Living with the Slacker Portable

Mari Silbey —  April 24, 2008 — 11 Comments

Slacker Portable 1

I’ve been living with the Slacker Portable device for about six weeks now and have accumulated a slew of thoughts/insights/revelations on what I like and don’t like about the music player. In case you’re really ADD or just don’t have the time to read the details, here’s the bottom line: the functionality of the Slacker Portable is phenomenal, and far outweighs the hardware and software quirks that come along with it.

First, if you’ve never used the Slacker service online, go check it out. It’s like other customizable Internet radio applications (Last.fm, Pandora), but the personalization tools are particularly flexible and produce great results. So far, having a Slacker Portable is just like carrying the online application around in my pocket, and I don’t need a constant broadband connection.

Like Slacker’s online service, you can use the Slacker Portable to create custom Internet radio stations, or select from DJ-derived stations based on genre. It comes with built-in Wi-Fi, which you can use to transfer station content to the device any time you’re in range of an open wireless network. (No feature yet to enable connections to password-protected networks) In a brilliant move, the Slacker folks let you pre-load your device with stations from your online account when you order it. This is nice because otherwise the first-time download of music via Wi-Fi takes hours. Content refreshes are much faster.

A number of folks have commented that the Slacker Portable seems physically big for a music player, but honestly I didn’t have that reaction. The screen on it is beautiful and you get cover art and massive amounts of information about any song you play.

Right now there is no advertising on the device, and that is a beautiful thing. Ads are coming, however, and I’ll just have to see if they make me want to upgrade to a premium $7.50/mo subscription. With the premium subscription, not only are you ad-free, you can also choose specific songs you want to play somewhere in the line-up of a custom station. You can also download those songs directly to the Slacker Portable, though you can’t move them around to a computer or other players. Premium service also means unlimited song skips.

I had a number of surprises with the Slacker Portable, some of them good, some not so much. For example, while I love the simple interface online, I’m much less keen on the bundled computer software. Features – like a list of stations you’ve favorited – are hard to find, and the interface has been buggy for me. Luckily, after the first music download, I’ve rarely had to use the software. Content refreshes take place without it, and I’ll only really need to open the application again if I want to transfer brand new stations to the device, something I haven’t needed to do yet.

In the column of good surprises, I’ve found that I love using the Slacker Portable when I go on a run. I thought I’d want to stick with my iPod Shuffle, but it’s much less boring to have someone/something else creating a soundtrack for me. I usually scroll right to the “Hits” station and get a slew of upbeat tracks.

There are number of minor annoyances with the Slacker Portable, all of which I’m willing to forgive.

  • The case is lame and doesn’t come with a clip for your clothing.
  • It’s easy to hit the wrong button on the device, and while there’s a lock function, I don’t like to use it because it means I can’t easily skip a song.
  • I had trouble connecting the device directly to my computer’s Internet connection for the first music download and had to rely on Wi-Fi.
  • When the device first starts up it’s a little slow to respond.
  • If I pause a station for too long the device goes into sleep mode and then skips to the next song when it powers back up. (firmware upgrade apparently fixes this problem)
  • I don’t like the earphones that come with it.

The Slacker Portable is selling now on Slacker’s site and via Amazon. In talking to Jonathan Sasse at the company a while back, I learned it will also hit retail chains in the near future.

The Slacker Portable is probably not for everyone, especially with prices of $199 (15 stations, 2GB), $249 (25 stations, 4GB) and $299 (40 stations, 8 GB). But I’m loving it. I haven’t listened to anything but NPR on the radio for a long, long time. I finally have a reason to listen to music radio again.

UPDATE: I heard from the Slacker folks that it is now possible to connect to protected and “captive” Wi-Fi networks, a major bonus for folks hanging around in wireless cafes. Also, you can do all Slacker upgrades from Slacker.com rather than the PC software, and a recent firmware upgrade has apparently fixed the track-skipping issue when the player is paused. (Thanks, Allison)

11 responses to Living with the Slacker Portable

  1. Good write up and an interesting product. How does this compare to something like the stilleto or helix? Also what is the battery life like?

  2. Having held the Slacker, I do think it’s too big and I don’t like the way it feels in my hand. But the service does sound compelling, especially since they haven’t turned on ads.

    But hard for me to justify with things like Flytunes (web app) and iRadio (jailbreak app) available on my iPhone. Though, I obviously can’t listen to those offline on a plane. My Helix is largely unused these days – if they ever released those new home stereo accessories, maybe it’d get some playtime. Still think Stiletto 2 (by Zing) is better, though more pricey and I wouldn’t get a multi-unit service discount (have XM in the car). Hmmmmm.

  3. I’ve found battery life to be fine for my purposes. I tend to plug in the Slacker when I get home.

    From Laptop Mag:

    “Battery life is rated at an anemic 10 hours for listening, which during our tests was good enough for a couple of days commuting back and forth. On the plus side, you can replace the battery yourself, which you can’t do with iPods.”

    http://www.laptopmag.com/review/mp3/slacker-portable.aspx

  4. Great article, and I feel much the same way. The hardware itself feels a bit cheap and the functionality of all those buttons begs for a touch screen. But try getting beautiful album art, band bios and song notes on an Ipod. And the experience of hearing new music from a playlist I did not create is a real treat.

  5. Slacker has one of the most comprehensive music delivery strategies out there; MP3s, Customized Radio, portable devices, and even car kits. Unfortunately it also gives them a comprehensive list of competitors including Pandora, Apple, and Sirius. Have you heard anything about their sales numbers or listenership rates? Also Curious on what you think about the custom playlist functionality, is it enough to satisfy someone who wants to control their music experience?

  6. I haven’t heard any sales numbers. RE: the custom playlists- yes, I think it will satisfy even folks who want a lot of control. There are a lot of tools for refinement, plus with the premium service, you can choose specific songs you want played on a station. Lots of options.

  7. I’ve read conflicting reviews regarding the playback capabilities of stored music offline. That is, unless you subscribe you cannot play back saved songs. You only can save your radio settings or music preferences stored on your player. Is this the case?

  8. I currently have the premium subscription service. Can I transfer my library of Slacker favorites and playlists to the Portable?

    How about a graphic equalizer on the Portable? Or are there presets? Or no way to manipulate sound quality?

    How is the volume? Is it lame or can you really pump it up?

    Can I use different earbuds or a set of headphones if the stereo jack is the same? Or will it accept only the Slacker buds? Thanks

  9. a car interface would be awesome!

  10. This sounds interesting. I can’t believe how long it’s been out and I’m just hearing of it! I need to get out from under this rock!

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