This is big. Those are the words that came to mind when we started using the Slacker Portable. Big in the sense that this music player/Internet radio service combo could shake up the sleepy music industry, enabling users for the first time to take their favorite songs to go for free. But it's also physically big. This player makes the nano look like a Tic Tac. Once you get over the Slacker Portable's girth, though, you can easily appreciate how innovative it is. We dig in to Slacker's first player to find out who it's for, what the trade-offs are, and whether you should buy one.
First things first: The Slacker Portable isn't for playlist ninjas who are up on all the latest artists, nor those who are constantly updating their iPods with fresh tunes. It's for the person who is sick of hearing the same songs over and over on their MP3 players, and who don't have the time or energy (or disposable income) to do anything about it.
How the Slacker Portable Works
Once you buy a player from Slacker ($199 for the model that can play 15 stations, $249 for the 25-station model, and $299 for 40 stations), the company ships you a device preloaded with the stations you've created online at Slacker.com. The site has relationships with all the major music labels, and there are currently more than 2 million tracks in its library.
Haven't used the site before? You should. Just type in the artists you like to start creating your stations, then fine-tune by telling the service whether you want more or fewer artists discovered, more or fewer popular songs and favorites, and how current or classic you want your collection to be. You can also mark tracks as favorites (to hear them more often) or ban them forever, using Heart and Ban buttons. All this is mirrored on your Slacker Portable.
It's certainly not the sleekest portable audio player around. In fact, this glossy black block of a device is more than twice as thick as the iPod touch (0.7 inches versus 0.3 inches). The good news is that the Slacker Portable isn't as heavy as it looks, weighing in at a manageable 4.6 ounces (versus 4.2 for the touch).
The player also sports a 4-inch screen, larger than the touch (3.5 inches). But, at least for now, this real estate is somewhat wasted in that it only displays bigger album art and artist bios. (The company hints that video playback could be added later, as part of a firmware update.)
On the right side of the player is a scroll wheel that makes navigating the straightforward interface a breeze; it has big, easy-to-read options, including Now Playing, Stations, Library, and Connect. A touch strip to the left of the screen also lets you interact with the device, but it feels like an afterthought. The strip was oversensitive, especially when our hand was wrapped around the player. Fortunately, you can turn this feature off in the Settings menu.
Above the scroll wheel is a Home button, and beneath it you'll find the Skip and Pause buttons, as well as the power switch. This switch doubles as the lock control. We'd prefer a separate lock switch on the device, as powering it down accidentally was too easy. The volume buttons are inconveniently located on top. We'd prefer they were on the left instead of the Heart and Ban buttons.
If it sounds like we hate the design, we don't.The Slacker Portable is fairly intuitive to use, and not difficult to tote. It's just not as refined as it could have been.
If you're into watching videos, showing off your photos, or surfing the Web, the Slacker Portable isn't for you. For now, at least, it's a music-only device. But you do get a lot of music for the storage capacity. The $249 4GB model we tested can hold 2,500 Slacker radio songs, which use the AAC Pro v2 format. That's 1,500 more than the 4GB iPod nano. The nano costs $100 less, but then you don't get 200 albums' worth of music for nothing out of the box.
The Slacker Portable leverages its Wi-Fi connection to sync your stations to the device, which are cached for playback anytime. In other words, you don't need to be in a hotspot to rock out.
You can also load your own MP3s and unprotected WMAs on the Slacker Portable, using the downloadable desktop software, which you can also use to edit and create stations. Note that you'll have to rip tracks using Windows Media Player or another program. There's a 1.5GB cap on the 4GB device for "personal files," (or 500MB for the 2GB device, and 4GB for the 8GB model). We wish this limit were adjustable.
Slacker bundles a USB cable for syncing and charging the player, a separate AC adpater that you can plug the USB cable into, a carrying case, and a better-than-average set of earbuds. The buds delivered good audio quality, but they got uncomfortable after about 45 minutes. A docking connector on the left side will be compatible with a home dock/speaker kit and a car kit, once those accessories become available.
The Cost of Free
We almost felt guilty using the Slacker Portable. We say "almost" because there are a couple of caveats. For one, you can skip only six songs per hour. On the surface that sounds lame, but it really isn't a big deal when you consider you're the one playing DJ.
The other trade-off is on the way: third-party advertisements. They are coming in a few months, and even though those interruptions will occur only a couple of times an hour, it's difficult to predict how much of a buzz kill they might be. To get customers used to this, Slacker will prep them by sending periodic messages from DJs, who will offer tips on how to get more out of the player and service.
You can make those issues go away by signing up for the Premium plan ($7.50 per month), which grants you not only unlimited skips and an ad-free listening experience, but also the ability to save any track you like directly to the player. No, you can't transfer those tracks to a PC or another MP3 player.
Performance and Battery Life
Audio quality was good on our tests. Overall, the radio tunes didn't sound as compressed as we were expecting, even when we cranked up the volume. We were a bit surprised to see a buffering message when skipping tracks, but new songs took only a few seconds to start playing.
Wireless syncing was pretty simple. The device prompted us automatically with the names of a couple of nearby wireless networks, and we entered the WEP security key using the scroll wheel and on-screen keyboard. The time it takes to sync depends on how much listening you've done between connections. During our tests it ranged from 20 seconds to more than 15 minutes when we tweaked our station settings for more artist discovery. If you're in a hurry you can always cancel the sync and reconnect later. Just be aware that you can't sync at paid hotspots like those run by T-Mobile, as the device lacks a browser for signing in to those services.
Battery life is rated at an anemic 10 hours for listening, which during our tests was good enough for a couple of days commuting back and forth. On the plus side, you can replace the battery yourself, which you can't do with iPods.
A part of us wants to say wait for the second-generation of the Slacker Portable, which will likely do the "Portable" part of the product name more justice. Or wait until Slacker convinces other manufacturers to license the platform. Overall, though, we love Slacker, and like the Slacker Portable enough to recommend it over similarly priced flash music players.
It supplies a near-endless amount of tracks for free, and we discovered cool artists (at least, cool to us) such as the Silversun Pickups, whom we probably would never have found on our own. This portable audio player is ideal for music fans who like the idea of an all-you-can-eat service like Rhapsody To Go, but don't like the expense.
The much-hyped--and long-delayed--Slacker Portable is finally here and it was definitely worth the wait.
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