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Editor's note: The rating of the Slacker Portable Player has been decreased from a 6.3 to a 6 because of the abysmal battery life test results garnered by CNET Labs.
The Slacker Portable Player is not your average MP3 player. Rather than just providing the space for you to transfer your digital music (and sometimes video) collection, this device offers an integrated music-listening experience courtesy of the Slacker Web Player. Although the service itself is provided for free, the Portable Player is not a cheap device in the scheme of things, running well above the average price for most music players (the 2GB, 4GB, and 8GB models run $199.99, $249.99, and $299.99, respectively). But this player offers something the others don't: freedom from being tethered to your desk, creating playlists, and transferring them through a cable connection. The Slacker's Wi-Fi allows on-the-fly updating of DJ-created stations...without making you pay a monthly service charge.
Design and interface
The design of the Slacker Portable Player hasn't changed much from the initial beta unit the company had on hand for SXSW 2007. It's a hefty (4.2 inches by 2.7 inches by 0.7 inch) device with a face-dominating, 4-inch color LCD (480x272 pixel resolution). The ample screen is great for displaying album art and other information, though it's a bit counterintuitive that it's not a touch screen, as the large size definitely gives the impression that it would be. Instead, Slacker includes an optional touch strip along the left edge of the screen. We prefer to leave this feature off as its lack of "swipe" operation--whereby you drag your finger to scroll--makes it less handy. Plus, we often touched it accidentally, which caused various undesirable results (changing stations in the middle of a favorite song). However, the interface is straightforward and easy to navigate with the tactile controls. Check out our slide show for interface details.
The Slacker Portable Player's various controls line the edges of the device. On the left side are the two syncing/charging ports: a standard mini USB for a computer connection and a proprietary port for use with the impending car cradle and other accessories. Just above these are the Ban and Heart buttons, which are used for marking unwanted songs and favorites on the fly. The top of the player houses the headphone port and dedicated volume buttons, which aren't in the most ergonomic position because of the size and shape of the device--plan to do some finger stretching to adjust the levels. A home/back key, scroll/select wheel, power/hold switch, and track skip and pause buttons round out the controls on the right edge. You'll notice that there's no reverse or rewind function, because you can't go backward through a radio station. However, you can see how this absence might cause a problem while listening to library tracks. To that end, Slacker provides a contextual soft key that shows up in the playback area to let you reverse through songs.
Features and music service
Not all of the Slacker Portable Player's memory is available for transferring your own music--most of it is dedicated to Slacker stations (that is the point, after all). The 2GB player takes up to 15 stations and stores 1,500 radio songs, while leaving 500MB free for MP3 or WMA transfers. Then, there's the 4GB player with 25 stations/2,500 radio songs/1.5GB personal space and the 8GB player with 40 stations/4,000 radio songs/4GB personal space. Only Windows users have the option of transferring personal content, since the player can only physically connect to that OS. However, Mac users can set up stations and preferences through the Slacker Web Player and update music on the device via Wi-Fi. (The player uses 802.11b/g.)
No doubt about it: The Slacker radio service is the reason to get the Portable Player. Service is available via the Web Player or a software client download, which is necessary for those who want to transfer radio content via a physical connection. (The software isn't the best for organizing your personal music, but the device also works with Windows Media Player for those who prefer to transfer files that way.) The best part about the radio service is that you can get it for free--if you're willing to deal with some advertising (about 3 minutes worth of ads per hour at the top side) and a limit of six skips per station per hour. Alternatively, you can opt to pay for the Premium Service, which not only does away with the ads and skip limits, but also allows you to save individual tracks (using the Heart button) to the library on the player and also to your account online. The cost of this service is $9.99/month for a three-month chunk, $8.33/month for six months, or $7.50/month for a year.
Performance and whatnot
Clearly, the Slacker Portable Player is not your average MP3 player, and as such, there are several things missing from this device that you might expect from your standard portable. The Slacker player doesn't support photo display or DRM. It doesn't handle podcasts well or offer recording features. Naturally, there's no FM radio and you won't be watching videos on the awesome 4-inch screen. That's not to say that some of these features won't be added in the future, but for now, Slacker focuses on the music and, in this case, that's certainly not a bad thing. Also, it's worth noting that the Portable Player will offer another option for updating content wirelessly in the future: a car cradle with a satellite-hopping antenna. (There's something you don't see every day.)
For now, the Slacker device wirelessly updates via Wi-Fi through any WEP/WPA-protected network or select open networks. In testing, performance during these updates was relatively quick and suffered from few hiccups. However, open networks with a "terms and conditions" page don't work at this time--a firmware fix for this is due in the next couple of months. Processor performance in general was very speedy, except when switching between stations and library content, which was slow at times. Station updates via a computer connection took only a couple of seconds. Transferring personal content is a slower process, and we ran into some problems at first syncing long lists of tracks but were able to remedy this by creating playlists. The tested battery life of 8.9 hours is just appalling, especially considering part of this player's appeal is not having to plug it in constantly to get content.
Sound quality isn't really the Slacker Portable Player's strong point, and you'll definitely want to find a substitute for the included earbuds: They're uncomfortable and offer hollow sound. Swapping in a set of