BACKGROUND (skip to Main Review if you'd rather get right to it):
So, after quite a while of working almost nonstop I decided to take a vacation. That basically means not going to work a refamiliarizing myself with the place I pay the mortgage on every month. It was also a nice time to take stock of what I had on hand to entertain myself with: a bunch of scratched up CDs that were scattered everywhere (if they were still around, I'm still miffed about leaving my Listen without Prejudice CD in my rental at SFO in the rush to catch my flight after getting stuck in Palo Alto). Ok, where's the So What?
The So What is I had discovered that CDs that were unplayable could still be ripped as a way to preserve the tunes (using more recent codecs) with NO audible flaws. The last time I seriously considered ripping my collection the rates of pops and glitches was way too high. At this point I had dozens of songs I hauled around on my laptop, which was fine for the office and flights/hotels and whatnot but not so good for things like being out on the town or treadmills. The real kicker was me deciding I would start mountain biking. I NEED music for such things, right? So it was time to break down and get a music player.
Full disclosure: this review is about the SanDisk Sansa e270R, which is identical hardware to the e270 with a modified firmware to support closely-coupled functionality with the Rhapsody music service and client. If the you buy the Best Buy-packaged player (apparently it can also be purchased via the Rhapsody website) the music manager client will be branded with Best Buy logos. The regular Rhapsody software can be downloaded from the RealNetworks Rhapsody.com site with user registration (no payment required). This is not an endorsement of the software or service, however some topics I will write about specifically address the use of the proprietary Rhapsody software.
So what was all the background for? That's the baseline I judged all my options against. I needed a player that did a little bit of everything. We all know what brand #1 is, so they don't even get mentioned by name just yet. Quality music players to be sure, and marketing genius to boot. But things I didn't like about the brand: iTunes and its AAC format (not concerned if it's better at a given bitrate since I'll take the hit on filesize if I like the sound and the format is more portable), Apple Apple Apple, limited features in the flash-memory versions and the price. The video versions were out because the presence of the HDD meant impact skips and damage were possible in the full range of activities I had in mind. I read the reviews carefully and had test driven a nano or two (through friends and store demos) but rather than make me more interested I ran across an alternative: the Sansa.
"A litte bit of everything" isn't too specific, so here is what I was primarily interested in heading into a music player purchase. Foremost, it had to be a flash memory based player. No skipping allowed and I wanted a very small footprint for maximum portabiliy. Having as much capacity as possible with good dollar value (why this is an e270R review and not an e280R) was also a top factor. Between the first two criteria it almost immediately became a two horse race. The Samsung models were looked at (apparently they have incredible sound, even better than iPod according to reviews) but I did prefer the clickwheel approach pioneered by Apple and adopted in part by SanDisk on the Sansa. The "R" series support for a broad range of formats was also attractive, since there is a significant body of music available in the iPod/iTunes AAC format. The e270R plays RAX (AAC with Helix DRM) according to CNET.
Price was also a factor for me. I like music, enough to have amassed a CD collection numbering in the 1000's, but knowing that outfitting my environment with the appropriate accessories would put $100-$200 on top of the device purchase meant minimizing where I could since this is an item that could get lost/stolen, crushed, or otherwise obliterated at any time. Last but not least, being able to use the device easily with Windows Media Player was a deal breaker for me. I am not an MS zealot, but neither am I a fan of Apple's relentless need to be "hip" at the expense of device interoperability. They have gotten better over the years, but as a person who use to do IT support for Macs back in 90's--which consisted of unplugging the machines, since the models at the time could not be rebooted any other way, putting the things in boxes and mailing them to Apple.
So when it came down to it, I was prepared to buy the e280R at Best Buy since it had the same storage capacity (8GB) for $50 less than the iPod Nano 8GB, but wound up buying the e270R on sale for $150 since it has an add-on memory port and is a full hundred under the comparable iPod price. I realize there are lower cost iPod options, but the dip in storage and the fashionable colors were a bit much for me. Plus, with the iPod brand cache it was unlikely a decent sale was due anytime soon, even Newegg.com sells them close to MSRP. Even after the purchase I was not completely sold, until I listened to the unit and for my money it sounded like a winner.
