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SanDisk slotRadio

April 11th, 2009
SanDisk tries to bring the radio concept to your own music collection.

The notion of an ultra-simple music player has been around for some time, but most of these designs have, for the most part, kept made certain assumptions about how digital music must be played: that it has to come from a computer, that the user must have exact control over when songs play. SanDisk has taken a bet that there's a crowd which is looking for an experience more like their favorite FM station; we hope to find out whether that's a wise guess or an attempt to preserve a dying format.

design and the concept of slotMusic

When rolled out in the fall of last year, slotMusic was envisioned as a way of getting the advantages of compressed digital music without having to involve a computer. In the ideal universe created by SanDisk, buyers would purchase microSD cards preloaded with individual albums or playlists' worth of music and simply swap these out whenever they want to listen to different tracks. As such, they don't need much in the way of control or in physical size, and that's what SanDisk delivers.

The slotRadio is really just a multi-playlist, FM-capable version of the slotMusic Player, so its design isn't that much larger than the older model; the new design's main additions are a screen and its namesake FM radio. In many senses, this is a good thing; the rounded, metal shape is compact and surprisingly sturdy given the budget focus. We'd be confident tucking the slotRadio away in a pocket without protection as long as it's not near anything sharp, and a clip built on the back makes it useful for running.

What you see on the new screen is, not surprisingly, relatively simple: it shows the current playlist, song title, and a visualizer. It's no more complex than it needs to be, although the decision to render it monochrome is a curious one likely driven by cost. Given the music-only focus of the player, it's a reasonable trade-off.

Controls on the player itself are simple, but it's here that the slotRadio also quickly manifests its core problem. There are only controls for playing and pausing, volume, and selecting playlists. Notice that there's no mention of skipping forward and backwards through songs. In the name of maintaining the radio concept, SanDisk has oddly decided to omit the ability to move backwards through tracks. Also, the company has made the unusual decision of altering the default behavior of the play/pause button; rather than actually pause right away, it skips to the next track with a single tap. It's not until you actually hold the button that it pauses. And the playlist controls are counter-intuitively placed, persuading you that you they might control tracks until you learn otherwise.

While the concept of wanting to replicate the simplicity of radio is appreciated in theory, in practice it's simply frustrating. If you miss a track for whatever reason, you can't get back to it until you cycle through the entire playlist. It's also a distinct possibility that you'll skip a track by accident by assuming the logical behavior of the playlist button, or switch playlists when you meant to skip tracks. Simply put, screenless devices like Apple's iPod shuffle or Creative's Zen Stone are more intuitive than the slotRadio; even CD players are more logical, as at least these have back buttons.

loading music, the slotMusic catalog, and FM

If you subscribe wholly to the ideas behind slotMusic, loading music is simple: turn the player off, insert a new card, and turn it back on. SanDisk has been working with major labels to get albums and mixes put into slotMusic format, and when you use a pre-made card, everything is already organized into multiple playlists and with the right track order.

Used this way, it works well. The challenge is in finding the songs themselves. Out of the box, SanDisk is relatively generous and pre-supplies a card with 1,000 tracks; but they're all top Billboard artists, and those stand-alone slotMusic cards that are available are either individual Top 40 albums or collections of those artists. Without significant dips into lesser-known music or into less mainstream genres like classical, electronic or jazz, it's hard to see many people investing heavily in slotMusic cards if they don't already have a substantial library.

Thankfully, it's possible to load your own music, though it's not necessarily as simple as SanDisk suggests. Drag-and-drop loading works as easily as promised and works across all platforms. Just copying songs, though, won't let you sort tracks by albums or playlists, so it will usually be necessary to use an app to sync that creates playlists on its own. Very generalized apps like Windows Media Player or WinAmp are options, for example. That said, it also somewhat defeats the point of a largely hands-off music device to carefully manage music; if most of your songs will come from your computer, it's either best to load one album or mix at a time or else to consider a more complex device.

Of course, the device wouldn't earn its name without its FM radio, and this provides another free source of constant music. The control is simple enough and allows presets, but there is no RDS data (that we can tell) for stations that support it. It's a handy adjunct for a player where users are more likely to run out of their own music.

audio quality and battery life

As would be expected with a player in its price range and focus, the slotRadio comes bundled with low-cost, over-ear earbuds. They're typical in audio quality for pack-in earbuds, but as a consequence they're strictly adequate rather than outright pleasing.

With higher-quality in-ear earbuds, the slotRadio sounds far better, though we wouldn't say they're the best we've heard. The high-end and low-end aren't quite as well-defined as on some more expensive devices, like the iPhone or the Sansa Fuze. It's understandable and arguably acceptable given the price and the file quality of slotMusic, but it's something to be aware of.

Battery life a strong point for the slotRadio and fairly impressive for a small device that still fits a screen. Officially, the player lasts for 16 hours; we were able to get just over 15.5 hours. That's certainly better than the 10 hours claimed for an iPod shuffle, which doesn't have a display to drain extra power.

wrapping up

On the surface, the slotRadio is a compelling concept. It's the music player you can give to a technically inexperienced parent or to a child who might easily lose a player or who needs simple controls. The appeal of a radio-like control scheme is obvious; Slacker has built a whole device around that concept. SanDisk as always understands construction and makes transferring music relatively easy.

Even so, it's hard to entirely understand the motivations behind the slotRadio's particular design. If the music is yours, you should have control over it; taking this away seems arbitrary. One of the very advantages of digital music players is being able to cycle back and forth through songs. Especially when combined with controls that themselves run against instincts, it actually feels as though the slotRadio is a captive of the radio idea rather than freed by it.

Moreover, there's the question of whether this is the direction music players should take in the first place. One of the very advantages of strictly digital music is that it doesn't require individual cards, discs or records; a player like SanDisk's own Sansa Fuze (which we very much liked) can hold some listeners' entire music collections without ever needing a card, and online stores mean never having to worry about losing an album entirely -- which is a distinct possibility given the miniscule size of microSD cards. Many of us music listeners bought digital players precisely to avoid carrying a separate bag full of albums, and yet it's fairly telling that one of the earliest slotRadio accessories is a carrying bag precisely to accommodate the needs of slotMusic card owners.

We should be moving forward, but SanDisk's design seems to move too far backward. It feels designed by a major label that wants music fans to hold on to the physical medium for just one year longer before all their purchases are made online, or else a radio network operator still trying to come to terms with a world where music almost always comes on demand. Without the sense that you truly have mastery over the music, the slotRadio doesn't really feel like it belongs to you.

And with the price set at $99, the economy isn't necessarily there to treat it as an entry player, either. Some of this cost comes from the 1,000 songs included with the jukebox, but we might be tempted instead to buy SanDisk's eminently more capable Sansa Clip; it provides much more control, more format support, and even costs significantly less.

- very simple; no PC needed.

- compact, sturdy design.

- FM radio.

- drag-and-drop loading from PCs.

- good battery life.

- counter-intuitive controls; can't skip back.

- limited format support.

- microSD cards are easily lost.

- slotMusic library too focused on pop music.