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Slacker reintroduces itself with redesigned music streaming apps

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Gallery Photo: Slacker 2013 redesign screenshots
Gallery Photo: Slacker 2013 redesign screenshots

Slacker has always been something like the Rodney Dangerfield of music services — it can't get no respect. It has been around since 2006, offering satellite radio to start (alongside some ill-fated hardware) and then slowly shifting its offerings into a full-featured internet music streaming and subscription service — one that only four million per month listen to and half a million pay for. Slacker has a library of 13 million songs that puts it smack in between the libraries of Spotify and Pandora — a very small number compared to Spotify's 5 million paying subscribers.

Slacker has apparently decided that enough is enough, so it's essentially re-launching its brand with redesigns of its web, iOS, and Android apps that feature cleaner, brighter looks. It's also taking Pandora and Spotify on a little more forcefully by emphasizing its 200+ professionally-curated playlists (a strangely popular theme this week). In terms of new features, the new apps and website don't actually add all that much over and above what Slacker had before. The core feature is still the free, Pandora-like radio service with the usual like buttons and ads. A $3.99 Radio Plus feature kills the commercials and adds unlimited skips, and a full $9.99/month option makes Slacker work much like Spotify — complete with offline music and custom playlists.

Slacker's new look isn't really a killer feature

The redesign makes it easy to tweak playlist settings (for example, by requesting new music happen more frequently) and generally feels slightly easier to navigate than the old Slacker — but unfortunately for the company that's not high praise. Although it was relatively fast in our testing, understanding how to build playlists and otherwise navigate the site often felt confusing. We also gave the Android app a brief spin and found the look and feel quite dated — but the appearance of the iOS and Windows Phone apps looks to be a bit better.

Slacker's new look isn't really a killer feature, but the fact that it does a passably good job at the different kinds of music streaming services is offers could be. Services like Spotify and Rdio fall down a bit when they try to do radio and Pandora doesn't try to do anything but radio. Slacker isn't nearly as good as its competitors when they are at their best, but it's better than its competitors when they are out of their comfort zones. Unfortunately, using minimax decision theory in product design doesn't yield inspiring results — but in Slacker's case, it has resulted in a product that should be palatable enough to convince some users they don't need to pay for multiple alternatives. It may not add up to the "blockbuster year" Slacker is promising, but it should keep Slacker's self-described "quietly built, [...] scaleable business" going for a while longer.