Product type: Flash player
PC interface(s) supported: USB
Weight: 0.2 lbs
Software type: Drivers & Utilities (pack-in CD and downloadable firmware)
Internal Battery: Lithium ion (replacable by design)
Battery technology: Lithium ion (replacement kit available)
Mfr estimated battery life: 20 hours (confirmed by reviewer)
Key Features (* with latest "R" firmware):
- Audio support for multiple formats including MP3, WMA, and AAC and custom playlists
- Video support for multiple formats through Sansa Media Converter software tool (converts to .mov)
- One Touch Voice Recording (can store multiple files)
- Customizable Music Equalizer* with multiple presets
- FM Tuner with multiple, customizable presets and auto scanner
- DRM status update in player status bar (if Rhapsody service music being used on the player)*
- Additional memory slot compatible with micro SD RAM (1GB chips for as low as $9.00 and 2GB for $25.00 on Newegg) to up the memory into Sansa e280R territory
Things I Like:
- The size is good, easy to fit in pocket but big enough for an adult to grip well and manipulate without looking
- Intuitive menus: Getting better with each firmware update
- Solid compatibility with Windows Media Player 10 & 11
- Being able to modify the "On the Go" playlist without being connected to a PC (e.g. while driving)
- Long battery life: With the car FM transmitter, never have to think about recharging during daily use. Without aftermarket charger is it still only 3 hours via USB for full 20+ hour charge.
Things I Don't Like:
- Lack of track volume leveling on the player
- WMA support is flaky when ripped using WMP
- The video converter breaks up longer videos into 15 minute chunks. The Fast Forward and Rewind features are not variable for scanning through videos (a little slow).
- Needing an extra step to get image thumbnails assigned to music tracks
- On the Rhapsody player, on startup the expired track dialog pops up even if not subscription tracks are present on the device. Extra button press to clear.
Things to be aware of:
The Sansa Connect is a newer model and does have interesting features supported through Wi-Fi, however it does not play video at this time and is more comparable to satellite radio receivers as oppoed to dedicated music devices. For people interested in listening to their music, the e200R series is a better bet right now and cheaper (by $50 at the e200 top end and by $100 at the same memory capacity). Also, to get the most out of the player you may need a few items. Once I knew the player was being kept, I purchased the following:
- SanDisk SANSA E200 & C200 Docking Base Station Charger (SDAMX-BST-A75)
- Griffin Technology Griffing Technology iTrip Auto Car / Plane Charger, FM Transmitter for Sansa E200 (9202SNSATA)
- Griffin Technology Centerstage Clear Case with Built-in Flip-Stand for Sansa E200 Series MP3 Players - Silver
- Griffin Technology Griffin Tempo Sport Arm Band for Sansa E200
- Macally Portable Speakers Sansa MP3 Speaker System
- Philips SHS3200 "Open Air" Consumer Headphones
All in all, the products in the Sansa e200/e200R series are great music players that provide solid quality and incredible value next to their competing products. If you like the tightly-coupled integration with a major music service, the "R" variant is the ticket. I personally prefer the "R" models because they offer slightly more functionality, and the interface with Rhapsody (the player and its preimium service) can be seen as a plus. The Sansa e270R is not an iPod alternative, it's a darned good product that stands up to scrutiny and deserves its own conversation. As the review title stated, iDon't know what all the fuss is about over the iPod. At least, unlike the pet rock, it plays music and is a high quality product. Pound for pound, feature for feature, the Sansa has its number with superior interoperability of devices and formats; though there is no accounting for personal preference so between the two it is probably a wash on a subjective level...
HINTS AND TIPS:
Below are observations and techniques that I have discovered while putting the device through its paces over the first few days I've owned it. Since the Sansa user community online is significantly smaller than that for the iPod, I am posting these as a public service. A couple of the items below are mentioned elsewhere (mainly concerning playlists) but at the time of its writing this may be the most comprehensive how to list you'll find. The length of the list is not meant to imply that the unit is a boatload of trouble to use, but it helps to have the points documented. The device is actually quite simple to use and the following are for users who are interested in getting the most out of their player without resorting to loading an alternate firmware/os.
