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


Last Switched On introduced the Slacker Portable, a device that is as noteworthy for great value in bringing a steady stream and great variety of free music -- including on-demand favorites from those with a premium subscription -- as it is for its design quirks.

None of these are as frustrating as the device's touch strip used to provide quicker access to on-screen selections. Unlike the touch strips on older Creative Zen models, it uses absolute positioning that activates the button at that part of the screen. Unfortunately, this means that stray touches can cause the interface to jump from screen to screen and even skip tracks. The Slacker team may have considered the touch strip a compromise for a device without a touch screen, but at some point realized that their implementation wasn't up to the task. Slacker turns the touch strip off by default, and it will need a major overhaul to prove useful in future players. Fortunately, the jog dial Slacker includes is almost as efficient.

Other controls fare better as they represent hardware counterparts. The device's left side has a Favorite button (which designates that a track be played more often) and a Ban button (that prevents it from being played again in the future); its right side has the Skip button, which Slacker sees as a key differentiator from satellite radio. Most station management tasks, such as creating a new station or designating which stations show up on the device, need to be done from the Slacker site or desktop application.

The sides of the device are already control-heavy, but the Portable could take a cue from decades of terrestrial and satellite radio receivers that provide quick-access buttons for favorite stations. Using the Slacker Web site or desktop software, stations can be fine-tuned to designate how stylistically far from the target genre they'd like to go, or how mainstream versus obscure they'd like the music to be.

All in all, if you are the type who gushes over Apple's elegant designs to the point where core functionality is a bonus, the Slacker Portable's smooth plastic exterior, rubber port covers and starkly angled lower back probably won't excite you. Much like the similarly faceted Amazon Kindle, the Slacker Portable is all about its content, and the Slacker service is a great value. Even the entry-level $199 product holds 15 stations -- days of music that can be listened to practically anywhere without the hassle of playlist crafting.

Unlike the Amazon Kindle and Dash Express, the Slacker Portable relies on inexpensive WiFi connections to refill its stations. A recent firmware update added support for DeviceScape's software, which allows the Portable to top off at T-Mobile and AT&T / Wayport hotspots. The Slacker story will become even more compelling when the company releases its car satellite kit, which will refill the device via satellite at a fraction of the infrastructure cost incurred by XM and Sirius (or the two's combined entity, should the FCC approve their merger with favorable conditions). Just like satellite radio, consumers will encounter old favorites and new discoveries, and six skips per hour combined with multiple customized stations ensure that most listeners won't have to tolerate many songs they don't like.

Juxtaposing the Slacker Portable's solid service and uneven hardware, it's clear that the iPhone or iPod touch would be a promising platform for Slacker listeners. Apple's emerging mobile platforms exceed Slacker's hardware in nearly every respect except entry price point. There would be much ground to cover between Apple allowing such a service with its SDK and Slacker deciding to pursue such development. Even today, though, the Slacker Portable provides a welcome change for those times when an MP3 player's familiarity has bred contempt.


Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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