After attempting to sway tech simpletons away from CDs and on to microSD cards with the SlotMusic player, SanDisk is back to conquer the hearts of radio listeners in 2009 with the Sansa SlotRadio. Using a microSD card loaded with 1,000 songs across multiple genres, SanDisk hopes to emulate the radio with a twist: you technically own all the songs. Pick a genre and press play. Though SanDisk paints it as a perfect solution for tech-challenged or terminally lazy folks who can’t be bothered with managing music, skeptics will see it as a severely DRM-crippled MP3 player. Who’s right? It depends on where you stand.
Owners of SanDisk’s earlier SlotMusic player will immediately feel familiar with the SlotRadio, which essentially morphs into a compact square and gets a 1.5-inch monochrome OLED screen. Like the original, SanDisk has kept build quality remarkably high for such a budget device. All sides except the face are solid metal, with a satin finish that looks sharp and resists fingerprints. Since it uses an internal rechargeable battery, it’s also much lighter than the SlotMusic, which used alkaline batteries. A gigantic clip on that back can also be useful for running or just using it around town.
Controls and Usage
True to the SlotMusic concept, there isn’t much to operating the player. A three-way switch up top sets it to off, FM radio or MP3s, and a play button on the side gets tunes playing. Pressing the directional arrows to the right or left of the screen switches between seven different stations, which display on the screen as dots on a line, reminiscent of a traditional radio tuner. Though it feels intuitive, we wish the arrows were slightly easier to press down on when operating it one handed.
Much has been made of what you can and can’t do with songs on the SlotRadio, so allow us to clear it up: It feels exactly like listening to the radio in the car, but with a skip button to move on from the horrible songs that inevitably crop up. This is the only way you can technically “choose” songs, sort of shifting between stations. You can’t browse the contents of the card, make playlists, or even go back to listen to song you really liked and want to hear again. (Technically, if you really wanted to listen again, you could cycle through all 140-some-odd songs on the station to get back to it.) If you had any hope of listening to your music on a computer, you can scratch that, too. Right now, the SlotRadio cards will only work with the SlotRadio player and the Sansa Fuze. Cell phone support is on the way, but you’ll have the same play restrictions you have on the player.
For a player with no back buttons, we found it quite silly of SanDisk to combine the play, pause and forward functions into one button. Clicking it once skips ahead a track, holding it down pauses, and clicking again resumes playback. Accidentally click too quickly instead of holding, and you’ve irreversibly thrown away your track rather than pausing it for later. Whoops. SanDisk hasn’t thought to include a hold buttons, so accidentally skipping a track when you reach into your pocket to pull it out is possible, too.
Our SlotMusic player came preloaded with seven different channels: rock, country, urban, contemporary, alternative, workout, and chillout. They’re all culled from Billboard charts, but to us that seemed like a better indicator that we would recognize the names than that we would like the music. Even on the stations we would identify as matching our musical tastes, one out of every two or three songs had us reaching for the skip button. You can use it as many times as you want, of course, but considering that you’ve paid for 1,000 songs, weeding out that many songs, and sometimes even entire channels (who can claim to like all seven genres?) will quickly make you realize that there isn’t as much “listenable” music on this device as you imagined.
You should be able to pick up specialty cards in the future that cater to only one genre, but they’ll run another $40 apiece, and that also means you’ll have to carry different cards with you when you travel – a backward step to the days of CDs and cassettes.
Navigating with the built-in FM radio didn’t seem nearly as intuitive as a built-in radio should be, even though the reception and RDS station tag identification were both superb. You can navigate between stations using the arrow keys, but a single click only moves in tiny 0.1MHz increments. Holding it down will seek, but you’ll have to time the release it quickly, since it will just keep scanning in one direction if you hold it down. This means you’ll have to master the exact press-and-hold time to scan up one and down one, which gets to be a tiring exercise for navigating the entire dial, and always makes you question whether you accidentally missed a station by holding it down too long. It gets easier after setting presets, but you can still only move forward through them by pressing play, not back.
Sound quality with the included headphones didn’t draw many complaints, and the player had more than enough juice to power a hungrier pair of headphones without distortion, but we did miss having an equalizer – a feature that even most super budget players manage to somehow squeeze in these days.
SanDisk has put together a respectable accessory bundle for the SlotRadio player. The usual suspects include earphones and a microUSB cable for data, but we were also pleasantly surprised to get an outlet-to-USB plug for charging without a PC, and a well-built zippered travel pouch (even though its almost ridiculously large, compared to the player itself).
The SlotRadio occupies an unlikely in-between spot in the music world. Unlike a true MP3 player, you can’t choose the songs. Unlike the radio, it’s not live. Unlike Slacker’s G2, the music isn’t free, and it’s not tailored to your tastes at all. We know it’s for casual music fans, so we won’t compare it to other MP3 players, but it doesn’t even stack up very favorably compared to regular FM radio: the songs aren’t always fresh, you have to buy them, it costs far more as a player, and you don’t even get as much variety. The ability to skip forward, though nice, just doesn’t seem to justify the $100 price of this player, plus the continued expense of buying new music that you don’t even seem to own in any meaningful way. If you’re a casual music fan who can’t be bothered to maintain an MP3 collection, and who enjoys Billboard hits, save your cash and stick to FM radio.
- Solid build quality
- Generous accessory bundle
- Very little control over tracks
- Clumsy radio controls
- No equalizer
- No hold button
- Possible to accidentally skip tracks