SanDisk released recently the Sansa e1xx series, digital music players with either 512 or 1 GB of flash memory. We tested the e130 512 MB model with a variety of mp3s and some wma files.
The device is smaller than the iPod Mini and almost on par with the iPod Shuffle. It features a Power/Menu button, a USB connector, a volume/scrolling wheel button, a headphone jack, a 'Hold' button and an SD card slot. It also has a 5-line LCD display with a blue backlight. Under the screen you will find the four-way buttons and an "enter/return" button in the middle used for confirmations.
In the package you will also find a mini USB cable, the driver CD with some extra software, an AAA battery, a plastic see-through case for the player and an armband.
The player shows up as a USB mass storage device on Windows and so it's easy to mount and drag-and-drop files in it. You can use the device as a way to transfer files to other computers, not just as a music player & FM Radio.
We filled up the device with about 320 MBs of mp3s and a few WMAs we had around. Ogg is not supported, unfortunately (I tried it). Mp3s played without a hitch. Not all of our WMAs worked, though. The old sample I had (from 2000) that was using '20 kbps, 44 kHz, mono' did not play back, while the high bitrate 212 Kbps ZZTop song we encoded with WMP9 did play fine. I will give the Sansa the benefit of the doubt, though, in this case, as that old WMA might have been encoded with bugs in it.
The Sansa also supports Audible's format: You can download digital audiobooks, audio magazines, newspapers, radio programs, and more.
There is also a free account included with AudioFeast which is an unlimited commercial-free radio that you can take with your portable MP3 player (you sync with it). Rhapsody is the media service that Sansa officially supports (no iTunes support). However, the player can synchronize automatically with Microsoft Windows Media Player 10 and is included in the Microsoft PlaysForSure program, enabling you to play purchased/downloaded content from such services as MSN Music, Musicmatch, Napster, Wal-Mart Music Store and CinemaNow.
Sansa's sound quality is great. Just don't use the supplied earphones which seem to be too "treble'd" for my taste. I used the supplied earphones, some cheap $10 headphones and some $120 Sony pro headphones. The device indeed produces a very good quality sound, fully comparable to my iPod mini's. While the supplied earphones do not deliver great sound quality, I must point out here that they come with a "mushroom" design that helps the ear to not hurt after wearing them for too long. With all the other "in ear" earphones I have ever tried (including iPod mini's), after 15 minutes the soft tissue around my ear starts to hurt. The Sansa's earphones instead have a mushroom-like design that fits inside your ear and then it expands around it so it doesn't fall. It's a very clever design for comfort.
The device supports the SRS*WOW mode that makes music sound extra good. However, 'good' is a point of view (as Darth Sidious claims ;). I personally love the feature (short for not having a Dance equalizer presetting) while my husband, who usually listens to rock, doesn't.
Sansa played without a problem for about 15 hours with SRS-WOW ON before we ran out of battery. It can do about 17 hours with SRS off.
The user interface is excellent. There were reports that the previous SanDisk mp3 models were problematic and difficult to use without reading the manual first, but this one is very intuitive. By pressing the Power/Menu button while the mp3 player is ON it loads the device's settings. You can sort the playlist by song-name, artist, new music installed, genre etc. Through the settings you can also set the preset equalizer which includes Rock, Jazz, Classical & pop. I was very dissapointed to not see a "dance" presetting but if you use the "Custom" preset, it allows you to create your own mode, so not all is bad. I am currently using either the Rock one or have to have SRS on all the time, otherwise my eurodance upbeat songs as played back make me want to sleep instead of... well... dance. You can also set the device to power off automatically after some time, or go to sleep, and you can tell it to also how long to keep the backlight on (default is 5 seconds, backlight turns on automatically each time you press a button). You can select change the UI in 5 languages and set the date/time. In the Extras you will also find a stopwatch that you can use if you are a sports person. When in the menu mode, the volume wheel can be used as a scroller, so you don't have to keep pressing "next, next" from the four-way buttons.
The main song display features a small icon to show if the current song plays or is in pause-mode, it includes the Artist, Song Name and Album, and below it you will find a progress bar with the time lapsed. Underneath it, there is the battery icon and the position of the song in the playlist (e.g. 45/81). Pressing the << or >> keys they move to the previous/next song, but if you hold it down, it will fast forward or reverse the current song. The song will seek slower in the beginning but as you keep pressing it will move faster and faster. Lastly, the button below takes care of shuffle/repeat.
I tried its SD slot with both a 1 GB Sandisk SD card and a PQI 512 MB SD card (bought it for just 15 bucks at Frys last week) and both worked like a charm. Today, SDs go all the way up to 2 GB, so the Sansa e140 can max out at 3 GB overall.
I only found four problems with this device:
1. The volume is relatively low even when in 100%. No, I am not deaf, but it's just not loud enough. The iPod mini is as loud in 80% of its sound level, when compared.
2. There is no automatic sound level correction like the one that exists in the iPod Mini. When you have a song at 128 kbps and then the next one is at 64kbps, it usually is less "loud". This prompts the user to go adjust the volume to make it sound like the previous one. The iPod is "intelligent" about this and automatically adjusts the default volume in order to serve a consistent experience.
3. Pressing the "next song" button sometimes is not fast enough at switching songs. Sometimes it will follow my button pressings, other times it won't, and it might be a pause up to 3 seconds until it finds the next song. That's not a problem if you have 40-50 songs in there, but if you have more than that it starts to be. Please note that the pausing happens only *sometimes* and only when you want to move fast through a list of songs, on normal operation it is perfect.
4. When the screen is not backlit, it's difficult to read because it's not bright enough. I have a similar technology LCD on my PalmV, and the Palm is much easier to read under all light conditions.
Thankfully, most of these are software problems and so are easy to fix. The ROM version we were sent was v1.0.0, I am sure eventually fixes will be posted at SanDisk's site.
The Sansa competes with the iPod Shuffle, not the iPod mini. Comparing the Sansa to my 4GB iPod Mini, the Mini wins out for its bigger screen, bigger storage capacity, third party extras & iTunes support. But comparing it to the Shuffle, the Sansa kills it with a swift kick. The Sansa has an LCD screen which is a huge plus allowing for many useful preferences, it has an FM radio with 20 presets, an included case and armband and I personally prefer its AAA battery over the USB charging which requires external source of power to charge up. And if that were not enough, it's cheaper than the iPod Shuffle! The Sansa e130 can be found online for just $88 compared to 512 MB Shuffle's $98 and the Sansa e140 1 GB model can be found for $131.
In conclusion, if you need an mp3 player with up to 2-3 GBs today, get the Sansa, it wins hands down all competition in its category. If you need more storage than that, get an iPod Mini or iPod.
Pros: Great sound quality, super user interface, small form factor, SD slot, case and armband included, nice design, truly affordable.
Cons: Not loud enough , sluggish under some conditions, not so bright screen when not backlit.