The iPod became famous for making digital music easy, at least in relation to other MP3 players at the time of its debut. However, the ripping of compact discs, installing of iTunes software, and assembling of playlists are still time-consuming tasks for many.
Buying music wirelessly is simpler, but is only an option for the iPhone and iPod touch among Apple's handheld devices.
So others have tried to lower the bar even further. With a name honoring one who gives little effort, a company called Slacker launched its portable players last year.
Its Slacker G2 downloads Internet radio "stations" of genres or artists when connected to a wireless network, but you don't get to choose the actual songs transferred.
Once the songs are on the player, you must listen to them in order, although Slacker does provide a limited number of "skips" per hour with its free service, and unlimited skips with a paid service.
Moving even further toward ease of use at the expense of flexibility, flash memory giant SanDisk has released slotRadio, a system of players and cards that simulate a radio experience by simply preloading a fingernail-sized microSD card with 1,000 songs organized into "hand-crafted" playlists.
The result may be the most straightforward portable digital music experiences ever created. Simply charge the slotRadio player, pop in a memory card and hit Play to enjoy hours of music in the genre of your choice.
The slotRadio player comes with a sampler card that includes rock, country, R&B/hip-hop, contemporary, alternative, and two stations called workout and chillout that seem to include songs from the other genres.
Stations contain broadly known hits as well as songs by less well-known artists. For example, the (classic) Rock station has well-known songs by Ozzy Osbourne, The Police, Styx, Santana, and Lynard Skynyrd, but also Roxy Music, Live, The Outlaws and Jeff Buckley. You switch among stations using two buttons on the face of the player.
In fact, almost every surface of the square bulky slotRadio player has some sort of contrivance. Its top hosts the power switch and the slot. Its left side has volume buttons while the right side has a unique button that skips tracks when pressed and pauses the music when held. (As with radio, there's no way to skip back to a track once it has been played.)
And the player's bottom houses the USB charging port and the headphone jack. Even its back has a clip, although the device is a chunky shirt companion, especially when compared to Apple's latest voice-controlled iPod shuffle.
A monochrome screen displays song artists and titles along with an animation for each genre. It also tells you which song will be next if you want to skip, but has no information about how long the song is or what album it's from. One feature that would be nice to see on the player is an ability to tag or bookmark certain songs so that they could be purchased later.
Just as Slacker has brought its radio service to other devices such as the BlackBerry Bold and the recently announced Sony Walkman X-series digital music player, SanDisk wants slotRadio cards to work in other devices.
SlotRadio cards work in SanDisk's Sansa Fuze, which was the company's answer to the squat third-generation iPod nano. The real prize, though, are cell phones, many of which have a microSD slot that could accommodate slotRadio cards.
And it is in the cards in which slotRadio's future lies. Unlike online radio, which is often available for free with ads, slotRadio cards cost $39 each. The music on them is protected and can't be transferred to a PC or other most other digital music players. SanDisk currently offers four Billboard-branded genre-specific cards: rock, oldies, country, and hip-hop/R&B.
Unlike Apple's music-playing beauties, the slotRadio player's industrial design isn't anything to inspire lust, but it is an accommodating on-ramp to the world of digital music to those used to buying physical media, and offers good value in terms of price per song.
As SanDisk adds more cards, they will be a good option for music listening when there is a lot of time to kill and little time to prepare.