If you're anything like us, the idea of waking up to music is enticing, but we keep our alarm clock set on the buzzer mode because there's nothing worth listening to on FM radio. The Aluratek Internet Radio Alarm Clock with Built in WiFi (yes, that is the actual product name) has no such limitations, allowing you to wake up to Internet radio, music on a networked PC, a connected USB flash drive of MP3s, or even plain-old FM radio. The total feature package of the Aluratek ($200 list) is impressive, and our experience was sweetened by the fact that we had mostly trouble-free wireless performance whether we were streaming Internet radio from Albania or our personal MP3 collection. Our only major fault is that the Aluratek, well, sounds like a clock radio. In other words, don't expect a lot of sonic dazzle from the Aluratek--audiophiles are better off with a more substantial system such as the Grace Wireless Internet Radio or a digital audio receiver that connects to a home theater system, like the Squeezebox Duet. But if you're just looking to casually listen to some tunes when you wake up or before you go to bed, the Aluratek's excellent feature set and reliable performance certainly make it worthy of your consideration.
While many Wi-Fi radios have alarm functionality, the Aluratek Internet Radio is the first one we've reviewed that actually looks like an alarm clock. The front features a big LED display, which is great for checking the time from across the room. Further to the right is a USB port, followed by a single speaker, which bubbles out from the rest of the body. Sleepyheads will appreciate the large snooze button on the top of the unit, and there are a few other buttons such as a Stop button for the alarm, a directional pad for navigating the menus, and a power button. We would have liked some more alarm-centric buttons, so you could, for example, set a new alarm time without navigating the menus. Some buyers might be turned off by the pedestrian look of the all-plastic casing, but we didn't mind the look for a product that will most likely live in your bedroom or kitchen.
The main menu on the Aluratek is well laid out and easy to use. First you select which function you'd like to use (Internet Radio, FM Radio, Media Server, MP3 Player, Alarm, or Setup), and each function is represented by an easy-to-understand icon. For Internet radio, you can browse by genre and location, which makes it easy to find, say, a big band jazz station in Germany or an alternative rock station in Arizona.
Aluratek includes a remote, which means you won't have to be standing over it to change the station or adjust the volume. The remote's button layout is fairly mediocre, and we really wished the volume controls were separated more from the other buttons. On the upside we appreciated the big blue buttons for major functions surrounding the main direction pad, and just including a remote at all is a step up over the Grace Wireless Internet Radio.
The main feature of the Aluratek is its capability to tune into thousands of Internet radio streams that are freely available on the Web. Internet radio hasn't been that popular in the U.S., but that's too bad, because while your local AM/FM might be lame and satellite radio costs money, you're bound to find something you like on the thousands of free stations available on an Internet radio. Web radio offers online simulcasts of many of the world's broadcast stations (including many of the HD Radio stations you can't get on standard analog radios), as well as a wealth of Internet-only streams; in other words, even the most eclectic music and talk radio fans can find something worth tuning in.
The Aluratek gets streaming audio from the Internet via your home's broadband connection. The Radio has a built-in 802.11g, but it'll also interface with slower 802.11b and faster 802.11n Wi-Fi wireless networks. There's a single Wi-Fi antenna in the back, which can be rotated and is user replaceable. It's compatible with both WEP and WPA security, and we had no problem logging into our WPA network. You can also opt for a wired Ethernet connection, if Wi-Fi proves to be too unstable. For all its functionality, one noticeably missing feature is the capability to add Internet radio stations that aren't available in the preloaded list. While most people will probably find something they like out of the available options, it's always nice to be able to fill in the gaps. It also would be nice to be able to dial into a podcast's RSS feed, so you could, for example, listen to episodes of Radio Lab without downloading them to your computer first.
In addition to streaming Internet radio stations, you can also dial into your own digital music collection. There are two ways to do this: you can connect an USB flash drive to the front USB port or you can connect to a PC running a media server. We had no trouble listening to MP3s off of a thumbdrive, and we were surprised that streaming music off a PC worked without a hitch. Compared with our experiences streaming music in the past, we were pleased at how easily it worked.
It's easy to get sidetracked by all the digital audio functionality, but the Aluratek is a fully functional alarm clock. It has dual alarm functionality, so you can set different "his and hers" wake-up times. Some might be annoyed that setting the alarm is done on the 24-hour standard (military time)--even if you set the clock to be on a 12-hour system--but we didn't mind since we almost always set an a.m. wakeup time, and therefore never had to input a time like 14:30. Another perk is that you can set the alarm to play essentially any music source. Want to wake up to an MP3 off of a flash drive? No problem. Same for Internet radio, FM radio, and even tracks off your networked PC. And you can specify the alarm volume, so you can fall asleep at a quiet volume but have the alarm--whatever the source--be loud enough to wake you from a deep slumber.
The Aluratek has a good deal of connectivity for an alarm clock. There is the USB port for listening to MP3s on the front of the unit. Around back, there's a headphone jack for private listening, stereo analog outputs for connecting to a stereo system, and an Ethernet jack if you want a wired network connection. While the connectivity options are mostly solid, we felt the Aluratek should have included an auxiliary input, which would add the capability to connect an MP3 player or other external audio source.
How well a Wi-Fi radio is able to pull in a signal and hold it without dropouts and buffering is one of its most important attributes. Luckily, the Aluratek fared fairly well in our real-world testing conditions. As with all Wi-Fi radios, it takes a few seconds to tune into a station (as the radio buffers), but after that we never had the Aluratek rebuffer the signal. Dropped connections were also infrequent, but they did occasionally happen, and we generally had to turn the radio off and on again to regain a signal. It's an infrequent nuisance--and anyone expecting the rock-solid reliability of a stationary AM/FM will be letdown--but it wasn't a major frustration for us.
In terms of sound quality, there's no getting past the fact that the Aluratek sounds like a clock radio. If sound quality is a priority for you, you're probably be better off with a different Wi-Fi radio, such as the Grace Internet Wireless Radio or the Sony VGF-WA1. That said, the Aluratek's sound quality is perfectly acceptable given the lowered expectations. We tuned into a variety of stations--ranging from jazz to rock to classical--and the Aluratek generally sounded decent no matter what we threw at it. There's virtually no bass and the sound is anything but detailed, but uncritical listeners won't mind. We did run into a couple of rough patches. In one instance, we were listening to some talk radio, which sounded fine at about half volume, but started to sound pretty harsh when we cranked the volume higher. We ran into the same thing on some harder rock songs--it sounded decent at moderate levels, but once we pushed the volume close to maximum, we could hear some buzzing that is typical of an overdriven, low-cost audio system. As long as you're not trying to fill your room with sound, you'll be all right.