The RCA Internet Music System is a home audio system with stereo 20W speakers, an integrated CD player, support for FM Radio, and the ability to act as a Bluetooth speaker for your phone, tablet, laptop, or other device.
But what really makes this $178 stereo system unusual is the Android-powered tablet that acts as a touchscreen controller.
You can use the 7 inch tablet to stream music from Google Play Music, Pandora, or any other service that offers an Android app. You could also use video apps including YouTube, Netflix, or Google Play Movies… if you don’t mind watching videos on a tiny screen while listening to music on loud speakers. You can also remove the tablet and use it as a standalone device for playing games, surfing the web and more.
It’s not a very good tablet when used as a standalone device. But if you primarily plan to use it to control media playback on the stereo system, it just has to be good enough to stream music… and by that standard, it’s good enough… mostly.
RCA loaned me an Internet Music System to review, and after spending a few weeks listening to tunes on the system in my home office, here are some thoughts about the device. It’s certainly not for everyone… but it’s an interesting device that could serve some people’s needs quite nicely and it leaves me hoping RCA sells enough units to justify a next-gen model with a slightly better tablet.
The RCA Internet Music System is available from Walmart for $178.
RCA first soft-launched the the Internet Music System in October, 2013 but this year the company’s giving the device a bit more of a marketing push, which is how I ended up with one sitting on my desk. The hardware hasn’t really changed since last year though.
The stereo system features relatively large and loud speakers, a decent FM radio tuner (it picks up stations that are hard to get on other radios in our Center City household), and makes a respectable if kind of pricey standalone stereo system.
It’s the tablet that makes this system special. But it’s probably not quite like any Android tablet you’ve seen before. At less than 14 ounces, the 7 inch tablet is relatively portable. But it’s about an inch thick, covered in thick plastic, and designed to slide into a port in the stereo system so that it can act as a touchscreen controller.
At the bottom of the tablet there’s an audio jack and power jack so that audio can be sent to the stereo system and the tablet can draw power from the system.
But when you slide out the tablet you can use it as a standalone device. It features a Rockchip RK3066 ARM Cortex-A9 dual-core processor, 1GB of RAM, and 4GB of storage, a microSD card slot, and it runs Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean software with full access to the Google Play Store and other Google apps including YouTube, Maps, and Gmail.
Just keep in mind, this tablet is really designed to be a detachable head for your internet music player — and while you can use it like a tablet, it’s not a very good substitute for a decent Android tablet like the Google Nexus 7. But that’s hardly surprising since the entire RCA Internet Music System costs less than a new Nexus 7.
The tablet has a low-resolution 800 x 480 pixel display and incredibly limited viewing angles. It’s hard to see the screen at all if you tilt it a little too far back, and that’s not only a problem when you’re holding the tablet. If the stereo system is placed on a surface that’s not at eye level, you might have to bend down a bit to see the screen well enough to select your music.
RCA’s detachable tablet doesn’t have a camera, but it does have a single speaker on the back, a mini HDMI port, and a micro USB port. The built-in speaker isn’t very loud and doesn’t sound very good — but it’ll let you hear clicks, beeps, and even tinny-sounding music if the device isn’t docked.
The tablet gets up to 4.5 hours of battery life… but RCA only promises about 3.5 hours of run time while web surfing over WiFi.
While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend using a tablet with such poor viewing angles for watching videos or playing games, the hardware is more than capable of either activity, and I kind of got a kick out of watching YouTube and Google Play Movies on the 7 inch screen while listening to music blasting through the stereo 20 watt speakers.
Since the tablet has an HDMI port, you could also connect it to a TV and watch on a bigger screen — and you should also be able to pair the tablet with the speakers over Bluetooth so you can get big sound and big pictures at the same time or just hold the tablet on your lap while streaming music to the speakers.
I haven’t been able to get the tablet to recognize the speakers for some reason, but I have no problem pairing my Google Nexus 5 with the speaker system and streaming music.
And that brings us to the question at hand: if you already have an Android phone or tablet, do you need a stereo system that comes with a detachable tablet? Or would you be better off just investing in a good set of Bluetooth speakers for your existing device?
At this point, I have to think that a good Bluetooth speaker would be a better solution for most people who’d be interested in an Android-powered stereo system. You can easily find better tablets with higher-quality screens, faster processors, more built-in storage, and svelter designs in the $100 to $200 range. And while the RCA Internet Music Sytem’s speakers are certainly louder than my Logitech UE Mobile Boom Bluetooth speaker, they don’t sound much better than this portable speaker which sells for as little as $50.
That said, there are a few things that the RCA Internet Music System does bring to the table that you might not get from a tablet + Bluetooth speaker solution.
For instance, you won’t run down the battery on your tablet or phone while listening to music if you’re not using your tablet or phone to play music. And the RCA system comes comes with a 27-button wireless IR remote control which lets you use the system from across the room.
You can use the remote to control music playback, switch inputs, and even perform some very basic Android tasks. For instance, hit the FM button on the remote and you can switch to the radio. Hit the Internet button and the tablet takes over the speakers. Hit the power button and the stereo system turns off while the tablet screen is turned off.
Unfortunately the remote is only useful for some Android activities. You can use the media buttons to play, pause, or skip tracks in Google Play Music, for instance, or play and pause tracks when streaming music from Pandora. But the skip buttons don’t work in Pandora.
There’s also no recent apps button, and the arrow and back buttons won’t always get you where you’re trying to go when navigating apps like Google Play Music which were designed for touchscreen controls, not remote controls. Since the tablet screen is also only 7 inches across, you also need to be fairly close to the device to read the screen, which makes navigating playlists from the couch a bit tricky.
If you think of the RCA Internet Music System as a internet-connected stereo with support for Android apps, it’s not a bad device. But if you’re looking for a decent tablet and a decent speaker system, you might be better off buying those components piecemeal and making your own internet music player.
Still, it’d probably be tough to get a dedicated stereo cabinet with a CD player, FM Radio, line input, Bluetooth support and a decent tablet for the same $178 it’d cost to pick up RCA’s model which comes with a mediocre tablet. On the other hand, if you already have a smartphone or tablet you like, you might be better off just investing in a good Bluetooth speaker system.
I kind of hope that RCA either sells enough of these units or gets enough constructive criticism to warrant a second try. Because it’d be a lot easier to recommend the RCA Internet Music System if the removable Android tablet didn’t have such limited viewing angles. A higher resolution screen and a slimmer design would also be nice, but honestly the two things that really kept me from loving this system were the viewing angles and the limited usefulness of the remote control.