The first portable device to come out for the Slacker Web Player took nearly a year from beta to retail and fell a little flat with several consumers and industry experts, mainly because of its large and boxy design, an extraneous touch-strip control, and a satellite-hopping wireless function that never came to fruition. Fortunately, Slacker took its growing pains in stride and was quick to push out its follow-up device, the G2. The new portable flawlessly integrates Slacker's excellent free music service in an improved package with a super simple user interface. At $199 for the 4GB model and $249 for the 8GB, the G2 goes for a premium when compared with other MP3 players--especially considering the lack of extra features--but when you factor in the all-you-can-eat free-and-effortless (and legal) music aspect, it doesn't seem so pricey.
Hardware and design
Like with the first Slacker Portable Player, the G2's capacity doesn't function in the same way as your average MP3 player. The majority of the memory is set aside for stations, which are transferred from the Slacker service. The 4GB model accepts up to 25 different stations (with up to 2,500 songs), while the 8GB can take up to 40 (with up to 4,000 songs). However, you can also transfer MP3 or WMA files from your personal music library--up to 1GB for the 4GB player and up to 3GB for the 8GB. In true Slacker fashion, the device is only available in one color: black. We appreciate the solid feel, rubberized edges, and metal backplate complete with a raised Slacker logo.
Unlike the first Slacker device, the G2 is compact--measuring a pocketable 3.5 inches high, 2.2 inches wide, and 0.5 inch deep--and relies solely on a plentiful array of tactile controls. The ample 2.4-inch screen is flanked by play/pause and track shuttle keys on the bottom and Slacker's signature Heart and Ban buttons on the top (more on these shortly). A jog wheel on the right spine lets you navigate onscreen and through menus--pushing it in selects whatever is highlighted on the screen. For example, if the album art is highlighted, pressing in on the wheel will pull up an album review. A home button and hold switch also reside on the right edge, and a standard mini USB for charging and (minimal) syncing is housed on the left. Dedicated volume buttons--which lagged a bit during testing--and a standard headphone jack line the top of the G2, and a 30-pin connection for future accessories lives on the bottom. While we appreciate dedicated controls for everything, we found ourselves trying to use the jog wheel to adjust volume and pushing in vain at the small Slacker logo on the front as if it were a joystick for navigation. The setup isn't entirely intuitive, though once you get used to it, it's not too bad.
Interface and music service
On the other hand, the Slacker G2 onscreen interface is innovative yet simple. On the main playback screen, huge album art dominates the entire screen. The station name and a battery meter takes up a fraction at the top; the track name, artist, a time-remaining bar, and the next artist are laid over in small text at the bottom. Scrolling to the very bottom of the screen automatically pulls up the last menu you were in, pushing the song info up and mostly out of sight at the top. The main menu is unsurprisingly sparse given the G2's relatively few functions. There are selections for stations, library, playlists, and settings. There's also a connect option, which lets you update firmware and refresh the songs on your saved stations anytime you are in range of a Wi-Fi connection that is open or for which you have the key.
Arguably, the coolest thing about the G2 is its wireless functionality and partnership with the Slacker Web Player. A more effortless way to get new music on-the-go simply does not exist--at least not at this cost. Slacker's basic music service is completely free, supported by advertising rather than a subscription fee. Users must deal with about 3 minutes of audio ads per hour and a skip limit of six tracks per hour. The limit also applies to Bans, which prevent a song from playing on a station when applied; contrarily, Hearts mark tracks as favorites, which then play more often on the given station. In this way, you can personalize the stations as you listen to them. If you elect to sign up for Slacker's Premium Radio service, which costs $7.50 a month, you can personalize your listening experience even more with the ability to save songs to your library on the device, which then automatically adds it to the library attached to your account online and in the software. (Premium users also do not get ads and have no skip or Ban limits.)
Performance and extras
Somewhat unfortunately, the Slacker G2 doesn't really include a lot of extras, aside from the ability to support playlists and choose between 10 preset EQs. There's no voice recorder or FM tuner (not that you would want or need the latter on such a device) and no support for photos or videos, which is a bit of a shame given the bright and relatively large display. However, Slacker does make use of the screen by providing artist bios and album reviews, which display as white text on the black background.
During testing, we found that tracks transferred from our personal library (which must be done via a wired connection) sounded better than songs played from the Slacker service. Of course, the G2 doesn't claim to be an audiophile's MP3 player. Quite the opposite, in fact: it's aimed at people who don't want to put a lot of effort into their listening experience, and it succeeds. That said, station tracks sound clear and decently warm. Bass is a little deficient, and high-end detail is not the greatest. Both of these improve with library tracks, which have more high-end sparkle, and a bit more low-end thump.
Wireless update performance was good during our testing, especially given the fact that our signal strength wavered between low and good the entire time (the result of a weak test network, rather than the device). It took about 15 to 20 minutes to refresh 11 stations. The Slacker G2, unlike its predecessor, does have the ability to "step through" terms and conditions pages that are necessary to access many public hot spots. The player's rated 15-hour battery life is not great, and its tested battery life of 9.8 hours is pretty dismal. On the plus side, the included wall charger is more efficient at charging than the USB port method used by most MP3 players.