SanDisk tries to bring the radio concept to your own music collection. (April 11th, 2009)
Product Manufacturer: SanDisk
Price: $99 with slotMusic card
- 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.
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.