Once I had everything unpacked and in place, I was really tempted to just fire it up and poke around. But the included documentation warned that the software had to be installed first, so I resisted the temptation and started following the directions.
In order to set up the system, you'll need either Windows XP or Vista. But once everything is configured, Windows isn't required to run the system. Figure 5 shows the setup software during the install. Note that the install includes the Linksys EasyLink Advisor, that Cisco seems to be making a part of the installation of all Linksys Products.
Figure 5: Software Installation
Numerous packages are installed during setup, so it can take a long time. In my case, I watched 50 minutes of installation displays until I was ready to start the configuration process. I think I've installed an entire operating system in less time!
Configuration of the units themselves was reasonably simple with clear step-by-step instructions. But comparatively, the Sonos setup I had done during my earlier review was much easier and faster since the pieces were able to self-discover and configure.
One hiccup I did have with device configuration was when I was directed to plug the Remote into the computer via a USB cable. The software couldn't find the directly-connected Remote even after several retries, unplugs and re-plugs.
To get it going, I finally just skipped that step in the process and did the configuration via the menus on the remote itself. The final part of the setup process consisted of firmware updates downloaded from the Internet. All-in-all, it took around two hours between the time I started the configuration before I was ready to try it out.
There are a variety of ways to control the system once it's up and running. The initial method I tried was the Player application that was installed as part of the setup process. Figure 6 shows the Linksys Player running on my Windows XP system.
Figure 6: Linksys Player
In this display, you can see the Director and Extender players on my network. Each can be controlled individually or they can be linked together in "zones" so they're in sync, playing the same music. I found this worked well, and it was nice to walk from room-to-room and hear the same music.
The bottom left lists some "favorites" that I had selected from the various sources available. The middle shows a menu from the Rhapsody online music service. A free trial of the service came with the unit, and I really enjoyed playing with it.
The integration of Rhapsody was fairly seamless in that you could mix-and-match your own music and Rhapsody tracks into the same favorites, or playlists. And you can set up your Rhapsody favorites, albums, channels, etc. on the Rhapsody web site and the results will be pretty much immediately available in the Linksys menus. I won't go into detail on all of the Rhapsody services, you can explore their website for that. But the integration with the WHA was well done.
So how do you get your own music integrated into the system? As part of the installation a DLNA server is installed that indexes and serves up your music. Supported music formats include FLAC, Lossless AIFF, WAV, PCM, MP3, AAC, AAC+, Ogg Vorbis, and MP2. You won't be able to play any DRM restricted files, but thankfully those seem to be going out of style.
You're not limited to the server that gets installed, however, since DLNA is an industry standard. I have several DLNA servers on my network (they are commonly available on consumer NAS devices), and they could all be used as music sources.
Comparing again to the Sonos system, Sonos took a different route to acquiring music, using shared network drives as a source of music. Both methods have plusses and minuses. Requiring a DLNA server means that you obviously have to run a server everywhere you want to share music. But once you have it running, it's auto-discoverable on the network. Using shared network drives doesn't require any additional software to be installed, but configuration is manual.
Using the Controller
Using the player on your computer is all well and good. But the real attraction for the WHA is controlling it via the Controller. I was looking forward to giving the Controller a try, since I had liked the Sonos Controller so well. The Linksys Controller has a larger display and one thing that the Sonos doesn't—a touch-screen.
I picked up an iPod Touch last year and have been impressed with its touch-screen capabilities, so I had hoped that this one would work similarly. It doesn't. You'll note back in Figure 3 that next to the touch-screen there's a navigation button. You'll need it. I found myself rarely using the touch-screen unless I was on a menu that required it.
And when I used the screen, I usually had to use very deliberate and long presses to get my button selected and it often took two or three presses to get it right. I had better luck if I carefully pressed the screen with my fingernail instead of my finger, but that was a bit unnatural for me. Otherwise, the menus on the remote allowed complete control of functionality. Figure 7 shows one of the attractive top-level menus displayed on the remote.
Figure 7: Top Level Menu on the remote
Using these menus, you can manage your music as you'd expect, sorting via artist, album, favorites, etc. In addition to Rhapsody, the free RadioTime service is also included. So you'll find many Internet radio stations to choose from.
I appreciated that the LCD that was quite a bit larger than the Sonos Controller. But one downside of a large screen is shorter battery life. When I was using the Linksys Controller frequently, I couldn't get much more than an hour out of it, so I pretty much used it while plugged in to its USB charging cable, which sort of defeats the purpose of a "portable" remote, eh?
I also had some configuration issues with the remote where it would spontaneously pop up an error saying that it had lost its connectivity. I often could just dismiss the message and connectivity would be restored. But at least once I had to go back into the menus and set the device up again. I also had more than one crash where a reboot would occur. The reboot seemed to take a couple of minutes, but at least it didn't affect the currently playing music.
My general feeling is that the Controller needs work. But there is a better solution. Sonos has released a free iPhone/iPod Touch application that can be used as a controller and you can already use the free Apple Remote app to turn the Touch / iPhone into a remote for the AirPort Express. And if you have a Logitech Squeezebox, the excellent iPeng application performs similar duties.
As a result, I would be very surprised if Cisco were not working on a similar application to turn the Touch / iPhone into a WHA Controller. After all, the native Linksys Controller costs $350 and all it does is drive the WHA. But you can pick up an iPod Touch for $230 (or less if you go with refurbished) that does so much more.
The Touch is smaller, cheaper, has much better battery life, higher-res screen and better touch capabilities. All that's needed is a well-written application and Linksys' own Controller will look like an expensive dinosaur. The only awkward fact would be that you'd be managing and playing the music on the Linksys WHA system and not the iTunes library on the iPod itself.