With the Slacker G2, Slacker introduces some key navigational, design, and usability improvements to its second-generation portable radio player. That said, it's still a flawed device--though far less flawed than its predecessor. It's also a phenomenal concept that may lack mass appeal but will surely delight music lovers who don't have the money to buy all of the tunes they want.
Let's start with the refinements. The Slacker G2 is a slimmed-down, slicker version of the bulky and buggy first-gen player; in the new model, all of the station updates (refreshing your song lists and adding new stations) occur over Wi-Fi. The company's online music service remains the shining star of the Slacker experience, and the new player offers a better portable version of that experience than Slacker's first-generation Portable Radio did.
The basic concept behind the player is simple: You build stations online for free, sync them to the player, and have a player full of customized music stations that play songs at random, based on the acts you selected and on artists whose music resembles theirs. Syncing is done over the air via Wi-Fi; but if you have a Windows machine, you have the option of syncing stations over a USB connection and the downloadable Slacker Station Refresher software. That software isn't compatible with Macs, but you can still build stations on a Mac and then sync them to your player via Wi-Fi.
A Slacker G2 player that supports 25 of your custom-built stations costs $200; a 40-station Slacker G2 player goes for $250. All of the music is free, and you can add, refresh, and reconfigure your stations as much as you want.
In addition to accommodating the stations you build, the $200 player allows you to drag-and-drop 1GB of music files (AAC, MP3, and WMA) onto the player, while the $250 version supports 3GB of storage. Loading individual files works only on Windows XP and Vista machines; building stations on the Slacker site and syncing them over the air also works with Mac OS X--but as with the first version of the Slacker player, you don't have the option of dragging and dropping your own files onto the player with OS X. That's not a deal-breaker, since the player's chief draw is the station service, but you'll need a Wi-Fi connection to make the G2 update and sync your stations with Mac OS X.
Some glitches that plagued the first-generation player, such as the almost unusable touch strip and the awkward earbuds, have vanished. The new earbuds are a lot more comfortable, but the sound is tinny to a fault. You'll definitely want to upgrade to a better pair of headphones (the device has a standard headphone jack). I used Denon AH-C350 earbuds and Phiaton MS 400 headphones for most of my test listening; both of these higher-end models significantly improved the G2's sound quality.
Several of the first-gen player's strengths make welcome returns. The 320-by-240-pixel TFT screen is nicely visible in sunlight, and it displays extensive information about bands and albums while a song is playing. The background data includes extensive band bios and album reviews from All Music Guide--another big reason that the Slacker G2 shines as a device for music discovery.
On the other hand, navigation is still buggy; sometimes it has a mind of its own, especially when you connect via Wi-Fi to update your stations. In addition, we couldn't test the sound quality of the device itself due to firmware issues that flip-flopped channels and produced counterintuitive distortion readings (specifically, the device generated higher levels of distortion at lower volume levels, which never happens). As such, the overall rating is pending, because the Slacker G2 does things so differently--even at the level of producing audio--that the PC World Test Center's standard audio tests were unsuitable for it to take.
Users will either love or hate the Slacker G2's throwback controls. They're all buttons, wheels, and rockers, instead of touch-sensitive controls: a home button, a scroll wheel for navigating menus, and a lock button appear on the side. Play/pause, skip forward, and skip back buttons appear below the screen. A heart button (to tag favorite tracks for more-frequent random playback) and a ban button (to remove individual tracks from the playback mix) appear above the screen. There's also a four-pin USB port for charging the player and loading tracks onto it.
To my ears, audio quality was okay but not great; at times, the audio sounded a bit hollow or flat, depending on the song. And the distortion-at-low-volumes problem was palpable, with portions of audio tracks becoming muted or inaudible when I lowered the volume on the device. If your eardrums can handle the awesomeness, this player is best played loud.
As for Slacker's Web-based service, if you aren't already familiar with it, you should give it a try. Like Pandora, the Slacker site lets you enter a musician's or band's name and compile a customized "station" of the artist and similar acts. The Slacker service even one-ups Pandora with its customization options, by allowing you to request individual tracks from an artist, cherry-pick bands that you'd like to hear as part of a station, and even tweak the amount of new and obscure acts, popular songs, and recent or classic music that you want fed to your station.
Whereas individual Pandora stations can get a bit stale after a while, Slacker lets you refresh your playlists (over Wi-Fi or via USB on Windows) whenever you want. In my tests, artist-defined stations, in combination with the option to increase or decrease "Music Discovery" preferences online, produced satisfyingly fresh playlists time and time again.
But though Slacker outshines Pandora in online options and customization, it's not as polished as the portable Pandora app for iPhone. So if you're into the touch-screen-heavy, fashion-conscious interfaces of most of today's gadgets, you may balk at the Slacker G2's way of doing things.
If you already use Slacker's online service to build your stations and discover new acts, you'll find that the G2 is a vast improvement over the last piece of Slacker hardware. I would recommend this device to certain people I know, but not to everyone. The friends I'd recommend it to fall in a distinct category: those who listen to a lot of college radio, who are always thirsty for new acts, and who never tire of having a fresh playlist of music to listen to...for free. People who grew up in the Walkman era may also be unexpectedly charmed by this player.
This story, "Slacker G2 Portable Radio" was originally published by PCWorld.