1) Installing the Rhapsody music manager client for use with your player (e270R): The Sansa e270R is optimized to function with the RealNetworks Rhapsody music player and management software and subscription service. You do not need to enroll in the service to use the software to manage your music library.
2) Getting the preloaded music off the player: Without going to extreme lengths, there does not appear to be a way to get the preloaded music (included with the Rhapsody version of the player, 2GB worth on the e270R) off the player without using a Rhapsody software client. Believe me, I tried.
3) Syncing playlists with your computer: You cannot create or modify playlists on your device (accept for adding songs to the "On the Go" list), so you need to use a computer to do so. As with most of these tips, it is focsed on WMP because it's what I use most often.
3a) Syncing with Windows Media Player (WMP): The best bet is to use WMP version 11 in either XP or Vista. WinXP was huge step forward for plug and play capability, and I no longer have a Win2K box to test anything against. In WMP, take a playlist in WMP that you have created and go to the "Set Up Sync" option under the Sync tab with your Sansa plugged in via USB. You will get a dialog window that allows you to move playlists back and forth (the device sync list will be on the right). Also, you can drag a playlist from the navigation pane to the Sync List when opened for editing in the rightmost window pane. You may need to reboot the player before the playlist appears, though, after synchronizing. Note: If you make certain changes (such as album thumbnails displaying on playback) you'll need to remove the entire playlist and sync, then add the playlist back and resync for the file tag changes to take effect.
3b) Using Rhapsody: The Sansa e200R devices are optimized to work with the Rhapsody software, so it is pretty easy to create/organize playlists. Find your Sansa in the left hand panel, then click on create playlist. The advantage to using Rhapsody for "fine grain" playlist changes is they go directly to the player without having to "sync" anything.
4) Removing "Phantom" Songs: It does not happen often, but you may encounter a "phantom" track on your player if there is a synchronization error. What does that mean? You basically have a track that the player claims is already on the device, but it does not count against storage and cannot be viewed or retrieved from the device in either MSC or MTP mode nor seen in the file explorer (or in ANY of the music manager prorgrams in any mode). Before trying anything else, you can try the "Refresh devices" option in WMP 11 under the Sync tab. If that doesn't work, the following should help.
First, let me say that I do not believe a user who only syncs against a single library on a single machine is likely to see this error under normal use. I am in the process of ripping my CD collection (numbering in the 1000s, blah) and was switching back and forth between the two modes on the Sansa and between multiple machines using multiple music managers (WMP and Rhapsody along with manually moving files via Windows Explorer). BTW - There is an argmuent brewing over lossless compression (FLAC, for example) vs formats like MP3 and AAC. Don't believe the hype unless you happen to be an audiophile.
Ok, since this actually took me a while to figure out I'll just provide the solution and skip the gory detail of everything I tried. The simple way: Make a subtle change to the metadata tags (use the tag editor feature in your favorite program) and save the file. This will force the player to do an update, and therefore rewrite the music track over its ghost. This will also serve to resync the track. In WMP 11, select a track and right click on it to bring up a context menu, then select "Advanced Tag Editor". If you happen to have all the info just the way you like it, make a temporary change>save and change it back before you resync.
5) Getting your image thumbnails to transfer with music tracks to your player: Songs downloaded through Rhapsody will likely have it as well, and possibly music downloaded from other sources. The preloaded songs will nearly all have album art associated with them. Your personal files ripped from CDs and transferred to the player may well not. Why? Such information does not transfer from WMP or other players by default to the Sansa. I have read that MediaMonkey will transfer art, and have seen that the Rhapsody player does in my testing. The following are two methods to transfer if it does not happen by default using your preferred software.
5a) Album Art transfer using WMP 11: In one of the library views, select a song with a right click and choose the "Advanced Tag Editor". In the editor, choose the "Pictures" tab. On tab, locate the "Add..." button in the upper right and click on it. If you have chosen to display hidden files/operating system files, and if the album has art associated with it in WMP, you will see multiple versions of the image file in the directory. The best option is to select the "large" version if available or "Folder.jpg".
