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 fairly easily, tainting some of its slickness. It has a rectangular shape with rounded corners and measures 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 bit 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. The arrangement is a bit 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.
While the controls are perfectly suitable for using the VTech as a radio, we were disappointed that there weren't any alarm-centric buttons, like snooze or alarm set. That's too bad, since the VTech's design seems perfect for a bedroom nightstand. If you're looking for Wi-Fi radio to double as an alarm clock, check out the Aluratek Internet Radio or the Acoustic Research ARIR200.
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 exception 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, like the NP2900 can, but it's still better than the vast majority of displays.
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 buttons for navigation, but when using the onscreen menu, the up button makes the cursor move right, which is a bit disorienting. We were also sorely missing a mute button for when we needed 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.
Hitting the source button brings up the four main ways of listening to music on the VTech: Internet radio, my music (streaming music for a connected PC), FM radio, and Aux In.
Selecting Internet radio allows you to tune in to the thousands of free Internet radio stations that are available (VTech claims 11,000 stations). If you can't stand what's available on AM/FM (neither can we) and don't want to pay for satellite radio (neither do we), there are plenty of great stations available online for just about everybody.
Thousands of stations are great, but that much variety can make it overwhelming to find exactly what you like. VTech filters the stations in a few ways: genres, locations, languages, most popular stations, and my stations. You can use multiple filters at once, picking, say "Jazz," then Belgium, to find jazz stations in Belgium.
"My Stations" allows you to access stations that you've saved via VTech's "Station Finder" Web site. This is a great option, as we found it much easier to quickly search and browse online, building up a list of stations to later choose from on the actual unit. We also appreciated that VTech lists the bit rate of the stations online ("MP3 128K"), which makes it easier for us to filter out rough-sounding low-bit-rate stations. VTech also allows you to add any station you like via entering a URL.