Unlike the Rhapsody-compatible Rockford OmniFi, which requires an add-on USB Wi-Fi adapter, wireless 802.11b networking capability is built into the MP101. Although some video-enabled digital media receivers utilize faster 802.11g networking, the audio-only MP101 doesn't really need the extra bandwidth (though adding 802.11b devices to your 802.11g network often slows your network's performance to the lowest common denominator). The rear panel hosts an Ethernet port if you prefer a hardwired connection instead. Audio connectivity is limited to a stereo RCA analog output and a headphone minijack output, which is inconveniently located on the rear panel. Unlike the Slim Devices Squeezebox, the MP101 has no digital audio outputs.
The MP101 setup and configuration process is fairly simple. Two main applications, the Netgear server and the Rhapsody software, need to be installed on your PC's hard drive. (Sorry, Mac fans--the MP101 is Windows only.) Initial installation of the Netgear server took 15 minutes to fully collate the 3,500 tracks on our drive during testing. Entry of a credit card number is required during the Rhapsody registration process, but a coupon code that's included with MP101 will get you a free month of service. Finally, we connected the MP101 to a home stereo, powered up, and followed a few simple steps, configuring the unit to work with a wireless network.
As far as file format support goes, the MP101 has the key bases covered but nothing beyond that: PLS and M3U playlists are compatible, as are home-ripped MP3 and WMA files. Like all other network media devices to date, the MP101 can't handle AAC files from Apple's iTunes Music Store, nor can it stream secure WMA files, such as those from online music stores such as Napster 2.0 and Musicmatch.
Building your MP101 Rhapsody library requires some work, but it's addictive and rewarding. For instance, you type a term, such as Outkast, into the Rhapsody search box, then select the available Outkast albums or tracks that you wish to make available for streaming playback on the MP101. You repeat this process anytime you want to add new content to your personal Rhapsody database (nearly 630,000 tracks are available to choose from). Informative artist write-ups are integrated into the Rhapsody server interface. Rhapsody currently costs $9.95 a month or $24.95 a quarter; the monthly subscription fee provides unlimited streaming access to Rhapsody's tracks and Internet radio stations, but the bit-rate limitation of 128Kbps may irk audio purists.
Using the remote, you can navigate PC-based tracks by all the usual categories, including artist name, track title, album, genre, and playlist. Unfortunately, Rhapsody tracks can't be navigated by genre. And when powering up the MP101, you're forced to choose between the Rhapsody Internet server and the Netgear server running on your networked PC. As a result, you can't simultaneously browse Rhapsody content and your PC-based music library. Furthermore, you can't create a playlist that mixes content from the two sources--think Berlin Wall.
The MP101's analog outputs sound suitably clean, but the device isn't without a few performance snags. In our tests, before installing the most recent firmware upgrade, the server applications and the hardware required frequent rebooting to reactivate dead communication links. Although the firmware upgrade alleviated most of the problem, initial start-up of the device after the PC had been off overnight was still touchy; we routinely had to disconnect and reconnect the MP101's power cord after powering on the PC. The Netgear server application corrupted twice, forcing a problematic reinstallation. That said, the wireless audio stream rarely failed while playback was active. As we're otherwise enthusiastic about the MP101, we look forward to reevaluating the unit when Netgear works out these kinks in the future.