May 13, 2011 at 1:03 pm

Review: Slacker Radio for the Web, Smartphones

You have more options for streaming interactive radio than you might realize. Here’s what Slacker has to offer: a specific song or artist request function, and the ability to cache stations and replay them offline. What it’s missing: a playlist algorithm that digs deep enough to provide you with an educational (in terms of exposing you to new things) listening experience.

Slacker lets users fine-tune stations by adding specific songs to the rotation.

First, the good. Unlike other interactive radio sites, Slacker allows you to request that specific songs be inserted into a mix after the mix has already been built, simultaneously tailoring the mix to your stated interests. That is, you can plug a Notorious BIG song into a Beatles playlist, and it’s likely that “In My Life” will play through with somewhat of a backbeat as a result.

The other distinctive feature Slacker offers is its ability to cache stations and replay them when you’re offline if you’re a Radio Plus member (there are two subscription packages). But be forewarned that caching a station requires 1MB of device memory per song, and usually involves about 100 songs, so you’re going to need some extra space on your smartphone to make it happen.

From here, you can edit a station or cache it to store the station on your phone, sort of like a playlist.

If you have (or make) room for those, it’s a great feature. Slacker manages its cached stations dynamically, so listening to a station makes that station grow.

The problem is what you’ll find on those stations. Slacker claims to have over eight million songs, but there’s very little discovery going on. Opening a White Denim station turned out a six song medley of Arctic Monkeys, the Black Keys, White Denim, Phoenix, White Rabbits, and Spoon — not exactly a stunningly adventurous tracklist. Likewise, a search for Spoon yielded The Raconteurs, Franz Ferdinand, Band of Horses, Modest Mouse, and the Decemberists — awfully mainstream stuff.

Slacker does offer a Fine Tuning feature that provides some insight into how it formats stations, however. You can change the level of popularity you’re looking for in an artist (this ranges from “Fringe” to “Hits”) and toggle the era from which the song originated (“Classic” to “Current”). The problem here is that the effects of these decisions seem more or less negligible. On the Spoon Station, I tried to go “Fringe” but was met with The Flaming Lips, which is still a band that I’ve heard of. Later, I moved the era switch from “Auto” to “Classic,” and Built to Spill came on — and they’re still making music together!

Station Creation Options

Slacker’s Station Page is dominated by folders on phone and browser alike. It doesn’t look great, but it does lay all your options right out in front of you. The phone’s folder lineup requires scrolling, so you may not realize all that you have, initially.

On the mobile app, you can create a new, personalized station by clicking on “Search” at the top of the Stations page. At that point you’re given the option to search by Artist or Song. If you want to search by genre, scroll down on the Stations page until you find the parent genre. Like Pandora, each parent genre has a number of specific options to choose from once you click through.

Mobile App Options

The only specific difference to note with the mobile app is that there’s no way to request songs onto an already-running station. Otherwise, you get the same features as with the web version.

Navigation on Slacker’s mobile app can get confusing, so tread carefully. When you’re inside the player (that is, when you have your array of playing options open and the album art on your screen), it’s unclear at first what you can tap, and what’s on the screen strictly for design.

The player screen offers six options: play, skip (up to six times with the basic subscription, or unlimited with Radio Plus, as with the competition), favorite, ban, stations page, and edit the current station. On the last, you can remove the station from your list of favorites, handle the fine tuning mentioned above, edit ratings for each specific song, share the station with friends (see below), or cache the station (premium version only).

Design

Slacker’s player on a web browser is proportionally pretty small, taking up about half of the page. Its design reminded me of the old Winamp interface, with elementary looking folders lining the left and either the album art or your selection of favorites, custom stations, or recently played stations filling up the right side. The web player isn’t designed to lead you back from one place to another very well, and there a lot of options and buttons to click on, so expect to get lost a few times.

Slacker’s mobile app experiences a few of the same setbacks. It’s just not made with the idea of jumping from place to place in mind, so there’s very little linear pattern. Think about how you use your iPod on an iPhone: you know how to get back from every page. With Slacker, you don’t.

Sharing

You can share stations via email, text message, and Twitter on your mobile, or email and Twitter on your web browser. It’s unclear why Slacker wouldn’t integrate Facebook sharing, but those are the breaks.

Email integrates directly into your smartphone’s mail client, but texting is more difficult: You have to close out of Slacker, open your text messaging program, open up a new message and paste a copied post into the message. With Twitter, station sharing is streamlined so long as you’ve set up your account in the settings.

On the web, you can share by clicking on the arrow to the right of the radio station’s name. From there you can copy the station’s URL link or click through to share via Twitter.

Do You Get What You’re Looking For?

If you’re out to discover new bands or listen to music that you haven’t heard before, Slacker is not for you. If, however, you just want to hear music that you’re familiar with, as we all do from time to time, and as some prefer to do all of the time, give Slacker a whirl. The concise playlists will work in your favor if you don’t want to be caught off guard without any surprises.

Aside from its recommendation service, Slacker didn’t generate many headaches. It could offer a cleaner and more linear listening experience, but getting music to play is easy enough, and the program runs without any hiccups.

Premium Options

You can listen to Slacker Radio for free on a Basic account, or through Radio Plus, which costs $5 a month, $15 for three months, or $48 for a year (a slight discount).

Radio Plus gives you a number of listening options that aren’t available through the Basic account, including no ads, unlimited skips, station caching, unlimited song requests, and the ability to integrate on-the-hour ABC news updates into any station.

