I met with Gary Byrd and Jonathan Sasse, VP of Marketing, from Slacker on Tuesday and got the latest on their upcoming portable radio player.

For those unfamiliar with Slacker, they currently offer a internet radio service that “features more than 2 million songs, over 100 professionally programmed stations, 10,000 artist stations, and the ability to create individually personalized radio stations.” I’ve been using the service for about a year and find that the content, features and interface are all very strong. To make it even better, Slacker provides the service for free.

What makes Slacker so interesting is that, in addition to free internet radio, they are planning to offer a hardware player and a satellite-based car kit that will let you take your music with you. So they are taking on Rhapsody, Apple, XM, Sirius and dozens of other companies all at once. Crazy? After seeing their portable player and hearing about their plans, I don’t think so. Plus, the Slacker team includes industry veterans including Dennis Mudd, former CEO of MusicMatch, Jim Cady, former CEO of Rio, and Jonathan Sasse, former president of iriver America.

I got my first peek at the Slacker Portable at Showstoppers on Monday night and then got a hands-on walkthrough with Gary and Jonathon on Tuesday afternoon.

This photo doesn’t do the Slacker Portable’s screen justice; however, it does show the size/form factor of the device in the hand.

The Portable hardware is very light. According to the spec sheet, it weighs just 4.6 ounces. It uses flash memory so there isn’t a bulky hard drive to weigh it down. It also have a nice, bright 4″ 16×9 color display (480 x 272 TFT-LCD) . It supports 802.11b/g wireless so you can sync up your player anywhere with a WiFi connection. It claims a battery life of up to 10 hours. In addition to storing Slacker radio streams, you can also use your Portable to store your own MP3 and WMA audio files.

The software on the Portable very closely mimics the web-based player, so it is very easy to skip tracks, mark the tracks you like, mark the tracks you don’t like and read artist bios and album reviews. If you know how to use the web player, then you’ll know how to get around the Portable, too. This is a nice touch that provides a really seamless experience. There are a couple of ways to navigate including a touch-based slider on the face of the Portable and a small scroll wheel on the side.

The Slacker Portable comes in 3 capacities based on how many “stations” you’d like to store. When you sync up your Portable, it will grab tracks for as many stations as your device supports. Jonathon said that you could potentially go for up to a week without refreshing your stations and still not run out of music. Prices range from $199 for 15 stations to $299 for 40 stations.

The Slacker Portable will begin shipping at the end of January. We hope to get our hands on a review unit so we can see what it’s like to live with the device for a while.