garbled text, instead. We'd love to see a firmware update that addressed the issue.
The included clicker is the slim "credit-card-style" remote that's often packaged with Wi-Fi radios; we prefer a meatier design. It's fine for basic use, but we had plenty of nitpicks. There are up/down button for navigation, but when using on the onscreen menu, the up button makes the cursor move right, which is a little disorienting. We were also sorely missing a mute button for when we need to cut the music off in a hurry. There's also little button separation, so you'll need to look right at the remote to make any tweaks.