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Slacker Portable Radio Review

on July 11, 2008 8:30 pm

I have a confession to make… Even though I love my iPod classic, I really don’t listen to it as much in the car as I listen to… the radio. Yes, it’s true. I find myself listening to regular FM radio way more than my iPod. The radio is on when I drive into work in the morning and again in the afternoon on my way home. Why do I prefer listening to radio? One of the main reasons is that I never know what the next song will be and I like variety and finding new artists. Over the years I’ve tried XM and Sirius satellite radios and enjoyed them, but in the end, I got tired of the ads and mediocre audio quality. Now I think I have found the perfect radio gadget for me. It’s the Slacker Portable Radio.

slacker radio

This device isn’t a radio in the sense that it doesn’t tune into a frequency in order to listen to a broadcast. Instead it uses WiFi or USB to pull down music from various stations (musical categories) that you can customize for yourself. The cool thing is that once you buy the player, the service is free if you don’t mind a few small limitations. If these limitations bother you, you can subscribe to Slacker’s premium service. More about all that later.

Hardware Specifications

Display: 4″ diagonal 480 x 272 TFT-LCD (16 x 9 aspect ratio)
Capacity: 2GB, 4GB or 8GB
Audio Formats: MP3, WMA (personal content)
WiFi: 802.11b/g
Battery type: Li-Polymer, up to 10hrs play time, 3hr charge time
Dimensions: 2.76 x .67 x 4.2″ (70mm x 16.5mm x 109mm)
Weight: 4.6 oz (130g)

slacker radio

Package Contents

Portable player
Sleeve case
USB cable
AC Adapter
Earbuds with 2 sets of pads
Quick Start Guide


The Slacker Portable is made of shiny Black plastic and as you would expect, it is a magnet for smudges and fingerprints.

slacker radio

The entire face of the device is a color display, with a touch strip on the Left side. The screen is bright, crisp and easy to read.

slacker radio

On the back side, there is a battery door which I haven’t been able to remove. I am afraid of damaging it, so I gave up.

slacker radio

As you can see, the Slacker device is close in size to my 160GB iPod classic.

slacker radio

In hand, the Slacker Portable feels pretty solid. It was able to pass my patented Gadgeteer squeeze test with flying colors. Shaking it does yield some rattling from the buttons. Most people don’t go around shaking their gadgets like a tambourine, so I won’t hold this against the Slacker ;o)

slacker radio
slacker radio

On the Left side, there are two buttons and two ports. The top heart shaped button allows you to mark sounds as your favorites. If you use the free service, it will cause those marked songs to play more often. If you have the premium service, pressing the heart button will copy that track into your library so that you can play it whenever you like.

Both ports are protected by removable rubber covers that are easy to lose. I’ve already done that with the top cover, which protects a mini USB port that is used for charging and syncing. The other port is for a as yet to be available docking cradle.

On the Right side of the portable, you’ll find a Home button that returns you to the main menu. Below it is a scroll wheel that you use to move up and down in lists. Pressing the scroll wheel selects an item. Next in line is the track skip button. Below it is the Pause toggle button and then the last button is actually a spring loaded slider switch that is used to toggle power and set to hold mode.

slacker radio

On the top of the player there are volume adjustment buttons and a 3.5mm stereo headphone jack.

The Slacker Portable radio works with the Slacker web radio service. When you order a portable, you choose the model based on the number of radio stations that you want to add to the player. The $199.99 entry level portable has 2GB of storage and allows you to pick up to 15 stations, giving you approximately 1500 radio songs and 500MB of space for your own MP3s. The $249.99 middle level player has 4GB of storage, gives you 25 stations, 2500 radio songs and 1.5GB for your own music. The high end player will set you back $299.99 and has 8GB of storage, will give you 40 stations with 4000 songs and 4GB of space for your own songs. If you spring for the high end player, they will also throw in an FM transmitter. I picked the middle player…

The cool thing is that when you place an order for the player, it will let you select your allotment of stations from over 100 available stations that include such genres as Blues, Country, Classical, Alternative, Rock, Electronic, Jazz, International, Latin, Rock, Spiritual, Comedy, Youth, Standards/Big Band, Hip Hop/R&B and others. Each genre has quite a few specific stations to choose from. It would be nice if they include talk radio stations at some point.

A very nice feature is the ability to create your own custom stations. You do this through the web interface. You search for artists and bands and add them to a list to create a station. If you don’t add at least 15 different artists, the remainder will be added with similar bands. I really love this feature because I create stations that only play people that I like. You can also fine tune all the stations, which allows you to change settings such as Artist Discovery, Popularity, Favorites, Year and DJ commentary.

