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Originally published Saturday, May 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Slacker Portable radio doesn't slack on new music

One drawback to our portable-music revolution is space. At some point, even with a 160-gigabyte iPod, you run out. So if you listen to a...

Chicago Tribune

One drawback to our portable-music revolution is space. At some point, even with a 160-gigabyte iPod, you run out. So if you listen to a lot of music through headphones, as I do, there are times when you want fresh tunes.

To compensate, some portable MP3 players, including models from Creative, Haier and Sandisk, offer a subscription service through which you can get as much music as you want for a monthly fee. But once you stop paying, the music evaporates.

Now there's a new approach, one I find appealing because it is customized to your musical tastes, and songs can be constantly refreshed. The best part: You don't pay extra for music after buying the player.

The Slacker Portable radio is a great product, despite some drawbacks, for people who like to discover music, reconnect with favorite artists or want an endless variety at the push of a button.

This portable gadget, roughly the size of an iPod Classic, plays music from Slacker's Internet-based radio platform (Slacker.com). But you don't need to be connected to the Web to listen to the portable player.

Rather, the songs load when you connect the player to your computer or via Wi-Fi. They change only when you refresh the radio stations you have selected. You can add stations, delete ones you don't like and edit stations to omit artists or songs you never want to hear again.

And because you can create stations based on your preferences, there's little chance you will get bored with the offerings.

One of my favorite stations is one I made called "Can't make up my mind," which includes artists ranging from Bootsy Collins to Boston. From the Slacker Web site, I can share it with friends via e-mail or put a link on MySpace. With the Slacker Portable, I can take it anywhere.

Here are two reasons I like Slacker's approach:

• Slacker's reach into an artist's catalog of music is deep.

I like the Shins, and my introduction to that band was two songs included on the soundtrack to "Garden State." I never bought the Shins' album, "Oh, Inverted World," that included those songs, but I have purchased subsequent albums.

So when a Shins song I didn't know played in my Slacker Portable, I stopped writing to see where it was from — "Oh, Inverted World," of course.

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• Detailed artist biographies and album reviews (provided by AllMusic.com) found on Slacker.com also can be accessed on the portable player.

There are three versions of the Slacker Portable, sold only at Slacker.com. Prices start at $200. I've been testing the $250 model, which offers 4 GB of storage. It can hold 2,500 songs across 25 radio stations, plus about 1.5 GB worth of MP3 files from my own music collection.

But I really don't see the point of turning this into a portable music player for songs I already own. The real value is that I can change those 2,500 radio songs as often as I want.

You can do this two ways: by using a USB cable or via Wi-Fi. I prefer Wi-Fi, though it can take a while, since you can refresh the stations overnight.

Loading the Slacker stations using the USB connection on my office computer didn't go as smoothly as loading them over my home's Wi-Fi network. But I was able to easily use USB to import MP3 files from my office computer; those cannot be transferred wirelessly.

I have 24 stations on the Slacker Portable and have yet to hear the same song twice. Those stations include world music, U.K. indie hits, classic rock, jazz vocals, funk, folk and others I've created.

The player does have some drawbacks. Primarily, it is cheaply made.

The headphones, for example, are awful. They don't fit well, I've ripped two of the four little foam covers used to protect the ear buds, and the sound was so bad I first thought I would have to write a disappointing review.

But once I put on different headphones (can you hear a review coming?), the sound improved dramatically.

Other quality issues include a case made from plastic and the lack of a tether for the rubber plugs covering the USB port and dock (sold separately). I've already lost the one for the USB port.

You also can use a "touch" strip to control the device, a nod to what Apple is making popular. But I found the touch controls too sensitive and accidentally changed many settings. It was better to control the player with the BlackBerry-like scroll wheel on the side of the device.

On the other hand, the screen is nice and large. It's not nearly as sharp as the iPod Touch's, but it's fine for displaying album art and artist information.

Overall, despite the poor construction, I'm quite fond of this device. So if you're looking for a new music experience, check out the Slacker Portable.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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