Slacker Portable Internet Radio Player
After a few delays and a lot of grassroots hype, the Slacker Portable Internet radio is finally available. Starting at $200 for the 2GB model, this ambitious music-only device features a 4-inch wide screen, built-in Wi-Fi, and an excellent Web service. The Slacker deserves credit for approaching issues of form and function in its own way--it borrows almost nothing from the iPod--but it's also blocky, buggy, slow, and more than a bit frustrating.
Besides reading this review, you can watch our video of the Slacker Portable Internet radio player in action.
The strongest aspect of the Slacker Portable is the associated Slacker Web music service, which you can listen to for free without the player. I suggest that you do so right away, even if you don't plan on buying the player. As with the Pandora online music service, users can enter an artist's name on the Slacker site, click Enter, and create a custom "station" consisting of free music from that artist and others similar in sound or genre. The Slacker site does a great job of matching your demonstrated tastes to other music that you might enjoy, though Slacker's artist roster and music-matching abilities don't seem quite as deep as what I've experienced with Pandora's service.
Here's where the Slacker Portable is unique: After entering an artist's name and creating a custom station at the site, you can sync your stations to the player, for free. As a result, you'll always have a pocket full of music that you like, plus the element of surprise as to what's coming next on your station's playlist.
The free Slacker Web service is supported by targeted ads that the Slacker Portable will run, beginning with tips on how to get more out of the Slacker experience. Slacker says that a user's station will never begin with an advertisement and that there will be, at most, about 3 minutes of ads per hour. In accordance with Digital Millennium Copyright Act guidelines, users of the free service may skip only six songs per hour on the player. A paid version of the Slacker service avoids such restrictions, for a price.
With the paid version of the service ($9.99 per month for three months, $8.33 per month for six months, or $7.50 per month for a year's subscription), the ads are gone, and the Slacker player lets you save songs for playback later and lets you skip as many songs as you want. However, the paid version still lacks a way to skip backward to hear a previous track again unless you've saved it. Also, any songs that you saved while a paid user will disappear when your subscription ends.
Windows XP and Windows Vista users can transfer their own MP3 and WMA digital music files to their Slacker Portable, with some limitations. On the $200 (15-station-limit) 2GB model, only 500MB of storage space is accessible; that maximum grows to 1.5GB on the $250 (25-station-limit) 4GB model, and to 4GB on the $300 (40-station-limit) 8GB model. The Mac OS doesn't support personal content transfer.
Once you're listening to music, the Slacker Portable shines. It's like having several iPod Shuffles at your disposal, each focused on a different genre of music. Budget-minded music fans who are also looking to discover new bands will especially appreciate the chance to hear songs by musicians who are similar to artists they already know and love. While playing to the music, the device displays extensive biographical information about the artist on its 4-inch, 480 by 272-pixel wide screen.
The Slacker Portable player is fairly large (2.76 by 0.67 by 4.2 inches) and light (4.6 ounces)--about the size of a cassette tape. The device takes about 3 hours to charge its replaceable battery completely; the battery is rated to last about 10 hours on a charge.
Navigating the on-screen menus is done entirely by buttons and analog scroll wheels. Slacker gives you the option of switching controls to the player's touch strip, which extends down the left side of the player's screen, but I couldn't get the strip to work reliably. Consequently, I recommend sticking with the analog-style buttons and scroll wheel.
Though navigation is easy and intuitive, the scroll wheel is sometimes unresponsive to clicking or takes a few seconds to register clicks. Moreover, because it's located slightly too close to the skip-forward and pause buttons, you may simultaneously select a station and skip or pause the first track. Five buttons run along the device's sides and top: pause, skip forward, 'home', 'heart' (for adding songs to your hard drive if you subscribe to the paid Slacker Premium service), and 'ban' (to remove songs from your stations). A volume rocker appears on the top of the device.
The power button on the right side of the player doubles as a lock switch, which you'll definitely want to use. Though the controls are intuitive and easy to use, you'll inevitably press them unintentionally at times. Accidentally skipping forward on a track is especially frustrating if you don't have the paid service--you'll want to hoard your half-dozen skip-forwards as if they were free steaks.
On the connectivity front, Slacker's Wi-Fi (802.11b/g) capability is a major drawing point. Having a player that can refresh a station's songs wirelessly while you're on the go is wonderful. Alternatively, you can use the bundled USB cable to refresh your station's song lists. In my tests, updating 19 stations over USB 2.0 on the player took about 30 minutes.
You'll also definitely need better earbuds than the awkwardly big pair that come with the player. I doubt that the included earbuds would fit in most peoples' ears, and the sound they produced was neither deep nor rich. Sound quality improved markedly through a pair of Sony MDR-EX71SL Fontopia earbuds, however.
Even with all the bugs, it's hard not to love the Slacker independent approach to things. It doesn't do video at all, but this is an ambitious player. Slacker's Web-based music service is great and accurately matches your musical tastes to tunes you'll like but may not be familiar with. I recommend trying Slacker's music service immediately, but waiting to buy the hardware until some of the kinks are worked out.
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