The Interface

After you receive the portable and charge it up, you can turn it on and start enjoying music right away. The user interface is easy to navigate using the scroll wheel. As I mentioned earlier, there is a touch strip on left side of the display. If you enable this feature, you can use your finger to scroll through stations and text. I found this feature to be very erratic and hard to control, so I turned it off about 1 minute after trying it. The scroll wheel works a lot better.

slacker radio
slacker radio
slacker radio

The main menu or home screen has a thumbnail in the upper Left corner of the currently playing song, next artist and options to bring up the station listing, your library, playlists, settings and connect screens.

slacker radio
slacker radio

The stations screen is just a long scrollable list of station names with the currently playing song info at the top. To change stations, just turn the scroll wheel till you highlight the one you would like to listen to. Then press the wheel to select it. A few seconds later a new song will start playing from that station. What I’d really like to see in the station list is the next song to play in each one. That way, if I’m bored with what I’m listening to, I can easily find another station to switch to based on what the next artist might be.

If you scroll to the album thumbnail and select it, you’ll go into the Now Playing screen. This shows the song name, band or artist name, release date, play progress bar and the next artist.

slacker radio
slacker radio
slacker radio

Pressing the scroll wheel will cycle through other screens for the currently playing song. They include an artist biography, album review and another screen that shows a list of songs that you’ve listened to so far from a particular station. I love the artist biography feature because it shows a picture of the artist or band and gives quite a bit of information about them. Scrolling through the info with the scroll wheel is a bit tedious though as it only scrolls a line at a time. It would be nice if it would scroll a whole page at a time. It’s also annoying when you’re in the middle of reading about an artist and the song changes as the artist info will change too.

So far, I’ve been pretty happy with the song selection that the different stations provide. I’ve found several new artists that I like well enough to buy their complete albums. I like being able to listen to types of music that I normally do not buy as it is helping me find new styles that I enjoy.

Audio quality is very good. It’s definitely better than FM radio and is easily better than XM or Sirius too. The only audio issue that I ran into is that every so often when a song starts playing, it will hiccup or stutter. Hopefully this will be fixed with the next firmware update.

If you pause a song and power down the player, the song will commence playing once you power up and press the pause button toggle to play. If you pull out the headphone jack, it will automatically pause the player. Putting it back in will resume play.

Do you need a computer to use the Slacker Portable?

Yes and no… An actual Windows PC is required for syncing new music via USB and transferring your own MP3s or WMA song files into the portable’s library. A Mac or PC is needed for charging via USB. Any type of computer with an internet connection will allow you to add, remove, or make your own custom stations, by using the Slacker radio web interface. You won’t need a computer at all if you are content to listen to the same stations that shipped with your portable and have access to free WiFi that you can use to sync new music.

slacker radio
Click on thumbnail to see full-size image

It’s important to note that Mac users will not be able to copy their own music files to the player. This requires a special software player to be installed. Right now, there’s only a version for Windows. Mac users can do everything else through the web interface.

Basic (Free) or Premium (Pay) Service?

The Slacker Portable comes with the free service by default. This service has a few limitations that may or may not bother you. You can only skip 6 songs an hour per station and you may hear or see up to 2 ads per hour. The ads that I’ve heard so far are about 15 – 30 seconds long and just talk about the Slacker radio. I’ve not seen any visual ads yet. Occasionally you’ll also hear DJ commentary about a song or artist. These little spots are also quite short. If any of that bothers you, you can upgrade to Premium service. It costs as low as $7.50 a month if you go with the 1yr option. With the upgrade to Premium, you get unlimited skips, the ability to save tracks to your library with the favorite (heart) button, no ads, no DJ commentary if you desire and unlimited song requests. Requesting songs will let you specify songs by name and artist that you definitely want to hear in each station.

When you buy the portable, you can try a free 7 day eval of the premium service. For me, the ads really don’t bother me and 6 skips an hour doesn’t seem that bad. But, I do like the ability to save tracks to my library so that I can listen to them again whenever I want.

Conclusion

slacker radio

I’ve been playing with the Slacker Portable for a couple weeks now and I just love this thing. It’s easy to use and the sound quality is great. It’s like having a magic iPod that always has new music for you to listen to. I also really like being able to create my own stations. I was amazed at the depth of the Slacker catalog. I made a station that included the following artists: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Regis Philbin and David Hasselhoff. Right now I’m listening to Spock sing “If I Was a Carpenter”. Yes, I’m twisted. If Slacker adds talk radio and podcasts to their selection of stations, my iPod might start taking up permanent residence in my gadget drawer…

 

Product Information

Price:249.99
Manufacturer:Slacker
Pros:
  • Easy to use
  • Updates via WiFi or USB
  • Can create your own custom stations
  • Can save songs into your library - Premium service
Cons:
  • Mac users can't copy their own music to the player
  • Songs sometimes stutter at the beginning

Comments

  1. 1
    Bob Williams says:

    Looks like an interesting device, but Live 365 has been doing this on Windows Mobile for a long time as a value-add to their $4 a month Pro service.

