Walt Mossberg

Slacker Digital Player Handles the Drudgery for Busy Music Fans

More than 100 million music fans know the joys of portable digital music players — the ability to carry a large number of your favorite songs, arranged in playlists of your design, on a pocket-size gadget.

But for some folks, getting the most out of these players takes too much work or too much money. Converting CDs to music files takes time, as does selecting and downloading tracks from online music services, and synchronizing players with PCs. Creating great playlists also takes time and effort. Some people prefer the old radio model, where songs are programmed by somebody else and you just listen.

Plus, whether you download songs for 99 cents apiece, use a subscription download service for $15 a month, or sign up for satellite radio at $13 a month, the costs to keep your portable player filled legally can add up quickly.

So a new kind of portable player, one for more passive and budget-minded users, is slated to arrive late next month. It’s called the Slacker Personal Radio, and its name is meant to refer to people of any age who just want to sit back and listen instead of actively managing their music.

The new Slacker players will come in three models, ranging from $200 to $300, depending on capacity. But the music they play will be absolutely free, contained in preprogrammed Internet radio stations instead of individually selected songs and albums. The stations will be automatically refreshed with new tunes via a wireless connection built right into the device. You’ll have to be near a hot spot for these updates. But you won’t need a hot spot just to hear your music, because the songs are cached on the device. And you’ll never have to plug it into a computer.

The player is tied to Slacker’s free Internet radio service, slacker.com, which is already up and running, and allows you to listen to music via any standard Windows or Mac Web browser. Using the service, you can personalize your player by selecting from over 100 canned stations or by creating stations based around any of 10,000 artists. These stations will be beamed to your player wirelessly. You can even choose which stations are loaded onto your player before the company ships it to you.

The company, a San Diego-based start-up of the same name, hopes to make money eventually via advertising on the player, and by selling an optional paid premium plan that offers some additional features.

I’ve been testing a prototype of the chunky, black plastic Slacker player, which is dominated by a four-inch color screen. It has two redundant navigation systems: a touch-sensitive strip at the side of the screen and a wheel on one edge. It provides a rich listening experience, including album art and other photos, artist bios and album reviews. The sound is good, and the Wi-Fi wireless connection worked in both my home and office.

The two prototype Slacker units I tried, however, were hobbled by bugs and glitches that the company must expunge by the release date, which was originally slated to be this month. For instance, the players sometimes failed to wake up after going to sleep, requiring a reboot. The touch strip was unreliable. One player failed several times to connect to my account. Battery life is well below Slacker’s goal of 12 hours between charges. The company says it is aware of these problems, and pledges all will be fixed.

Slacker isn’t the only portable player to offer programmed Internet stations. The Rhapsody service offers similar, customizable Internet-based stations on a couple of players. And both the Sirius and XM satellite-radio networks offer portable players for listening to their stations, although the stations can’t be customized. But all of these players require monthly subscription payments, while Slacker’s stations are free.

The Slacker Radio

Because Slacker is based on Internet radio, it has some limitations imposed by the rules governing that format. For example, you can’t specify a particular song to play, or skip back to repeat a song. And you can skip ahead only six times per station per hour. Even if you create a station around a particular artist, the station will mainly be filled with artists the service considers similar. Songs by the artist you selected will be played only four times every three hours.

The player has a “heart button” for designating a song for frequent play and a “ban” button to eliminate the songs you hate.

If you’re willing to pay, or put in more effort, you can get additional capabilities. For example, Slacker players can hold and play some of your own songs, in addition to programmed stations, if you download a free Windows software program. And, if you sign up for the premium option at $7.50 a month, you get unlimited song-skipping, no ads, and the ability to save favorite songs on the device and play them as often as you like.

But the basic idea of Slacker is to make portable listening free of effort and of service charges. If the company can wring the bugs out of its new player and if its ads aren’t too annoying, that formula may appeal to some busy music lovers.

Email me at mossberg@wsj.com. Find all my columns and videos online free at the new All Things Digital Web site, http://walt.allthingsd.com.

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