A New Kind of Radio

Michael Brown

I dig subscription-music services like Rhapsody , because they enable me to indulge my diverse musical tastes without investing a fortune in CDs; it’s like having the world’s biggest music library right at my fingertips. And I spend an extra $5 per month for the privilege of copying those rented tracks to an MP3 player. Most months, however, that fin is wasted because I forgot or just didn’t have time to update the library on the player. I think Slacker is about to solve my problem.

Slacker started life as a music-discovery service much like the Internet-radio services Last.FM and Pandora . But the company’s management team, staffed in large measure by veterans from iRiver and Rio, always intended to offer more than a service—they wanted to sell the razor as well as the blades. So now they’re following up the Slacker service with three models of the Slacker Portable Radio Player.

Unlike the typical MP3 player, which relies on you to fill it with music, the Slacker players will automatically suck down tracks over a Wi-Fi connection and store them for playback. The $200 model will allow you to monitor up to 15 stations; there will also be a $250 model with room for 25 stations and $300 SKU capable of tuning 40 stations.

You manage the stations you listen to using a PC- or Mac-based web browser, but you can also express your preferences for songs using the handheld device: Pressing the “heart” button on the player while listening to a track tells the service you like this kind of music and want to hear more songs like it; pressing the “ban” button ensures you’ll never hear it again. Your preferences are uploaded to the service whenever it can connect to the Internet.

Due to royalty agreements with the record labels, the free version of Slacker’s software limits you to skipping six songs each hour; you’ll also hear the occasional commercial. Signing up for the subscription service ($90 annually, in addition to the cost of the player) eliminates the restriction and the ads. It also gives you the freedom to store songs so you can play them on demand.

I’ll post a hands-on review as soon as I get my hands on the hardware.

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