Sansa e130: A Good Audio Player, With Tradeoffs

As a class of devices, music players are only four or five years old but SanDisk's Sansa e130 audio player still feels like a throwback.
As a class of devices, music players are only four or five years old but SanDisk's Sansa e130 audio player still feels like a throwback.

At about 3 inches by 2 inches by half an inch, the e130 is hardly big, but it's larger than most of its flash player competitors -- about a third bigger than Samsung's recently-reviewed matchbook-sized YP-T7 player. It has a four-line monochrome LCD display, not a color one, it's powered by an AAA battery, not the more-common rechargeable type. It even has an old-fashioned thumbwheel for setting volume.

That makes the e130 is a sometimes odd combination of interesting, innovative and perplexing. But more than anything, it's testimony that, when it comes to making things tiny, most design decisions require trade-offs.

Pros And Cons

The e130 is available in two capacities -- 1GB of storage and the 512Kb version I tested. Both have the same form factor, which, as I mentioned, is larger than most similar devices. Several understandable features make the Sansa devices larger than their competition.

The issue is the fact that the Sansa uses a single AAA battery instead of the various rechargeable battery options available on most other players. The advantage is that it's easy to replace your power supply whenever you run out -- if you remember to carry a replacement battery with you. Battery life is rated at an acceptable 17 hours.

The disadvantages, besides requiring a slightly larger form factor, are that you have to buy the batteries and remember to bring them. Plus, throwing away batteries clogs poses environmental concerns.

A similar design decision by SanDisk was to include an SD disk slot for as much as 2GB of additional storage, which also accounts for the larger size. The reason for this is obvious enough: SanDisk makes SD disks and it's highly logical that the Sansa e130 would be designed to showcase -- and potentially sell -- their storage wares. After all, the device has an SD slot but it doesn't come with an SD disk.

This feature makes your audio player highly expandable. And, as SanDisk takes pains to point out, you can have different disks with different music on them so you don't always have to connect to your PC to transfer music. The latter advantage is a good thing because USB 2.0 transfers to the e130 were inexplicably slow.

Look And Feel

The Sansa e130 has a somewhat low-tech feel. Besides the thumbwheel for volume, it is largely a plastic device, compared to the polished metal used in most other players. The display is smaller than many and it has no flashy digital touchpads and other controls. Instead, you press a side button to display a menu, press arrow buttons to navigate and press a bigger button in the middle of the front faceplate to select. Pressing the buttons creates a subtle click, further contributing to the retro feel of the device.

Interestingly, the controls didn't work in one regard. You're supposed to turn off the device by holding down the menu button. That worked for about an hour after I received the device, but stopped working after that. Instead, I had to set the automatic shut-down time to 30 seconds and press the pause button; the device shut down after the 30 second interval, which was the shortest shut-down interval available. I submitted the problem to SanDisk, but never received a fix.

While the controls have a retro feel, there is one big advantage: Unlike some other flash players, they are almost a no-brainer to learn to use. That's particularly true since the e130's menus for selecting and playing music are both simple and more useful than many other players. Specifically, it does a good job of using tags affixed to the songs, enabling you to select music by artist, album, genre or year. You'd think that all those options are basic and should be on every audio player, but they're not.

But -- and this is a big 'but' -- the Sansa e130 doesn't support playlists that you can create either on the device or download from your PC. This, obviously, is a glaring shortcoming in an otherwise solid system. A similar omission is that it doesn't come with its own software for managing music, although it does come with software for the Rhapsody music service. You can use that software to transfer songs to the device but most people will simply use Windows Explorer.

The Good And The Bad

The Sansa e130's sound quality is adequate -- it isn't really bad, but it isn't particularly bright, either, even after tweaking its SRS WOW sound enhancer. As is often the case with small devices, its bass was muddy.

On the other hand, the included earbuds are among the best I've heard among those that come as standard equipment. I know that's not saying much and, in truth, the earbuds aren't really high-end. But they sound reasonably good and they come with three sets of rubberized coverings, so they stuck in my ears comfortably and never came loose.

The e130 comes with a couple of small but potentially useful extras. The first is an FM radio that supports 20 station pre-sets, but doesn't support the ability to record. Still, it worked fine.. It also supports Audible audio books, a useful feature missing on even some high-end players.

For no discernible reason other than it might be useful for those using the device while running, it also comes with a stop watch. Also for those who use the device while exercising, it comes with an armband. However, the carrying case was made out of cheesy clear plastic, which would be impervious, I suppose, to perspiration but was ugly. Also, the included USB cable was too short to be useful.

On balance, I liked the Sansa e130 -- it offers a set of options that competing MP3 players don't. But it was one of those devices that, for every strong advantage, there also seems to be a disadvantage of equal weight. Still, at a street price of about a hundred bucks, it's a more full-featured option than the iPod Shuffle.

Sansa e130; SanDisk, $139 retail, $99 street price

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Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
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Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing