Exclusive: iRiver Clix Rhapsody Review

The second-generation iriver Clix is an impressive little device, but iriver followed in SanDisk’s footsteps and used its partnership with Rhapsody to create a pretty slick little end-to-end solution called the Clix Rhapsody. That means the Clix now comes with Rhapsody DNA firmware and works with the Windows-only Rhapsody software, which lets you transfer Rhapsody Channels and subscription tracks to the Clix. Best of all, if you’ve already got a second-gen Clix, you can convert it to a Clix Rhapsody just by downloading new firmware for nothin’.

My initial impression is that this will be a good thing for fans of the Clix and an easy way to discover lots of new music. Although I ran into a few snags early on in my testing, that was just a pre-launch glitch that was taken care of last week.

The Clix Rhapsody’s’s hardware is identical to the original, with the cool clickable-faceplate, 2.2-inch screen, and somewhat counterintuitive buttons around the edges. (See my full review of the hardware here.) The 8GB model still isn’t out yet, so you can only get the 4GB version, but at least it’s reasonably priced at $189.99 (MSRP), which is $10 cheaper than the regular second-gen Clix when it came out.

Setting up the Clix Rhapsody requires a few basic steps: Download and install Rhapsody’s music management software, set up a Rhapsody To Go account at Real.com (either the free 14-day trial or start a full subscription for $14.99 a month), and plug the Clix into your PC’s USB port using the supplied USB to mini-USB cable. It’s no more annoying than setting up an iPod with iTunes.

(If you already have a second-gen Clix, you can transform it into a Clix Rhapsody simply by downloading and installing the latest firmware, which gives you the Rhapsody DNA interface.)

When you fire up the Rhapsody software, you click a sign-in button on the lower left and enter your account name and password. The Clix will show up in the left pane. You can import your existing collection into the software and load it onto the Clix by simply dragging your tracks from the Library window to the Clix icon and hitting Start Sync.

You can also add Rhapsody tracks and channels — preset and user-created virtual radio stations based on artists or genres you like — to the Clix Rhapsody. When you first add them to your library, they’re still in “streaming” mode, meaning they’re not actually on your computer. Select the tracks and choose Download Track(s) to create copies on your hard drive. You can even choose what format and bit rate you’d like your downloaded tracks to be — a very big win for Rhapsody!

The Rhapsody software automatically fills any remaining space on your player with channel content (if you’ve chosen to sync channels), though transferring the content takes a little extra time versus normal tracks because they have to be downloaded first.

When you boot up the player, you see a “Welcome to Rhapsody” screen — other than that, there are very few changes to the Clix’s interface.

“Rhapsody Channels” is added to the default (customizable) main menu and the Music menu. The channels are easy to create in the Rhapsody software on your PC and are automatically updated with new content each time you sync the player. The tracks’ DRM licenses are also updated — you have to sync the Clix Rhapsody at least once every 35 days or your Clix’s tracks will become unplayable. (Boo!)

When I first set up my Clix Rhapsody, I ran into a few glitches with licenses expiring, but that was apparently the result of Rhapsody’s license authentication servers having problems while I was testing. In any case, I reinstalled the Rhapsody software and it’s been smooth sailing ever since.

Another fun feature is Rhapsody’s Playlist Central page, which includes plenty of celebrity playlists. I was shocked to learn that Reverend Run (of Run DMC) likes Kenny G, and Clive Davis is into Barry Manilow…. You can even share your playlists with friends, whether they’re running Mac OS X or Windows (thanks to Rhapsody’s Web interface)–and whether or not they have a Rhapsody account.

Holding down the right side of the faceplate during Rhapsody track playback brings up a contextual menu that gives you access to some of the coolest new features of the Clix: You can choose to buy a permanent download version of a track automatically when you next sync the player, you can rate songs to get better music discovery recommendations from Rhapsody, and you can see artist info right on the player — usually a paragraph or so worth of artist bio and history from Rhapsody’s editorial staff. Not bad!

Overall I like the integration of Rhapsody’s excellent subscription music service with iRiver’s distinctive hardware. The Clix itself has enough useful and fun features to make it worthwhile even without the Rhapsody DNA firmware. That said, Rhapsody is definitely one of the better online services out there, and it works well as a music discovery method, despite the slowness of the download/transfer process for subscription tracks and channels.

I’m still annoyed that none of this works with Macs, but Windows users and fans of innovative gadgets will definitely dig the Clix Rhapsody.