Although BlackBerrys aren't exactly known for their multimedia chops, especially compared with the iPhone, they double as perfectly capable MP3 players and offer good sound quality (when you plug in a decent set of headphones). Now you can add Internet radio to the list of BlackBerry tricks. Like the extremely popular Pandora for the iPhone, Slacker Mobile for BlackBerry lets users create custom Internet radio stations and listen to them anywhere over Wi-Fi or 3G--all for free. In fact, in some ways Slacker's mobile app is even better than Pandora's.
As with the standalone Slacker Portable G2 player, you can save stations to your smart phone for listening without a data connection (great for flying and saving battery life). And unlike Pandora for the iPhone, you can rock out while you check e-mail or surf the Web. We have a few complaints--most notably a sluggish start time and longer delays than we'd like between tracks when streaming live--but Slacker Mobile for BlackBerry is still a killer free app.
Setup and Account Options
Although Slacker says its app will work with older BlackBerrys (as far back as OS 4.3), it's optimized for devices that run the latest operating system (OS 4.5 or higher). The BlackBerry Bold has OS 4.6 out of the box, but owners of older Curves and Pearls will want to upgrade to the latest software. Slacker is working on an app for the BlackBerry Storm.
Downloading the app wirelessly to our BlackBerry Bold and Curve took a little less than a minute over a 3G connection. Opening the app took only 4 seconds after the initial setup on our BlackBerry Bold, but three times as long on an older Curve 8330, which has a slower processor and less memory.
If you already have a Slacker account, signing in with your username and password will populate the app with your stations. Creating a station on the device is as simple as entering an artist name into a very clearly labeled white box. For example, after typing in Death Cab for Cutie, we selected that artist from a presented list and Slacker started playing our new station in about 55 seconds. That's not exactly blazing.
You also have the option of choosing from Slacker's collection of more than 100 professionally programmed genre stations. The Alternative category alone, for example, has 13 stations. (With Pandora all stations are user-created.)
The free Slacker Basic Radio does include advertisements, unfortunately, and you're limited to six skips per station per hour. If you want unlimited skips, no audio or banner ads, and the ability to request specific songs for your stations, consider the Radio Plus option, which costs $3.99 per month. (Note that you can't save specific songs directly to your phone, as you can with Slacker Premium on the Slacker Portable G2.)
Anyone who has used Slacker's online radio service on the desktop will feel right at home using this mobile app. You can skip tracks, rate them as favorites, or ban them using intuitive controls beneath the main playback area (which has a Cover Flow-like look). We had no problem navigating the interface using our BlackBerry Bold's trackball, although you can also use keyboard shortcuts. For example, the N key skips to the next song and the Space key toggles play and pause.
The top of the screen displays the battery meter and a separate signal strength indicator for streaming. However, we would like to see Slacker add the time of day, even though it's easy to jump to the main menu of your BlackBerry to grab that info. On the plus side, you can see what's coming up next in your playback queue to decide if you want to skip to the next song; Slacker calls this feature Peek Ahead.
You can also read artist bios and album reviews. Just press your BlackBerry's menu button and choose either option. All Music Guide provides the content.
One of the unique selling points of Slacker for BlackBerry, when compared with Pandora for the iPhone is the ability to cache stations, which means you can load your device with fresh songs and listen to them regardless of whether your phone has a data connection. This feature has a few benefits. For one, you can listen in places where getting a cell phone signal can be a challenge (the gym) or impossible (a plane). You won't have to deal with as many audio dropouts or long pauses between tracks. And you'll use less battery life than you would when streaming live.
You can use this feature simply by selecting the Cache this Station option on your BlackBerry. The caching itself doesn't happen over the air; you'll need to plug your phone into your notebook and sync, and a small program called Slacker USB Station Refresher will install itself. You'll also need to ensure that Mass Storage Support is enabled in your BlackBerry's Options menu. Once you've done those two things, when you plug your BlackBerry into your PC you'll see an option to sync your smart phone with new music (which incorporates any feedback you provided during listening).
Caching a single station on a BlackBerry Bold, our Keane Mix, took a little over 9 minutes, and you can cache up to 15 stations to your phone. That's about 1,500 songs--plenty of tunes for a week's worth of listening or longer. Each station takes up about 125MB, so if you want to load up a microSD Card with music, but still leave room for pictures and videos, you're better off with a larger 4GB or 8GB microSD Card.
Performance and Multitasking
Slacker promises high-quality stereo playback from both cached stations and during live streaming, and the BlackBerry app generally lived up to that claim. In cache mode the wailing guitars in Smashing Pumpkins' "Tarantula" sounded just as clear as Billy Corgan's screeching vocals. When we switched over to a live stream of the Alternative Hits station, the Gorillaz' "Feel Good Inc." sounded just as clear, even if the bass was a bit weak.
About two minutes into that song we noticed the biggest difference between live and cache mode: audio dropouts. Granted, we did the bulk of our testing on a moving bus, but we noticed frequent, albeit mostly brief, pauses when streaming stations. Worse, we encountered a few dropouts in cache mode, too, which caching is supposed to avoid.
The gap between songs--anywhere from 9 to 12 seconds--when streaming live is too long. And that's when you just let the next song in your station's lineup play; the delay when skipping songs was even more pronounced, at about 15 seconds. That's all the more reason to use cache mode. Overall, the Slacker app on our BlackBerry Bold was more responsive than on our older Curve 8330; we watched the spinning hourglass quite a bit when making selections.
We can't come down too hard on Pandora for the iPhone for its inability to support background playback while you do other tasks. Apple is the one that restricts this sort of multitasking with most third-party programs. Still, Slacker for BlackBerry has no such restrictions, and we appreciated that we could check our e-mail, update our calendar, and surf the Web while our stations were playing. Loading NYTimes.com didn't affect a live stream. When you get an incoming call, the music automatically pauses, but you'll need to manually restart playback after hanging up.
The only bummer is that you can't adjust the volume while you have another application open. You'll need to toggle back to the Slacker app, which is easily done by pressing Alt+Esc.
Battery Life and Data Usage
Given that you count on your BlackBerry for real-time access to important e-mails, we'd advise against using the Slacker app when you have a single bar of battery life. That said, we were impressed with how little impact this Slacker had on endurance. After an hour of listening time on a BlackBerry Curve, we noticed that one out of four bars on the battery meter was gone. That's not bad, and you'll use even less juice in cache mode. We'll be updating this review with more complete battery test results soon.
But what about that 5GB data cap that the major carriers have on their unlimited data plans? If you stream Slacker all day for a month, is AT&T or Verizon Wireless going to hit you with a huge overage fee? While Slacker couldn't give us a definitive answer on just how much bandwidth this app chews up, the company claimed that it uses "highly optimized file types for low-bandwidth, high-quality audio playback." Nevertheless, it's recommended that you periodically check your data usage, which most carriers let you do either on the BlackBerry itself or online. Better yet, just use the caching mode so you won't have to worry about coming up against the 5GB ceiling.
Slacker Mobile for BlackBerry isn't perfect. The app takes too long to start streaming live stations, and the gap between songs is noticeable in live mode. However, the experience is much better when you cache stations, and you won't experience nearly as many audio cutouts. And ultimately, it's really hard to complain too much given that fact that this app is free (unless you spring for the Plus option). Slacker Mobile for BlackBerry is a must-download for music fans.