A few select reviewers got an early hand on the Ibiza Rhapsody player from Haier, but CES was my first chance and I walked away quite impressed, and wondering again why Microsoft hadn't done this much--or more--with the 2nd generation Zune player.
The devices are not exactly objects of art--the 30GB player, available now from Amazon.com for $288, is a simple metallic block, and the forthcoming 4GB and 8GB players look like smaller versions of the same design--but the screen is adequately bright and clear, and the company is offering a wide array of downloadable skins and themes to change the look of the player. But the big questions in my mind were (1) how easy is it to connect to a public Wi-Fi spot and (2) once connected, how easy is the process of streaming and downloading songs?
At the CES booth, the Ibiza passed both tests quite well. It provides an available list of Wi-Fi networks arranged by signal strength--nothing more complicated than connecting to a network on a laptop--and connects easily to the strongest one. A Mozilla-based browser lets you get through any sign-in screen, although the on-screen keyboard is a line of letters across the top, which is a bit kludgey. Once connected, searching from Rhapsody's 4-million-plus library is fairly quick (although text search is limited by that on-screen keyboard) and once a song is selected, it starts streaming within a couple of seconds. The streaming sound quality at least as good as FM radio. (I know they use WMA over the air, but not sure of the bitrate.) The song downloads in the background as you stream it, so next time you can access it from your hard drive.
I also discovered that the underlying software was developed not by Haier, but by Varia Mobile, a Seattle-based company specializing in Linux-based mobile apps. Kudos to them and RealNetworks for coming up with a workable celestial jukebox.