News

An alternative to the iPod, plus free music

Eric Benderoff
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Would you be interested in a portable music player that does not require a subscription fee or the need to transfer digital files for new music?

All you need to do is buy the gadget and plug it in to your computer (or use a wireless connection) to add as much music as you want for free.

The Slacker G2 is a compelling alternative to traditional digital music players. It plays the music you like and can be refreshed at any time with more. Slacker calls it a personal radio player, and I expect it to be a hit for the holidays when it goes on sale Oct. 12 at Best Buy stores.

There's a $200 version of the Slacker G2 (25 personal stations) and another for $250 (40 stations). You can buy either at www.slacker.com.

But there's no need to splurge on the more expensive unit. The beauty of the G2 is that you can update it whenever you're ready.

Here's how it works:

Users create their "personal radio stations" at Slacker.com. (You can do this without buying a device. Tip: Check out the Web service first to see if an on-the-go version would be appealing.)

I created a station called "This is Eric Alt" and added bands I've liked since the 1980s (The Smiths, Style Council) through today (Badly Drawn Boy, Spoon). Based on those groups, Slacker suggested 50 other bands deemed similar - Aztec Camera, Elliott Smith - to add to my station.

Then you can create more stations - jazz, hip-hop, country. Slacker offers its own stations, too, including big band and Broadway, arena rock to indie rock, even raunchy comedy to smooth jazz.

The 25-station G2 I tested holds 2,500 songs, but that doesn't mean there are 100 songs per station. Slacker updates stations "dynamically" based on your listening patterns. So if you listen to the same three stations often, those will hold more music than the other 22 stations.

Here's the best part: When you tire of those 2,500 songs, plug the device into your computer via USB - it works with PCs and Macs - and refresh. If you're in a Wi-Fi zone, refresh wirelessly.

The G2 does not need to be connected to the Web to play, only to refresh your stations.

You can also add digital music from your own collection. The $200 G2 holds 4 gigabytes of music and the $250 model offers 8 gb of storage. (This feature is Windows only.)

Here are some issues:

  • Using the G2 is not a simple iPod-like experience, at least not at first. My PC did not initially recognize G2's software. After some frustration, I got it to work.

  • At times, the player inexplicably shut down, forcing me to reconnect to the PC to get it going again.

  • Loading stations is a time-consuming affair. Transferring my 19 stations took nearly 4 hours. If you do want to refresh, do it overnight.

The G2 is a major improvement over Slacker's first portable, introduced in the spring, which suffered from poor design and lousy sound, items I criticized in May.

Those issues and others have been addressed, no doubt why the redesigned G2 will hit Best Buy. The first unit was sold only online.

The stylish G2 fits into your palm and is controlled by a scroll wheel. Navigating between stations is a breeze, as is using the other controls, such as play, pause or volume. It features a large 2.4-inch screen for viewing artist info and album art.

Despite some hiccups, the Slacker G2 is enjoyable. I recommend it for people who want to discover fresh music without having to pay for the experience.

___

(Eric Benderoff writes about technology for the Chicago Tribune. Contact him at ebenderoff AT tribune.com.)



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