The Tunes Explorer is a two-part system. A small wireless transceiver dongle plugs into the USB port of your PC or Mac (it basically looks like a slightly oversize USB thumbdrive). The dongle interfaces with the Tunes Explorer remote. The 4.25x2.33x0.75-inch (HWD) remote is pretty basic. The front face offers a centered, five-way directional pad (forward, rewind, play/pause, menu/back, and select); volume up/down buttons are nearby, but the lack of a mute key was a disappointing oversight. Above the buttons is a four-line, backlit LCD screen. For better or worse, the onscreen menus are navigated not by the front D-pad, but rather by the BlackBerry-style scroll wheel found on the right-hand side. Below the scroll wheel is a keylock switch for avoiding unwanted commands while transporting the remote. Around back is the battery compartment--it's powered by two AAAs. There's no power button per se; the remote turns on when you touch any of the buttons, and it will go to sleep after a few minutes of nonuse. The remote is functional enough, but it has a cheap flimsy feel; the fact that the select button on our review sample was slightly off axis didn't exactly inspire confidence.
Setting up the Tunes Explorer is pretty straightforward. After installing the included software, pop in the USB dongle (a little extension cable is provided for USB ports located in tight spaces), then sync it with the remote by holding down the select button. The software should then automatically boot up your music management software of choice: iTunes (on Windows or Mac) or Windows Media Player or RealPlayer (on Windows only)--we tested all but the RealPlayer option. We used iTunes on a Windows XP machine. Once it booted up, we could use the Tunes Explorer to navigate our music collection, just as if we were sitting at the PC: playlists, songs, genres, albums, artists, and the like. As one-handed navigation goes, the remote was straightforward--use the scroll wheel to roll through menus, depress it to enter a submenu, and--just like an iPod--press Menu to back out. That said, anybody used to the smooth and intuitive iPod clickwheel will find that the Tunes Explorer remote falls short.
The USB-based system has a couple of big advantages. Because it's a proprietary wireless link, it avoids any networking setup headaches--it's pretty close to a plug-and-play situation. And because it's interacting with the actual programs on your PC, there aren't any DRM issues, either. Unlike almost all networking products, the Tunes Explorer won't choke on songs purchased from the iTunes Store, for instance. Likewise, you should have access to the respective programs' other features: we were able to play back podcasts and live Internet radio programs with ease. You just need to drag specific radio stations to your iTunes music library beforehand--you won't have access to the full, unfiltered lists from the remote. One drawback we noticed: our Ogg Vorbis music, enabled in iTunes via a third-party plug-in, was not accessible via the Tunes Explorer.
While the Tunes Explorer Wireless gets the job done, the product has a pretty narrow appeal: people who want to control their PC-based music from within a 40-foot radius. That's theoretically far enough to be in the next room, but remember--you have just the remote, while the speakers and the computer remain behind. By contrast, network-based digital audio receivers such as the Roku SoundBridge M1001 let you pump digital music to anyplace in the house within reach of your Wi-Fi network. Similarly, the Tunes Explorer is only playing audio on the computer itself--so if you want to hear your music on better speakers, for instance, you'll need to connect your laptop to your stereo. The Logitech Wireless DJ, on the other hand, streams music from the PC to a base station that connects to a stereo that can be in an adjoining room. It also lets you control the music via a wireless remote with a much more upscale design and a larger screen than the one offered on the Tunes Explorer Wireless. Similarly, the Belkin TuneStage 2 lets you use your iPod as the remote, bypassing the computer entirely, and streaming the Apple player's music to its stereo-connected base station nearby.
Of course, the Roku, Logitech, and Belkin models cost three to six times the price of the $40 Hercules Tunes Explorer Wireless. And at the end of the day, the little system performs exactly as advertised. If you have the need to control your PC-based digital music from a distance, the Tunes Explorer will get the job done.