Slacker: Great Service, Lousy Device

The scoop: Slacker G2 Personal Radio Player, by, US$200 (4GB) or $250 (8GB).

What it is: Before I get to the device, here's a quick description of the radio service. Like another Internet radio service, Pandora, Slacker lets users create personalized radio "stations" that play music that the user wants to hear. Slacker does a great job of linking similar songs together, and learning from the user whether a song is loved or not for future reference. The site has millions of songs available and more than 10,000 different "stations" created around specific artists. For example, you can listen to a '90s Alternative station, or get more specific and choose "Green Day" radio that plays their songs and other artists like them. The service is free through an ad-supported model, or you can pay for a subscription to the premium service ($8.99 per month or $7.50 per month if paid for a year of service).

OK, now for the device. The G2 Slacker Personal Radio Player is a small, handheld device that aims to re-create the Slacker experience, but in an iPod-like small audio player. With Wi-Fi connectivity, stations can be updated and refreshed, giving you the same experience when portable that you have when listening to Slacker at a PC. Great idea, but lousy execution.

The G2 was sent to me with some of my stations preloaded onto the device, and yes, it did replicate the experience of listening online. The problems came when I tried to update the device with new stations, or tried putting my own songs (the device supports a personal library of MP3 or WMA files) on the device.

The setup process, where you download software and update the device via a USB cable and/or Wi-Fi connection, is agonizing. Software gets put into the Windows system tray, and doesn't really give you any directions about what's going onto the device or any sense of when the device has been updated. Because the process of updating took so long (it took more than two hours to update five stations), the device went into power-saving mode several times, requiring me to turn the machine back on to check the "status bar" to see if it was done. One attempt at trying to refresh stations via my Wi-Fi connection froze the device, with no way to shut off the G2 or reset it.

Adding my own MP3 files to the system didn't go any better. You have to synchronize files via Windows Media Player (which should raise several red flags), and in my tests, the device was never recognized by the Windows Media Player software or it crashed my system.

There's a good concept here -- having a portable device that lets users listen to personalized stations -- but the G2 is not that device for the moment. Slacker would serve its users better by avoiding the device businesses and focusing on creating software for other portable audio devices (like the iPod, iPhone or SD's Sansa devices) that can access the very good site and service.

Grade: Device: 1 star. 4 stars.

This story, "Slacker: Great Service, Lousy Device" was originally published by Network World.

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