    Hundreds of stations with no limits, if its on Live 365 yo can play it as long as you have a data connection.

    It does not do any storage, pre-se, or song sharing, etc..

    [Edited at July 11, 2008 20:14:52 PM.]

  2. 2
    Julie says:

    Live 365 sounds interesting, but does it work well with an Edge connection? I like that with the Slacker, you can sync music and then listen to it anywhere and not have to worry about any type of data or wifi connection.

  3. 3
    Bob Williams says:

    Yes, it works very well with my T-Mobile MDA, which I rarely use on wifi.

    I listen to it on the train on the way to work, and it operates just like any other web stream, with a clean, easy to use interface.

    Since I have an unlimited data plan, its a non-issue on the connectivity.

    The only downside at all is the battery usage, which is high because the radio is full-on the whole time. My hi-cap battery takes care of that issue.

    Having virtually unlimited music in every genre anytime I have my MDA with me means my dependence on MP3’s is very limited, and the 2gb limitation of the platform is much less an issue.

    [Edited at July 11, 2008 22:22:06 PM.]

  4. 4
    Rob Tillotson says:

    Slacker isn’t quite like a normal streaming service, however. Since it actually plays pre-downloaded tracks, you can skip ahead instantly, and the player remembers that to adjust the playlist. You can also ban a song completely, or mark a song as loved so that it (and its artist) plays more often.

    You also aren’t limited to the genres they supply; you can define your own stations by selecting artists. You can choose one artist (whether or not they have it in their catalog) and simply let it play what it considers to be similar, or you can select from the catalog of artists to make a custom station. This isn’t quite like making a playlist on your iPod though — since the Slacker is supposed to be “radio”, it will still insert tracks from related artists, the amount depending on how many artists you picked for your custom station. (Apparently this is a rather important distinction for licensing — if you could create a station which only played one or two artists, it would be download-on-demand, not streaming radio.)

    The web player is ad-supported as well, so you can try it for free, and it will sync your stations to the portable over wifi. I quite like the web service, though I’ve held off on buying the portable… I’m waiting to see what happens with it in the future before i start carrying yet another device in my pocket. (The iPod is non-negotiable, and i have XM in the car. Most of the time I’m sitting at my desk in my home office so I don’t really need a portable anyway.)

  5. 5
    Bob Williams says:

    Another option: http://www.thestreamcenter.com/pda/callsign.asp

    Every terrestrial radio station with a web stream, linked direct to the stream URL so no BS webplayers or ad viewing required.

    Works great on Windows Mobile and my Treo 650, though in some cases where its an MP3 stream you need something like Mortplayer.

    No fees, just data connection (GPRS, WiFi, etc.) of some kind required.

  6. 6
    Julie says:

    Bob:

    I think you might be missing the fact that the Slacker Portable is not a streaming device at all. It downloads the content either by WiFi or USB and then it’s on the device so that you can listen anywhere. In a plane, in a cave, where ever. You don’t need to be connected to the service to listen. The services you’ve linked to are interesting, but they all require you to have a data connect in order to listen. :o)

  7. 7
    Hedgehog says:

    Julie:

    Thanks for one of the more recent and informative reviews of the Slacker Portable. I still have a few basic and important questions which seem to be contradicted by various other reviewers:

    1) I have read that in order to save particular songs you willl need to purchase the Premium subscription. The only thing the player retains are your stations and your favorite-type selections which it will retain in your account.

    2) The use of a PC is said to be necessary to activate your account when without a wi-fi signal or to refresh your previous selections. In addition, any software updates would be best be done through a USB connection to the website.

    3) When not within wi-fi range with a non-subscription player what exactly are you able to listen to when offline?

    4) The only kind of customer/technical support I see on Slacker’s website is via e-mail. Don’t they have an 800 # or direct help?

    Many thanks if you could bring more clarity to these issues and it would be much appreciated as Slacker’s website is short on details.

