Slacker G2 Internet Radio Portable: The Technologizer Review

Highly customizable Internet radio in a new, pocket-friendly--but not perfect--form.

By  |  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.)

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7 Comments For This Post

  1. John Hancock Says:

    I am working on a music research project to eventually build a music library to compliment my existing 200 CD collection.

    Using a public library book, I entered the names of over 800 rock musicians for the period covering 1958 -2002 on an Excel spreadsheet. I then listened to thousands of songs on the free version of Napster creating a “buy list.”

    Once completed, I anticipate the buy list will in the neighborhood of 4,000 songs. My original plan to become a Napster subscriber, download the songs onto my computer and purchase an MP3 player so that the songs could be heard at home or in the car.

    Then I learned that if you don’t purchase each song for $0.99, what I wanted to do was not achievable. I can’t justify a $4,000 expenditure given the extreme chaos occurring in the investment world.

    Recently, I tuned in to Slacker. One aspect of it that I have not seen discussed is how to get them to play the longer playing instrumental versions of rock music?

    I consistently hear the top 40 version of many songs not the longer combined vocal/instrumental versions that I favor.

    Based on my research the number of songs dictates needing a playback unit 80GB, or better, as my musical interests tend toward the longer playing tracks. I have the additional 2,000 songs on the 200 CD collection presently owned to contend with making the total collection some 6,000 songs.

    Your review indicates the largest unit available Slacker unit is 8GB. In view of my requirements for a sizeable library how do you utilize Slacker or an alternative service to achieve the objective of a 6,000 song, 80GB unit and not have to pay $4,000 for the songs themselves?

    I am also wondering once the “buy list” is more complete whether sending it to Slacker in an attempt to see how many of these songs are in their library would convince me this is the route to go?

  2. Morgan Says:

    I don’t think you’re being totally serious John Hancock, but as for the 80GB idea, the Salcker doesn’t store all your music at all times, it stores something like a few hundred songs per channel at a time.

    If you really have 4000 songs in mind that you want to listen to, it’s probably not for you, and I would submit your particular market segment is unique enough to be unservable– ‘I want 4000 songs but I don’t want to pay for them.’

    I personally love Slacker, it doesn’t have the broadest selection in the world or the uncanny ability of Pandora. But it’s portable, and easy to use. I am loving it.

  3. Jimmy Says:

    I just love Slacker G2 portable radio. I think Slacker is one of the best web radio and music provider. I thinking about to write a review on Slacker.

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