By Harry McCracken | Monday, September 15, 2008 at 9:04 pm
Here’s a weird thing about Internet radio: For the most part it’s been among the least portable forms of digital entertainment. Most people who listen to nifty, personalized services such as Pandora and Last.FM do so via desktop and laptop PCs with a live Internet connection. Which makes ’em very different from plain old radio, a medium that folks are used to taking with them in the car, on the subway, and while jogging.
And then there’s Slacker, a service which, like Pandora and Last.fm, lets you conjure up custom radio stations which riff on what you tell it about your favorite artists by creating playlists with both faves and other performers you’ll probably like. Slacker is available in free and fee-based Web versions, but it was built from the ground up to work with portable players. Earlier this year, the company released a Slacker handheld that had plenty of promise but was also kind of bulky and clunky. And then it moved quickly to replace that first version with an improved model: the Slacker G2, which is available from Slacker’s site and Best Buy. I’ve been playing with it and really enjoying having personalized radio I can stick in my pocket. But while the Slacker service is a kick and this second-generation hardware is more polished than its predecessor, the device still feels like it’s a good fit for dedicated radio fans more than for music aficionados of all types.
First a bit about the service: Slacker provides dozens of pre-programmed stations in genres from Today’s Hits to Party Hip Hop to Acid Jazz to Spiritual to Bluegrass to Vocal Standards. There’s something–or several somethings–for almost everybody. But the real fun comes when you program your own station by telling Slacker about the musicians you like, so it can program a station–or multiple stations–tailored precisely to your tastes. You could create a station based on Belle & Sebastian, the Backstreet Boys, Coldplay, Eminen, the Grateful Dead, Burl Ives, Paul McCartney, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Kate Smith, Dionne Warwick, and Young Jeezy. (Hey, I just did!) It would play mostly those artists, plus others with stylistic similarities. (Like, in this case, Britney Spears, Elton John, Ethel Merman, and T.I.) You can choose to publish your stations, so anyone else out there who shares your tastes can listen too.
Fine-tuning options let you opt to skew your channel towards either the familiar or the unexpected. You can favorite songs (in which case you’ll hear them more ) or ban them altogether. Pay for the Premium version of Slacker, and you can request that specific songs be put into rotation on your channels and skip past as many songs as you want while listening (freeloaders can skip only six an hour). And Premium subscribers don’t have to listen to ads, which are pretty minimal even in the free service. It’s a little like traditional radio (you can’t help but discover music you didn’t know about) and a little like standard digital music (you can dive deep into stuff you like in a customizable way) and very well done indeed.
Even if you only listen on a PC or Mac, Slacker is a lot of fun and a formidable rival to better-known music services–its tagline, “Your music without the work,” isn’t hype. But what makes it unique is that it also comes in the form of a portable player that lets you take stations–your own and Slacker’s pre-programmed ones–anywhere. Which is where the Slacker G2 comes in. It’s a smaller, more pocket-friendly device than the first-generation Slacker portable. (In the image below and to the right, that’s the new one on the left and the old one on the right, in roughly correct proportion.) But the basic idea remains the same: You can download stations to its memory via Wi-Fi or USB cable, then hit the road and listen to them without worrying about whether you have Internet access or not. (Two versions are available: A $200 model with 4GB of memory that can hold up to 25 stations consisting up up to 2500 songs, and a $250 one with 8GB of memory, good for up to 40 stations and 4000 songs. Slacker says that the non-removable battery is rated for up to 15 hours of playback, up fron 10 hours with the original portable, which had a replaceable battery.)
In theory at least, the built-in Wi-Fi is what makes the Slacker G2 truly mobile, since it removes the need to attach the device to a computer even to download music. When I connected to a home network, the transfers were easy, once I entered the network’s password. (Which is a bit of a hassle, since you you need to do it by scrolling around an on-screen keyboard with the G2’s thumbwheel, but you should only need to do it once per network.)
When I tried to connect via three public Wi-Fi networks, however, I ran into trouble every time. At a Starbucks, I entered my T-Mobile user login info, and the player wouldn’t connect; actually, the Wi-Fi feature froze until I did a hard reset. (A Slacker representative told me that Starbucks’ Wi-Fi isn’t currently supported–the chain’s in-progress transition from T-Mobile to AT&T causes technical problems.) When I tried to connect at a Courtyard by Marriott hotel with free Wi-Fi when the G2 had slightly less than a full charge, the portable told me to fully charge the battery before connecting. And at a Borders where my laptop instantly found the network, the Slacker didn’t see anything until I did another hard reset. Once I did and logged in, it worked fine.
In fairness, three attempts aren’t enough to come to statistically-significant conclusions about this feature. All in all, though, I think it’s a good idea to try and connect at home if possible rather than assuming that you’ll be able to do so anywhere and everywhere.
The G2’s 240-by-320 color screen is smaller than that of the original Slacker portable, but it makes good use of it, displaying cover art, artist photos and biographies, and other information. The user interface is pretty straightforward, and similar to that of the Web-based Slacker player: There are buttons for backwards and forwards skipping, play/pause, favorite, and ban; volume controls; and a thumbwheel and home button on the side for navigating menus. When subscribers to Slacker’s Premium service favorite a song, they have the option of saving it to the portable’s memory for later, on-demand listening at any time, as long as they continue their subscriptions. (The backwards-skip button only works for songs you’ve saved and for music from your own collection, not for stations.)