Digital audio streamers may seem like old news in 2008, but the reality is that the product type has only reached maturity in the past couple of years, with relatively affordable, stable products like the Squeezebox Classic and the Apple TV. Still, both of those products are upward of $230 bucks and we've heard of plenty of consumers looking for a more affordable, basic option to stream their MP3s into the living room. That's the niche the Philips NP1100/37 is trying to fill, by offering the core functionality of the more expensive models, but coming in at a more reasonable $180. It eschews advanced functionality like onscreen album art and support for obscure digital audio file types, while still offering streaming from a PC, access to Internet radio, and the ability to tap into the Rhapsody subscription music service. If you're really into digital audio, you'll appreciate the more sophisticated and fully featured Squeezebox Classic, but the average buyer should be perfectly satisfied (and save some money) with the Philips NP1100/37.
Philips has a knack for attractive designs, and the NP1100/37 is no exception. From the front, the NP1100/37 is completely flat, with transparent plastic around the perimeter, and a glossy black center. Right in the center of the faceplate is a nice-size LCD screen, which is especially important since the screen is the only method of navigation with the NP1100. We also appreciated that the NP1100/37 turned into a pretty nice clock when we turned it off. The rest of the unit is very thin--the main unit is only a little more than an inch thick deep--and the only button to be found is a power button on the top. The look is fairly similar to another excellent digital audio streamer, the Squeezebox Classic, although we feel that the Squeezebox's screen is easier on the eyes.
As there is only a single button on the whole device, you'll have to use the included clicker to do anything with the NP1100/37. The remote is pretty standard, but it's intuitive enough and we were zipping around menus in no time. The centrally located direction pad is appreciated, although we didn't like that the OK button also doubled as a play button, as we often tried to use it to select an artist and see a list of albums, but instead it started playing all the songs by that artist. The bottom of the remote is dominated by a number pad, which can be used to enter text, the same way you do on a cell phone. Our biggest complaint is that the three major function buttons at the top--music, Internet radio, and music services--aren't differentiated at all from the other buttons. And one more note--if you get sick of constant bleeps every time you hit a button (we sure did), jump into the setup menu and disable the clicker sound.
There's a setup CD that accompanies the unit, but it really doesn't do much setting up. The CD includes a manual and links to download Windows Media Player 11, but it doesn't quite hold your hand as networking newbies might like. On the other hand, we got it up and running without consulting the manual, so anyone familiar with audio networking problems shouldn't have any issues.
As the NP1100/37 doesn't have a built-in speaker, you'll need to connect it to an AV receiver or some self-powered speakers--anything with an auxiliary input will suffice. The NP1100/37 is equipped to access your network using either a wired or wireless connection, and we didn't have a problem accessing our WPA-protected router. The NP1100/37's main job is to stream music from the Internet and your PC, and there are three main sections to the NP1100/37's media offerings: music, Internet radio, and music services.
The section labeled "music" gives you access to DRM-free MP3, WMA, and AAC files stored on your PC, which needs to be running a media server. Philips recommends using Windows Media Player 11, which worked for us, but we also had success using other uPNP servers such as TVersity and Twonkyvision. While the file format compatibility will definitely suit most listeners' digital music collections, more diverse collections will appreciate the competing Squeezebox Classic's support for formats like FLAC and Ogg Vorbis,
While the NP1100/37 can't tune into over-the-air AM or FM radio, it can tune into thousands of Internet radio stations that are freely available. In our opinion that's better, since we rarely enjoy standard AM/FM these days, but can find plenty to listen to on Internet radio. Overall, there are tons of stations to tune into from around the world, and even many standard AM/FM stations also broadcast online. While we were able to find plenty of stations to listen to in Philips' database, do note that you can register online and add additional stations in case your favorite station isn't listed already, although you'll be limited to MP3 and WMA streams.