Review: Sansa Connect surpasses iPod and Zune -- for now

It makes solid use of Wi-Fi connection to acquire media

SanDisk Corp.'s Sansa Connect Wi-Fi-enabled media player is the first significant rethinking of portable media players -- and how we acquire digital media -- since Apple Inc.'s introduction of the iPod and the iTunes online media store several years ago.

In many ways, the 4GB $249 Sansa Connect surpasses the iPod. For one thing, its bright, simple interface is, arguably, more engaging than the iPod's. But its most notable capability is built-in Wi-Fi, which is missing, so far, in Apple's offerings.

Like the iPod is tied to the iTunes store, Sansa Connect is tied to a specific online media provider, and in this case it's Yahoo Inc.'s digital music and image service. Yahoo's services are tightly integrated into the Connect so that, combined with the built-in Wi-Fi, you can easily download music from the Internet, listen to Internet radio and view digital images stored online.

Sansa Connect

Sansa ConnectIn other words, the Sansa Connect dramatically increases what you can do with your media player and, for the first time, highlights the potential of subscription music services.

This being a first version of a new product, there are a few missing pieces, but they're mostly the type of omissions you notice only in a device so well designed that it leaves you begging for more. Overall, the Sansa Connect may well change what you expect from portable media players. It's that good.

The benefits of being connected

Currently, the most well-known Wi-Fi-enabled media player is Microsoft Corp.'s Zune, but that device's wireless capabilities are stunted compared to the Sansa Connect. For one thing, a Zune can only connect with other nearby Zunes, and users can use the wireless capabilities only to temporarily share music.

In contrast, the Sansa Connect connects directly to Yahoo's Internet-based music and image services. If you subscribe to Yahoo Music Unlimited, once you're connected, you can find and download individual tracks and albums. You also can view photos stored on Yahoo's Flickr service. And it's a rush listening to streaming Internet radio offered by Yahoo's LaunchCast radio, which offers about 150 streaming stations, making SanDisk's omission of an FM radio seem like a logical choice.

While you must pay $15 a month to download music, streaming audio doesn't require a paid subscription. However, the streaming audio is so well integrated into the Sansa Connect that you may be tempted to subscribe. That's because, if you hear a song you like and you belong to the music service, you can immediately download it and listen to it as often as you want.

Sansa Connect also does music sharing far better than Zune. With Zune, you connect only to other Zune users who are near enough to connect directly via Wi-Fi. In contrast, Sansa Connect uses Yahoo Messenger to look for friends who are connected anywhere using a laptop or desktop computer or another Sansa Connect. You then can see what music they are listening to and download -- from Yahoo -- songs they recommend. Once downloaded, you can listen to the music all you want. Zune only allows three plays before you must purchase a song.

Getting connected is simple. Once you're within range of a wireless network, you use the menu to select an online task, such as looking at your images. After that, connecting works, more or less, the same as connecting to a wireless network with a laptop or desktop computer. A list of available networks appears, and you select the network to which you want to connect.

If you need to enter a password to log onto the network, an on-screen list of letters and numbers appears and you select digits and letters using the device's thumbwheel and buttons. You use the same method to log onto Yahoo. The Sansa Connect saves passwords both for specific networks and for the Yahoo services so you don't need to explicitly log on again. The device supports both WEP and WPA security.

Although Sansa Connect is powerful and simple, there are a few additions to the wireless capabilities we'd like to see. The most glaring omission is that the Connect doesn't yet support the type of authentication needed to log on to public Wi-Fi networks, such as those operated by Boingo or T-Mobile. That means this device, which otherwise would be nearly the perfect toy for lounging in a coffee shop, won't work in Starbucks.

Also, you can't transfer files between your computer and the Connect using the wireless connection, which would be handy. A final gripe is that the only way to turn off the Wi-Fi radio is to dive several layers deep into the interface. Since the radio isn't always needed and drains the battery, turning it off should be easier.

A beautiful interface

The most immediately noticeable things about the Connect's interface are the bright, animated 3-D icons with descriptions below each one. Those icons are brighter and more engaging than the ones on the iPod's interface.

SanDisk clearly copped the Connect's navigation from the iPod. The primary navigation tool is a round, rubberized thumbwheel with a large button in the middle. Pressing on the left and right portions of the thumbwheel moves you forward and back; the bottom portion is for playing and pausing music; and pressing the top portion displays the home screen.

On the home screen, you scroll among the icons by rotating the thumbwheel. The icons rotate on-screen, and there are brief descriptions beneath them. You select the function you want by pressing the button in the middle of the thumbwheel.

