What do you get when you take the ex-CEOs of Musicmatch, Rio, and iRiver America and lock them in a room with a stack of data about the digital-music landscape? How about a revolutionary new music service and a portable device to go along with it?
Enter Slacker, a company chock full of digital music experts (mostly transplants from Musicmatch and Rio), and its two babies: Slacker.com (an online music service) and the Slacker portable device. That's quite a few Slackers, and it's also the point. As it turns out, about 70 percent of music enthusiasts don't want to spend hours creating the perfect playlists, which means most of you are slackers just like me. (Ha!) To break it down even further, 51 percent of MP3 player users update their content only once a month or less, and 46 percent don't update more often because they don't have time. Several services have aimed to address this issue, such as MTV Urge with its Auto-Mix feature and Rhapsody with Channels.
Slacker.com takes a slightly different tack, namely because you don't have to pay for it: It's Internet radio, rather than a traditional music service. At this point, you don't even have the option of paying for a la carte downloads, though that feature will likely be introduced next year. Instead, you access Slacker's intuitive online music player (a downloadable jukebox is also available) and stream a variety of radio stations. You can select from a list of preprogrammed stations ('80s hits, electronica, and so on) or you can create artist-based stations that you can personalize using attribute sliders (such as those found in Urge's Auto-Mix feature) and by "hearting" (marking as a favorite) or banning specific songs. You can also decide whether you want a DJ commenting throughout. As actual DJs, rather than some artificial intelligence, program all the content, it stands to reason that you'll like the stations that ultimately result from your relatively minor input. Unfortunately, I can't say for sure at this point, as I haven't had much time to play around with the Slacker jukebox. Anyway, it's free, so why complain, right?
Actually, the free version does have some limitations: You can only skip tracks six times per hour, and the experience will come with ads, though at least they'll be visual ads, not audio ones. The good news is that the premium version is expected to sport a very palatable price tag of $7.50 per month, which is half that of subscription service competitors. And, yes, you can indeed listen to your stations on a portable device, and you don't even have to go through the pesky step of connecting your player to a computer to do so.
That's right: the Slacker portable device is all about Wi-Fi, baby. That's so money! Swingers lingo aside, the Slacker device is shaping up to be one sweet player. So I'll start with the one potentially questionable thing and that's usability. The player is dominated by a beautiful 4-inch screen, which necessitates that the few, thin-looking controls be relegated to the edge of the device. This setup causes me to question the intuitiveness of the controls, and I haven't even had a chance to test it out myself.
With that said, we can move on to the benefits of the Slacker, of which there are several. Foremost, it has built-in Wi-Fi, which allows it to periodically (and automatically) hop on to open Wi-Fi networks and refresh your content. The player determines what to refresh based on input you enter on the device itself (which also features the Heart and Ban selectors) and your preferences from Slacker.com. And, yes, even this service is free, though that version carries the same limitations as the online service. It also supports MP3s, WMAs, and--unlike the Zune--subscription WMAs from other services, as well as video playback. (Incidentally, content from Slacker.com is AACPlus v2.) The first iteration of the player will come with 2GB of flash memory, and will be priced competitively with similar players such as the Creative Zen V Plus.