Review: Sansa e200 Music Player

SanDisk says it has an iPod killer on its hands--but is it only an iPod wannabe?

David Haskin, Contributor

May 3, 2006

5 Min Read

SanDisk suggests that its new e200 series of MP3 players are Apple iPod Nano killers. It's a bold claim. But these players largely succeed at providing more features for less money than the Nano (to which it bears a more-than-coincidental physical resemblance).

SanDisk became the second-leading seller of flash-based MP3 players by developing inexpensive, if somewhat clumsy and incomplete, devices. With the release of the e200 series -- I reviewed the 4GB e260 with 4GB of storage -- SanDisk is now also is competing on the basis of features and design elegance.

For about twenty bucks less that the iPod nano with the equivalent amount of memory, this look-alike includes an FM radio, a microSD expansion card slot and a handful of other advantages. And, yes, it's sexy, although not as sexy as the Nano.

Inevitable Comparisons

Sex sells. And since SanDisk clearly made the e200 look like the nano on purpose, let's start there. With dimensions of 3.5 inches by 1.74 inches by .56 inches, the e200 is a hair shorter and wider than the nano, but is roughly twice as thick. Like nano, it has a metal backing. Unlike the nano, it has a larger 1.8-inch color display. Given those similarities, the two devices look quite similar -- from a distance.

As you get closer, some differences become obvious, such as the controls. Both devices have round controls, but while the nano's click wheel controls are flush to the device itself, the Sansa has five raised buttons and a raised round scroll wheel, which lights up in electric blue when you turn it. Most of the raised buttons around the scroll wheel perform the same functions as the similar buttons on the nano, with one major exception. The top button pauses and re-starts music while the similar button on the nano displays the menu. A separate button in the lower left corner of the e200 displays the menu and doubles as an on-off switch.

Functionally, this system is slightly less easy to use than the nano because the raised scroll wheel reduces access to the navigation buttons. In my tests, that wasn't really a big issue, even with my big hands. But the bottom line is that the industrial design of the Sansa e200, while quite strong and derivative, doesn't quite match that of the iPod nano. It easily equals, however, its non-iPod competitors from vendors such as Creative Labs and iRiver. Some Things Better ...

In some ways, the e200 has a stronger feature set than the nano. For instance, text is easier to read on the e200's larger screen. However, with the ability to display only 65,000 colors at 220 x 176 resolution, images such as album art simply don't appear as crisp as on the nano.

The Sansa device has a built-in recordable FM receiver. . And it has a microSD slot, which means you can place music on an expansion card, then transfer it to other devices, again, a strong advantage over the nano.

The e260 also supports video playback and comes with software to easily convert both still images and videos to a format viewable on the device. But we all know that showing still images, let alone videos at the 15 frames per second rate the Sansa supports, are really just a form of showing off and will never be a core use of a devices such as this.

Also important to some is PlaysForSure support for music subscription services. I tried it both on AOL MusicNow and Yahoo's Y! Unlimited and the e260 worked flawlessly. It also has a voice recorder for those gotta-get-those-thoughts-down moments.

New – for SanDisk players – is a replaceable rechargeable battery. The company claims battery life of 20 hours between charges, with the usual caveats that actual performance depends on random things like how loudly you play music and how you set the backlighting. Still, a removable battery is an improvement over the AAA batteries that the company's previous devices employed and enables the e200 devices to be smaller.

Also vastly improved over previous players is the e200's menu system, which is much more self-evident to navigate than previous players. And, in copying the iPod, Sansa made sure to copy transition effects between menus.

Some Things Worse

Not everything about the e200 is rosy. Like virtually all PlaysForSure devices, this one is only for Windows. Given that Microsoft is the developer of PlaysForSure, that's not surprising and is unlikely to change.

The other objections I found to the e200 are relatively minor. I didn't like the proprietary USB port connector. Sansa says its necessary because there eventually will be peripherals available for the device. Perhaps that's true, but it's also true that, if you lose the cable or forget it while traveling, you're out of luck. A mini-USB cable would be more practical.

Sound was sufficiently loud and quality was solid, but not spectacular. In particular, sound isn't quite as bright as it is on iPods. And I would have liked support for more formats -- it currently only supports MP3, WMA, and .WAV and not Audible audio books and other oft-used formats.

Beyond those small objections, though, the SanDisk e200 series is something of a breakthrough. True, given iPod's strong design, fanatical user base and extreme public relations lead, it's unlikely that any device, even one as good as the e200, will be an iPod killer.

It's also likely that, despite what Sansa says, its primary competitors are non-iPods from vendors like iRiver and Creative Labs. With its low prices, SanDisk previously passed those vendors. Given that the e200 has more functionality and sex appeal at a lower price than others in the field, it's possible that these devices will touch off a new wave of competition in the MP3 arena. Regardless, this is a solid and attractive media player. It looks like an iPod nano and offers more features at a lower price.

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