Supported Platforms

  • Dave

    Chase, I’m afraid you’re really not bright enough to review much of anything, if you can’t even comprehend the simple-to-use interface for Slacker.  Just a note: The adjustments (current to classic, fringe to popular) are for the SONGS, not the BANDS.  That’s why it didn’t do what you expected.  I’ve been using Slacker for several years now and have heard plenty of bands that are out of the mainstream.

  • Shoppingaround

    First, contrary to what their “Live Talk” Customer Service representatives tell you, when you sign up for a Trial Account you are required to enter a credit card.  Then, just TRY to cancel!  Good luck – there is NO place on their website to cancel.  The Customer Service rep argued with me about the required credit card, then told me to call them.  After being placed on hold for 30 minutes I gave up and have filed complaints with my bank regarding the fraudulent credit card charge, Better Business Bureau, and our state attorney general.  Not worth the headache to deal with a company who refuses to place a “cancel my account” button on their website.

  • Itwasnicolette

     

     

    Extremely long story short – I rarely check my wireless bill
    as the charges are within a few dollars of each other each month. I noticed
    after 4 months that I was being billed $3.99/month for an unknown service. I
    contacted Verizon and they explained it was billing for Slacker. Though I had
    only used the “free” version of the service once, at some point it
    had “upgraded” me. I was told to contact Slacker, and I did through
    the online chat service.

     

    Conversing with Slacker representatives online is like
    beating your head against a wall (listed in summary below).

     

     

    SR.: We can assist you with any information regarding your
    Slacker account or with the Slacker app on your phone. Is there anything that I
    am able to assist you with that I can help you with at this time?

    ***: Yes, I am speaking with Verizon right now (regarding a
    billing issue with Slacker – I never used or consented to use the full version,
    but was charged for it.)

    SR.: Again, we cannot assist you with any billing issues,
    since all billing issues are handled by Verizon.

    ***: Can you tell when I initially downloaded Slacker and
    when I began being charged?

    SR.: No, we’re not able to say when the app was downloaded
    (though the app would have been installed on your phone from the factory so
    there wouldn’t have been an install).

    ***: Can you please tell me who I would contact regarding
    usage data for my account?

    SR.: We don’t provide usage data for accounts as that is
    proprietary information.

    ***: Legally can you disallow my access and knowledge of my
    own service usage and data?

    SR.: Is there a reason you would need access to that
    information?

    ***: Absolutely. Verizon believes it was a malfunction with
    my phone – sure enough I returned one the next month for the reason that it was
    random accessing and opening applications.

    SR: Since the charge you are referring to appears on your
    Verizon bill, that would indicate that you are charged by Verizon, so Verizon
    would have to credit you for any purchases made on your bill you wish to
    contest. If you had been billed by Slacker, you would see a notice on your bank
    account from Slacker directly, as we only bill directly via credit card
    purchase.

    ***: Absolutely, but I require account information from your
    company to solve this issue.

    SR.: If we are able to provide information to assist with
    this issue, we will be happy to.

    ***: I regret that I have given you the impression that I am
    foolish or inexperienced in billing matters. Though I have never had to deal
    with an issue like this,. I am fully aware that I was billed through Verizon. I
    am requesting your help in account issues and information – something that you
    are clearly unable or willing to provide.

    SR.: I am more than willing to provide that information.

    ***: I have stated that I require additional information for
    Verizon to refund my account, and requested that you provide me with my account
    usage history or direct me to some one who can. With out this information, I am
    unable to determine whether the account is being used by some one using my
    email address, or if it is in fact due to a software issue as we have surmised.

    SR.: Is there anything further that we can assist you with
    at this time?

    ***: I would hope in the future that Slacker would provide
    you with the resources and abilities to provide such basic information as
    “when was my account last used”. That would be lovely.

    SR.: Account usage has no bearing on subscription refunds.

    ***: I’m looking for the candid camera.

    SR.: Again, if Verizon is stating otherwise, we would need
    the name of the person that is saying that.

    ***: You can see the relevance pertaining to my situation,
    correct?

    SR.: Slacker bills you for access to the subscription
    service, not for how much you use the service. You can use the service every
    day of the subscription period, or never during the subscription period, and
    you are billed the same amount.

    ***: They were looking for evidence as to whether it was a
    phone malfunction – account access data would provide evidence on this.

    ***: I very, very clearly understand that. That is not the
    issue at hand. I have stated several times why it was necessary to know whether
    or not the program was being used.

    SR.: Again, that has no bearing on issuing a refund for the
    subscription.

    SR.: If someone was saying that it does, then we would need
    their name.

    ***: In this case, as you have said Slacker is not
    responsible for the billing, to Verizon, IT HAS BEARING.

    ***: You are welcome to, but I’m dropping the issue because
    they provided a full refund.

    ***: You asked me what else could be done, and I’m answering
    you by saying this: Providing basic account assess information would be not
    only pleasing to your customers, but saving time in situations such as these.
    Good day.

    SR: Thank you for using Slacker Live Chat Support.  

    Have a wonderful day.

    ***: You too, and may the rest of your day be free from
    those requesting the ever unavailable account information.

     

     

     

    I could post more, but it would be only the same.

     

    Bottom line is this: The service is inferior to other
    options (Pandora, TuneIn, etc), the billing is deceptive, and the customer
    service… well, you be the judge.