After racking up generally positive reviews for its first-generation portable Internet radio player, but getting dinged on size by just about everyone, Slacker has tried to recreate the functionality of the original in a much smaller package with the Slacker G2. Promising a continuous feed of fresh music without the effort of selecting it yourself, the G2 delivers on bringing the online Slacker experience mobile, and in a much more reasonable size, but suffers from a terribly clunky input wheel, a sluggish interface, and pricing that makes Apple’s boutique product line look cheap.
The Slacker Premise
As the name suggests, Slacker’s music service centers around ease of use, targeting the lowest common denominator of music consumer who just want an enjoyable stream of music without the hassle of selecting and acquiring it. In other words: traditional radio listeners.
Using Slacker’s free online music service, you merely select a genre of music, or build your own station from a list of favorite artists, and the music begins flowing. Unlike traditional Web radio, you can pause tracks as they play, skip them, and fine tune what Slacker plays by choosing some songs as favorites and banning others. But more importantly, at the end of the day, there’s no downloading, purchasing, arranging or maintaining of a library.
The basic service, though free, comes with some restraints. You only get five skips in an hour, for instance, and you’ll sometimes hear interstitial ads between songs. Slacker’s premium option, which costs between $7.50 and $10 a month (depending on subscription length), lifts these restrictions. It also unlocks other options, like saving songs for your personal library, and requesting specific songs be added to your stations.
The G2 takes either service mobile by essentially collecting an enormous buffer of queued songs in its memory, then recreating the Slacker interface in a portable player. Though it shares the same guts as any other basic flash-based MP3 player, Slacker’s unique form of loading, arranging and playing the content puts a completely different face on the device.
Unlike the original, brick-like Slacker player, the G2 measures only 3.4 inches long, 2 inches wide, and a little more than half an inch deep, making it comfortable palm-sized, even for those with small hands. The original rectangular profile remains intact, but Slacker has rounded out the edges significantly and done away with the old unit’s “touch strip” for scrolling, switching instead to a ridged scroll wheel on the right-hand side. Besides the usual back, forward and play/pause buttons on the unit’s face below its 320 x 240 LCD screen, the G2 features to Slacker-centric extras above the screen: favorite and ban buttons for providing Slacker with input on which songs should stay and which need to go. A lock button and home button on the right-hand side round out its selection of buttons, along with a volume rocker on top. The only inputs are a headphone jack on the top and a mini-USB jack on the lower right-hand side.
A weight of only 74 grams makes the G2 feel exceptionally light for its size, and we liked the silky matte black material that the majority of the player is constructed from – it reminded us of the high-quality plastic used in the construction of ThinkPads. Overall, the design is practical, but no eye-catcher, save for the rear, where Slacker has used a bright silver for the back plate, and stuck on its interesting winged logo against a chrome placard.
Inside, the G2 hosts either 4GB or 8GB of flash memory, which Slacker equates to 25 stations and 40 worth of content, respectively. Besides being able to pull the stations via USB to fill up that space, there’s also a Wi-Fi radio, which can be configured to interface with a home network then automatically reconnect and refresh content when it’s in range, eliminating the need to connect it to a PC at all.
Besides the headphones, the accessories included with the Slacker were of relatively high quality, and useful to boot. Slacker’s soft-plastic case with belt clip (normally an accessory we would expect to drop $15 on) made a useful add-on for taking the player running or to the gym. The company’s solution for a charger and data cable was also slick: Slacker provides a USB data cable and a special slim wall adapter that terminates in a full-size USB port, allowing the same cable to work for both functions. It’s a small change from offering a separate cable for each, but it cuts down on clutter when travelling, and the wall adapter can be used for charging or powering absolutely any USB accessory.
The Slacker G2 and accessories
In an interesting twist of Slacker’s customizable music model, the company will actually preload a G2 with your favorite Slacker stations straight from the factory for no extra charge – if you buy it directly through Slacker and take the time to select them. Though it might seem inconsequential to hardcore PMP users, it makes a big difference from the ease-of-use perspective Slacker specializes in. And since the unit has been designed to take on more music whenever connected, having a full load right from the beginning means you’ll never have to wait for all 4GB to load in one sitting, unless you run it dry between refills.
Given how much effort Slacker puts into making the G2 ready-to-roll right out of the box with music, we were disappointed to find that our unit had lost all its charge from the factory, and wouldn’t even boot up once we plugged it in. After a few failed attempts to fire it up during the first few minutes, we abandoned it for two hours per the manual’s recommendation, and only got it to turn on upon returning. While it functioned perfectly afterward, the lack of out-of-box playability was a bit of a buzzkill.