  8. 8
    Julie says:

    Hedgehog:

    1. That’s correct. If you want to save tracks on the portable player, you have to have the premium subscription. Once you have subscribed, then when you hear a song on the portable that you want to ‘keep’, you press the heart button. That song will then show up in the Library section of your portable. You can play it anytime you want, over and over…

    2. You don’t need a PC to activate your account, you need access to a browser though. You just have to have an account on the Slacker.com website, login and then associate the player with your account. If you order a player online through their site, this step will already be done. If you don’t have access to WiFi, then yes, you’ll need a Window PC in order to charge and sync the portable via USB. Mac users that don’t have access to WiFi will be SOL. Firmware updates can be done via WiFi.

    3. When you’re out of range of WiFi, you can listen to whatever content is currently on the player. It only uses WiFi to sync new content. Once it’s synced, it’s on there and doesn’t require a connection.

    4. I don’t know anything about their customer service and at the moment, I can’t access their website because they have the slacker.com website blocked here at my day job because it’s TV/Radio/Entertainment related.

    Hope this helps… :o)

  9. 9
    Rome says:

    To help Answer Hedgehog..

    4) The only kind of customer/technical support I see on Slacker’s website is via e-mail. Don’t they have an 800 # or direct help?

    Slacker does have a few different Customer Support Tools… First, email (Support@slacker.com), secondly, A live chat support during business hours, and finally Official Forums.

    Hopes that answers your question.

  10. 10
    Bob Williams says:

    Duh, I did miss that – makes a lot more sense as a device, though not in my universe. :-)

  11. 11
    Alan Hoyle says:

    Does it play back video? That looks like it would be a pretty nice screen for doing so.

    as an aside, I notice that Buy.com has it for $189.99 shipped right now.

    http://www.buy.com/retail/product.asp?sku=206165764

    [Edited at July 17, 2008 08:47:40 AM.]

  12. 12
    Julie says:

    Alan:

    No video playing capabilities. That would be a great new feature though… Even if it was only music videos :o)

    That’s a great deal via Best Buy.

  13. 13
    Blacknimbus says:

    I must have gotten lucky…Amazon.com had the 2gb version for 148 with free shipping on Wednesday and I had it in my hands yesterday.

    I must be the target demographic, because I listen to etn.fm or pandora all time time and this basically puts that in my hands. The screen is very nice, and it doesn’t bother me that all it does is music…I have a Zune I load up with my DVD’s and MP3’s.

    If you look at it as a compliment to your Zune or Ipod, it makes sense. And the best part is that there is no extra monthly fee.

    Here’s hoping my particular unit holds up and that they don’t go out of business anytime soon…I’m very happy with my purchase.

  14. 14
    Julie says:

    Blacknimbus:

    Thank you for your comments. I really like mine too. The only thing that annoys me is that the songs sometimes skip at the beginning. Today it’s been really bad for some reason. I sure hope this gets fixed in the next firmware update.

    I decided to go ahead and pay for the premium service so that I can skip sounds as many times as I like, and save songs to my library. So far I’m really happy with this purchase.

  15. 15
    Blacknimbus says:

    Can you download the songs you save to your library and burn them to CD, for example?

    The free service was the selling point for me. There have been other music services that allowed you to ‘download’ all the songs you wanted for paying a fee every month. The catch was that your songs would expire if you canceled your contract or they went out of business.

  16. 16
    Blacknimbus says:

    Oh, and I’d like to find a speaker setup for the house for my Slacker player. Most of the systems available are ipod only.

  17. 17
    Julie says:

    Blacknimbus:

    No, you can’t burn the songs saved in your library to a CD.

    As for a speaker system, you could get any type of portable speaker that has a line in and use that with the portable. Just connect them with a short patch cable. That’s what I do. :o)

  18. 18
    Rick says:

    Buy.com has the 4G slacker for 49.95 with free shipping. That and these reviews just sold another one!

  19. 19
    Kim says:

    I just bought one also Buy.com 49.95 w/free shipping. I hope it’s all that you have all said it is! I was SO bored with listening to my mp3 player–every day same songs over and over. I’m hoping to get a little diversity!

  20. 20
    Julie says:

    @Kim Let us know what you think of it :)

  21. 21
    Terri says:

    I just ordered one of the $300 8GB versions on BUY.COM for $59.99 and FREE Shipping! If this thing is everything it SEEMS to be, I just got a steal!

  22. 22
    Paul says:

    One of the most horrific and contemptuous customer service experiences I have ever encountered. After having compatibility issues with logging in, and giving them 72 hours notice prior to the end of the one week free trial, they still refused to not charge my credit card unless I signed in and manually deactivated it myself, and in an extremely unhelpful, dismissive, and contemptuous manner. Escalated to a manager!? they finally *reluctantly* conceded to not charge it. Read their forums and you will see similar issues. I don’t support them on principle with this level of customer service.

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