If Logitech's "new" UE Smart Radio ($180 street price) looks familiar, you're not experiencing deja vu. From the outside, it's nearly identical to the Squeezebox Radio the company launched nearly three years ago, save for the new "UE" branding on the front. Its long list of streaming services is also unchanged, including heavy hitters like Spotify, Pandora, Rhapsody, Mog, SiriusXM Internet Radio, Slacker, Last.fm, and TuneIn.
There are big changes on the inside, though, including a built-in 6-hour battery that means you can move the unit from room to room and even out of doors, as far as your Wi-Fi signal can reach. The software has been significantly redesigned, making it much easier to set up and get music playing quickly, albeit at the loss of compatibility with existing Squeezebox products and some advanced customization options. (More troubling for Squeezebox fans is that the UE Smart Radio signifies the end of the Squeezebox line of products.)
For most buyers, the UE Smart Radio would be better than the Squeezebox Radio it replaces, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's the right compact music system for your home. Bluetooth speakers, which have gotten better and cheaper over the years, are a compelling alternative, especially since they work in the absence of a Wi-Fi network (even better for outdoor use) and they'll play audio from any app your smartphone supports -- no need to wait for updates from Logitech. If you appreciate that the UE Smart Radio doesn't need a smartphone to serve up its audio, it's a well-designed product and a decent value. But if your music experience these days revolves around your phone, a Bluetooth speaker may be the better buy.
Design and user interface
Squeezebox aficionados will recognize the Smart Radio's design as little more than a rebranding of the Squeezebox Radio. That's not necessarily a bad thing; it's a well-designed tabletop music system. The cabinet is plastic, although it feels solid and thoughtfully built. The glossy black finish seems like a misstep, considering you'll frequently have your hands on the device, but fingerprints don't show up as much as you'd think. The back is curved, with a built-in handle, which makes it easy to carry.
The UE Smart Radio is centered around its smallish 2.4-inch color display, and navigation is handled by the large knob below. Overall, it feels a bit like navigating an old-school iPod, spinning the dial to sift through menus, then clicking the knob to make choices. Logitech has focused its redesign efforts on menu navigation, which is vastly improved from the Squeezebox Radio. Where the old Squeezebox Radio's interface was needlessly complex, the UE Smart Radio has stripped away the cruft and put the features you're mostly likely to use -- such as Pandora and Spotify -- right on the home menu.
While navigation is undeniably improved, it's a shame Logitech didn't take the opportunity to improve the hardware. The front panel still feels a tad cluttered with buttons, which makes it less approachable than it should be. (For comparison's sake, refresh your memory about how sparse the iPod control scheme is.) And given that it seems like the UE Smart Radio's natural home would be the bedroom, a more alarm-clock-like design would make sense.
Remote: Your smartphone
The UE Smart Radio doesn't come with a remote, and that's because the company more or less assumes you already have the remote: your smartphone. While you can use the Smart Radio without a smartphone, it's clearly built with the expectation that most buyers will be using the Smart Radio app (available on iOS and Android), which makes it easier to search and browse for music.
I tested the UE Smart Radio using the iOS app, which is easier to use than the older Squeezebox app. It's stripped down to just three panels: Favorites, Now Playing, and All Music. The app is very responsive, and the UE Smart Radio reacts nearly immediately to track changes and volume adjustments. Again, the main improvement is that there are fewer menus and options you need to deal with to get music playing.
There are some surprising limitations, though. Your phone is probably loaded up with a good deal of your personal music collection, but you can't actually play any of the music on your phone directly on the UE Smart Radio. That might make sense to those who understand how the UE Smart Radio works (it needs a server running to stream local media), but it's not intuitive, especially with the prevalence of Bluetooth speakers that can play anything on your smartphone.
Aside from the redesigned navigation, the biggest difference between the Squeezebox Radio and the UE Smart Radio is that the battery is now built-in, rather than offered as a $50 accessory pack. It's a great upgrade and makes the UE Smart Radio a lot more versatile out of the box. You're still likely to have a "home base" for your UE Smart Radio where you keep the charger, but the battery makes it easy to bring to the kitchen or your backyard.