Just when we’d concluded that there was nothing new under the sun when it comes to digital music players, along comes the Slacker Portable Radio to smash all our preconceived notions. This $200 device takes the music-discovery innovations pioneered by Pandora and Last.fm and puts them in the palm of our hand.
The hardware works with Slacker’s Internet radio service, but you don’t always need to be tied to a live Internet connection for it to work. Using your PC you can populate the radio with either pre-fab radio stations or create custom stations by populating them with your favorite artists. Slacker’s software will then identify other artists of the same vein. You can fine-tune each station by adjusting how aggressively it exposes you to artists and songs other than those you’ve identified as your favorites, how often it plays popular songs versus those closer to the fringe, and whether it plays only current tunes, just the classics, or some combination of the two.
Once you’ve done that, you download the stations and a batch of songs (in AAC Pro v2 format) to the Slacker Player via USB or an 802.11b/g network. The device supports WEP and WPA Wi-Fi security for connecting to your own network; and thanks to a recently announced partnership with Devicescape, Slacker Portable Radios can automatically connect to free Wi-Fi hotspots in participating hotels, airports, and restaurants (including Starbucks and McDonalds). (Firmware upgrades such as this are automatically pushed out to the player whenever it connects to a network.) While you listen, you can press a Heart button to identify songs you really like and a Ban button to mark the ones you don’t. The player will upload this information when you connect to the server, and Slacker’s music-discovery algorithms will take them into account while selecting your next batch of songs.
Audio quality is excellent, and the music is free but interspersed with advertisements. The optional paid Slacker Premium service eliminates the ads and the limit on how many songs you can skip per hour. Subscriptions range from $7.50 to $10 per month, depending on the length of your contract. We reviewed the 2GB Slacker Player, which has enough memory to store 15 radio stations and 1,500 songs, with 500MB left over for your own music (in MP3 or WMA format, including WMA Lossless) or, if you’re a subscriber, songs you’ve marked for retention in the player’s library. Slacker also offers 4GB and 8GB models that sell for $250 and $300, respectively.
The Slacker Player is chunky for a flash-based device, but the huge display (4-inch diagonal with 480x272 resolution) makes the size worthwhile. All that screen real estate allows for not only easy-to-read menus but also the display of lots of information, including artist biographies and album reviews sourced from All Music Guide. The screen goes dark after 30 seconds (a battery-conservation decision), which is barely enough time to read all that great material. You can tap a button to reactivate it, but we recommend changing this value to 60 seconds or even indefinite).
The player has two buttons on one side, four on the other (one of which is integrated into a wheel), and two on the top, a configuration that requires two hands to navigate. (And we feel compelled to mention that the On/Off/Lock button feels sloppy and cheap.) You’d think all those buttons would make the Slacker difficult to navigate, but the user interface is easily mastered. The Playlist function, on the other hand, is nearly useless in its current iteration—but for us, the Slacker Player’s big attraction is that we don’t need to make playlists.
UPDATE: This story was edited on April 7, 2008 to reflect a new firmware update that resolved our complaint about how long the display remains active.
Music discovery, great sound, fantastic display, artist bios and album reviews.
Bubba the Love Sponge
Short battery life, small memory, sloppy Power button.