Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment.


The Slacker Portable is the proverbial elephant being inspected by blind men. One is the crop of portable MP3 players, to which the device's service represents free, fresh music on the go in exchange for user control of track selection. Another is the bevy of online internet music sites such as Pandora, Last.fm, Finetune and others, to which it represents the leap from the beb to portable entertainment. A third is the traditional consumer electronics industry for which it portends a connected future. And a fourth are XM and Sirius, which now appear on track to merge in part due to the kind of competition that the Slacker Portable will ultimately provide.

The Slacker Portable picks up where last year's promising Sansa Connect left off. While that device was billed primarily as an MP3 player that boasted tight integration with the Yahoo! Music Unlimited service (now shuttering), the Slacker Portable is labeled as a "personal radio". MP3 files can be loaded onto the device, but that feature is more of an afterthought.

The device comes in three capacities that are billed as storing a different number of stations, which are either genres preset by the internet radio service available at slacker.com, or customized for the user based on a particular artist. One nice touch is that a device ordered from Slacker comes pre-populated with any stations you have set up on the site.

Upon connecting to the Slacker service via WiFi or a PC's USB port (the latter connection method does not support the Mac), the Slacker Portable caches hours of music for each of these stations. "Filling up" a station from scratch took about 10 minutes, but partial refills are faster. While the Sansa Connect relied on a premium music subscription to transfer tracks to the device, the basic tier of Slacker service -- which includes two commercials and up to six skips per hour -- is free.

Slacker has a premium service available for about $7 per month that eliminates the commercials and allows an unlimited number of song skips. Slacker assures that customers won't experience constant bombardment of upgrade exhortations as its business model works well even with the free tier of service and a player purchase.

Slacker made some curious decisions in designing its portable, which is larger and chunkier than, say, an iPod classic. The device includes a large 4-inch screen even though it cannot play video or even display photos, although it does nicely highlight album art. Slacker defends the decision in part by noting that the larger screen is helpful for reading background information about the artist. And indeed, Slacker displays extensive artist information from All Music Guide, but crams the information into the lower portion of the screen, requiring more scrolling. (Also, be sure to finish all that reading as before the track ends, as the artist info page will refresh as soon as a new song starts playing.)

Next week's column will further discuss the Slacker Portable controls and music listening experience as well as Slacker's plans to compete more directly with satellite radio.


Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at http://www.rossrubin.com/outofthebox. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.