Slacker Portable G2 Review

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$199

Pros: Easy access to free music; More compact design than predecessor; Can refresh stations via Wi-Fi at hotspots; Artist and album review info included with stations

Cons: Volume keys poorly located; Unadjustable personal storage; Short battery life

Verdict: A sleeker design, limitless free music, and improved controls make this sequel one of the most compelling digital audio players around.

You know a music player is revolutionary when it featuresseveral design issues that would've meant death for any other device butit's still able to rise above its flaws due tothe radically different (and decidedly cool)approach ittakes to digital music. Such was the originalSlacker Portable, a beefy player that featured a wonky touchstrip that was more frustrating than helpful.

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Still, its integration with the slick Slacker Personal Radio service, which suppliedusers with anunlimited supply of free music, enabled us to overlook the designfaux paus. Now Slacker is back with the Slacker Portable G2, the smaller, lighter successor to the original Slacker Portable that bests the G1 player in nearly every aspect.

Small, Intuitive Design

Measuring 3.4 x 2.0 x 0.5 inches and weighing a barely-there 2.6 ounces, the Slacker Portable G2 truly lives up to its name. It fits comfortably in hand, and slides easily into a shirt or pants pocket. Gone are the ill-positioned buttons of the first-generation device; the Slacker Portable G2 has a far more intuitive control scheme that is conducive to one-hand button manipulation. Housed on the right side of the player is a BlackBerry-style scroll wheel (with which we navigated menus and songs quickly), and a Home button. The player's face has several easy-to-reach buttons: Play/Pause, Favorite, Ban, Skip Forward, and Skip Back (which only works with AAC, MP3, and WMA songs in your library).Our only gripe is that the volume keys are located on top of the device, which can be tricky to press in a pinch.

The 2.4-inch (320 x 240-pixel) display is bright and colorful but wasn't particularly sharp when showcasing album art and had narrow viewing angles. Scrolling down from the main viewing area reveals your stations, playlists, digital music library, system settings, and Wi-Fi connections. Like the original Slacker Portable, you can also view artist info (by clicking on an artist's name) and read album reviews (by clicking on album art), but their layoutsaren't as visually impressive aswhen they appeared on the first player's massive 4-inch screen. Still, we'd gladly accept a smaller screen for the G2's portability.

Basic and Premium Accounts

The G2 operates in conjunction with Slacker's online service, which has more than 2 million tracks in its library. Unlike traditional MP3 players, you don't have to load songs individually onto the device. After creating an account on Slacker.com, we created stations by typing in the names of some of our favorite artists. You can also select preset music channels.

You fine-tune these stations by telling the service if you want to discover more artists, popular songs, and specify how up-to-date the selections should be. But this can only be done online. On the device, customizing your station is voting songs up or down with the Ban and Favorite buttons.

Users are offered two options for accessing Slacker's deep well of music. The Basic account lets you listen to as much music as you'd like, but you can't save tracks to the player for anytime playback or skip more than six songs per station per hour, and you have to listen to one 20-second audio advertisement per hour. Upgrading to a Premium account ($7.50 per month) eliminates these limitations.

Slacker Software Player and Wi-Fi

Available for download from Slacker's Web site, the Slacker Software Player software allowed us to manage our music quickly and easily by letting us import, create, edit, and delete playlists and stations, as well as refresh music via USB. You can also use the software to transfer up to 1GB of AAC, MP3, and WMA files (3GB-worth on the 8GB model); while this feature isn't supported on Macs, you can use the browser-based app to manage your stations if you use OS X.

Of course, one of the coolest things about the G2 is the ability to refresh stations wirelessly; we were able to connect via our protected office connection, key in our password, and begin the station updates. Refreshing five stations took less than a minute--but it should be noted that our initial six-station setup took over two hours. While refreshing songs via Wi-Fi, the player locked up occasionally, but after snagging a firmware update (which was wirelessly pushed to our player), the freezing issue was eliminated.

If you purchase the player directly from Slacker, however, and supply the e-mail address associated with your account, the company will preload the device with your stations. In addition, Slacker has entered into a deal with Devicescape to let the G2 connect to AT&T Wi-Fi hotspots (soon to be featured in Starbucks), Wayport (which supplies McDonald's wireless signal), or other hotspots that normally require a password or Web-based login so users can update their stations on the go. Prices for Wi-Fi service will vary depending on retailer.

Audio Quality

Included are a pair of quality, rubber-tipped earbuds (as well as two sets of additional tips) that fit snugly and comfortably. We were impressed with the sheer volume that this small wonder can produce; raising the level to approximately 50 percent was enough to drown out the roar of screeching subway cars on our commute to the office.

Of course, loud volume is only appreciated if a music player's audio quality is up to snuff, and the G2 is decent on that front. The audio was clear regardless of whether we were playing our Everclear MP3s or cached Janelle Monae Slacker tracks. Bass was a bit lacking, though, and our stations' tracks sounded better once we plugged in our Shure SE210 earphones.

The G2 is rated for up to 15 hours of battery life, but on our testing, the device managed only 5 hours of music before we needed to hunt for an outlet. A Slacker representative suggested that, following a firmware upgrade, the battery needed to be run down two or three times in order to condition it properly. We'll update the review with final battery life results after two more recharges.

Verdict

Inevitably, comparisons will be drawn between the Slacker Portable G2 and the current king of the digital music player space, Apple's iPod, but one must carefully consider what the Slacker is designed to do before passing judgement. It is, exclusively, a music player--you can't add photos, videos, or apps to the device. And while paying $199 for a 4GB music-only player (or $249 for 8GB) may seem the utmost in money mismanagement, the G2's tight integration with the Slacker service effectively means you may never have to make another music purchase again.

Not being able to skip tracks whenever you please or picking a specific song to play at any time may be unsettling to some, but the Premium Radio option eliminates these limitations along with ads. Although BlackBerry owners may want to wait for the Slacker application to roll out in October, those looking for a standalone audio player will find that the Slacker Portable G2 aids in music discovery while remedying many of the flaws found in the groundbreaking original device.

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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
Display 2.4 inches/320 x 240 pixels
PC Interface USB
Audio Formats AAC
Audio Formats WMA
Audio Formats MP3
Battery Type rechargable
Wi-Fi Yes
Bluetooth No
IR No
FM Radio No
FM Recording No
Voice Recording No
Memory Type Flash
Memory Capacity 4GB/8GB
Size 3.4 x 2.0 x 0.5 inches
Weight 2.6 ounces
Company Website http://www.slacker.com