The Slacker Interface
Like the online version of the Slacker interface, the G2 makes album artwork the centerpiece of its display, putting it front and center and arranging other bits of information around it. A top bar displays the station name and battery life, while below, you’ll find artist, album title, and track title arranged around the player’s status bar.
Unfortunately, though the layout is sound, the player’s sluggish response time and limited input options (really only a clickable scroll wheel) make navigating through it quite difficult. Scrolling quickly through menu options makes a pronounced lag time obvious, and attempting to type in Wi-Fi passwords using an on-screen alphabet and a scroll wheel felt like a punishment straight out of Greek mythology (remember Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill and letting it roll down for all eternity?) We could probably tap it out faster in Morse code.
Image Courtesy of Slacker
The User Experience
Having a player pushed full of new music every time we connected it was a new experience for us, and one we thoroughly enjoyed. Remember the time you left for a run with stale tracks on your MP3 player because you didn’t have time to put new music on? Or for a long car trip? Or for a party you were going to provide music for? Slacker cuts all the work out, turning your player into a treasure trove of new tracks every time you turn it on. If you’re lazy, you’ll love it. If you’re an astute Pitchfork reader with a catalog 8,000 albums deep, an encyclopedic knowledge of every band under the sun, and discriminating tastes in music, you’ll basically see it as an expensive version of the radio. Control freaks, move on now.
Highlighting the artist’s name with the scroll wheel and selecting it will bring up an artist bio, while doing the same with the album artwork will bring up a review. We enjoyed having such comprehensive bundle of extras available onboard without putting any additional effort into gathering them. And since much of the music to come across the player will be new to your ears, the reviews and bios make interesting reading for car trips and train rides, and might even allow you to skip a visit to Wikipedia when you get home.
Don’t be fooled by the silicon-earpiece design and “premium” label on the G2’s earbuds. Though they look classier than the cheap headphones we’ve found packaged with other players, Slacker didn’t quite carry the same illusion of quality over to sound reproduction, where bass was so lacking at to be practically nonexistent. Granted, bass is typically a sore spot for ear buds, but Slacker’s headphones were even put to shame in bass reproduction by the pair that came packaged with a $20 SanDisk SlotMusic Player. The good news: Despite their lackluster aural qualities, they’re extraordinarily comfortable and stay fitted into tightly the ear, sealing out sound in the process. Slacker includes three interchangeable silicon earpieces with the player, so even owners with different sized and shaped ears should be able to find a pair that fits them spot on. We just wish that the quality of the drivers matched the outside.
Slacker does include an equalizer built into the G2 to compensate, ever so slightly, for the poor quality of its bundled headphones. Unfortunately, it only includes ten profiles and an “off” setting, which we found to be exceptionally weak for a $200 player, which should offer a multi-band equalizer.
After installing Slacker’s Station Refresher software, the player will automatically connect to Slacker and refresh itself when connected to a computer via USB cable, or via Wi-Fi if you configure the player to connect to a home network. In general, both methods worked seamlessly, pulling down content transparently without bothering us with the nitty gritty details: The player just shows a blue progress bar as each station gets refreshed, and the whole process took less than five minutes after a whole day’s worth of on-and-off listening.
Though Slacker obviously intends for most users to stick with its radio stations, the G2 can also store songs permanently like an ordinary MP3 player through its library function. After pressing a button the player to activate the right mode when connected, it will appear as drive to drag and drop MP3s onto. While loading it with files was easy, we weren’t fond of the integrated library browser, which requires a lot of effort to switch between browsing views (by artist, by album, etc.) and suffered from the pitiful scroll wheel.
As an MP3 player, the G2 is a rather unremarkable piece of hardware, but when coupled with Slacker’s valuable online radio service, it truly offers a unique solution for owners who don’t want to be bothered by constantly refreshing their music manually. Slacker has largely fixed the problems of its earlier player, but a laggy interface with a slow, clunky input device remains an issue. The G2’s price tag of $200 for only a 4GB player puts it far, far above the competition though (the same cash could buy a 16GB iPod Nano) so buyers should definitely test drive Slacker’s service online before deciding the premium is worth it for the player. If you’re in love, it’s a solid way to bring the benefits of the Web on the road. Otherwise, we would recommend passing.
• Endless free content
• Useful accessories
• Sluggish interface
• Ultra pricy
• Poor interface for non-Slacker files
• Earphones lack any bass