As long as SanDisk was copying iPod's time-proven navigation tools, it would have done well to make it possible to adjust the volume on the Connect by rotating the thumbwheel. Instead, there are two volume buttons on the left side of the Connect. This isn't a huge problem, but it would be easier to adjust volume with the thumbwheel -- and a thumbwheel volume control would make it easier to use the Connect one-handed.

On the right side of the device is a microSD slot for adding more storage. That slot could be useful, because, curiously, the device so far only comes with a storage capacity of 4GB, although Sansa is indicating it will offer other capacities before long.

In the midst of an activity, you select specific actions by pressing two buttons just below the display. On the left is the Options button, which enables you to do things like rate or delete a song or album. On the right is the so-called Zing button (Zing Systems Inc. is the company that masterminded the user interface), which enables you, for instance, to download the entire album if you're listening to a specific track or automatically create a mix of songs similar to the one you're listening to.

Big is beautiful

The device itself is made of basic black plastic, which feels a bit flimsy and certainly isn't as sexy as Apple's iPod. And at about 2 in. wide and 3.5 in. high, plus a small stub antenna on top, the Connect is significantly larger than other 4GB devices with similar specs. In particular, it's about twice as thick, about 10% wider and slightly taller than the iPod nano.

But there are reasons why it's that size. First, there's the built-in Wi-Fi capability. Second, there's the satisfyingly bright 2.2-in. TFT color display -- which is significantly larger than any other display we've seen on a 4GB flash device. That large screen, combined with wireless access to Flickr, makes this the most usable portable media player we've seen for showing photos to your friends.

Our only significant gripe with the interface and the shape and setup of the device is that the socket for plugging in the headphones is on the bottom, right next to the proprietary USB port. That makes it impossible to unplug the USB cable when headphones are plugged in. It also makes the device somewhat clumsy to use in some circumstances, such as resting the device in a cup holder in the car.

Getting online music

One of the most powerful features of the Sansa Connect is how tightly it is integrated with the Yahoo Music Unlimited service. As with other subscription services, such as Napster and Rhapsody, you pay $15 a month to subscribe. Then you can download virtually all of the songs in the service's library -- currently more than 2 million -- to your portable player. You can listen to the music as long as you pay the monthly "rent."

Many people have resisted music subscription services, preferring to own the music instead of renting it. The subscription services also aren't particularly attractive to users who don't want or need to acquire a lot of music. For such people, paying 99 cents a tune or 10 bucks an album often makes more financial sense.

However, the seamless integration between the Sansa Connect and Yahoo's music and image services makes both the device and services highly attractive. That's particularly true because of how simple it is to add music or view images. To add music while connected to a wireless network, you press the Home button, select the Yahoo icon and browse for music. When you find something you want to download, you simply select that action from the Zing menu. To view images, you select that icon from the Home screen and select which images you want to view. This simplicity means you can constantly be adding to your music library while you're on the road or showing off your family vacation photos.

The device works with other music services that use Microsoft's PlaysForSure digital rights management system, such as Napster and Rhapsody, but you can't connect to them wirelessly. Besides supporting the WMA and secure WMA music formats, it also supports MP3, so you can copy your own CDs to the player.

But one downside to this system is that it won't be attractive if you're not ready to commit to Yahoo. People who aren't will likely balk at paying the extra cost for the Sansa Connect -- SanDisk is charging roughly $50 more for the device compared to other 4GB devices.

Another downside is the lack of breadth of the music from the Yahoo service accessible on the device. Specifically, you only have access to your playlists, the service's most popular songs and personalized recommendations from Yahoo based on how you've rated other songs. If you want other music, you'll have to download it to your PC using Yahoo's software and transfer it to the device via USB. At the very least, Sansa and Zing should make more classes of music available, such as recently released music or top-sellers by genre.

We also encounted one small bug: When the battery runs low, the desktop PC -- and the Yahoo! software and Windows Media Player -- would not recognize the device. A support technician said that the company is looking into the problem.

ITunes users will have to jump through some hoops to switch, such as burning their already-purchased music to CDs and then importing the music into the Yahoo Software and, from there, to the device. Also, Yahoo doesn't offer quite as many tracks as iTunes, and Connect doesn't play back video. There is, however, a plug-in available for the Yahoo software for downloading and transferring podcasts to the device.

Eventually, there likely will be similar devices that support other services such as Rhapsody, Napster and even iTunes. Yet Sansa Connect is a significant step forward in terms of usability and access to digital music and images, for now surpassing even the vaunted iPod to become the most fun and flexible media player we've seen. It also provides a strong glimpse into the future of digital media and how we'll be able to access it from virtually anywhere.

David Haskin is a Computerworld.com contributing editor specializing in mobile and wireless issues.

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