After clicking on one of the files, click the "Open" button and it will appear back on the tab with two tag/metadata options. The first is a dropdown for "Picture Type"--I typically pick "Cover(front)"-- and the second is a free text Description field. Adding values is optional. Click on "Apply" or "OK" and the tags have now been modified to include a thumbnail of the album art. I have been impressed with the amount of information and album art WMP can find on its own, but you can also locate your own images online (Amazon.com and Google image search are two good choices) and copy/paste them into WMP.
5b) The second option is to move an image file yourself onto the Sansa file system in the directory associated with a particular album. The files in that album folder will display the image as its ablum art. This option is more complex and time consuming because it requires resizing the file manually (WMP does it automatically) and requires naming the file "AlbumArt.jpg". For Windows users, the recommended method is 5a.
6) Moving music track ratings between the computer/client and the player: Ratings done in WMP do not appear to transfer to the Sansa player and vice-versa. Ratings made in Rhapsody do seem to transfer in either MSC or MTP mode.
7) WMA Error: I'm going to single out the WMAs here because they are the only file format I've had any issues with on this player so far. It appears that the player is a little less tolerant of WMA issues than WMP. The vast majority of my music is ripped to mp3, which is what I recommend even if WMA compresses to a smallersize (unless you have a library of AAC/RAX already, then there may be no need to re-rip). The gist of the error is basically upon file access the music stops and the screen goes blue with wavy lines. Yes, a cousin to the blue screen of death. I had one Stevie Wonder CD ripped to WMA out a laziness right after I bought it a very cool outdoor mall in San Diego (what, doens't everyone rip CDs when they get bored on business travel?). The way to handle this is to power off the player by holding the power/menu button down until it shuts off. Then wipe the offending track off the player either through WMP by adjusting a tracklist or through a file browser. Do not access the file again, as the player will crap out every time. I ripped the same tracks off the same CD to mp3 and had no issues at that point when on the player. Didn't bother to encode them again as WMA.
8) Where is my serial number? On the off chance you decide to register your player at the Sansa website, there is an option to enter the serial number of your player. You will likely at that point notice there is nothing resembling a serial number on the case, but there is a number under the barcode on the box. That number is not the serial number. The number is on a label inside the battery compartment, which means you need a teeny screwdriver to open it in case you're curious. The serial number is not required to register the product, thouh opening the battery compartment is easy to do and does not void the warranty.
9) Can I change the internal battery? Yes, it's pretty easy, actually. Four screws, and battery itself pops out with almost no pressure. I bought a replacement kit for $20 online.
10) Where can I get more information? The reference section below has a couple of web addresses with more information. The SanDisk site also has instructional videos covering some of the topics discussed here.
Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) - An audio compression technique incorporated into the MPEG-4 standard. Used by Apple for its iPod music file format and AAC files are readable by the Sansa e200R series of players. It is a lossy codec similar to MP3, however it is claimed that AAC maintains near lossless audio content fidelity and produces similar sound quality to MP3 at much lower bit rates.
Bitrate - The number of bits that are conveyed or processed per unit of time, e.g. 192 kbps = 192 kilobits per second or 192,000 bits per second.
Codec - A codec is a device or program capable of performing encoding and decoding on a digital data stream or signal. The word codec may be a combination of any of the following: 'Compressor-Decompressor', 'Coder-Decoder', or 'Compression/Decompression algorithm'. (thanks, wikipedia)
DRM - Digital Rights Management
Mass Storage Class (MSC) mode - One of two settings for the Sansa player. On the e200R series, MSC is equivalent to the "Plays For Sure" mode.
Media Transfer Protocol (MTP) mode - One of two settings for the Sansa player. On the e200R series, MTP is equivalent to the "Rhapsody" mode.
MPEG-1, Layer 3 (MP3): Audio file(s) created by a lossy codec designed to create compact files which maintain the fidelity of the original uncompressed source when played. The most widely used audio compression format, the output of which has been the impetus for several killer apps in the file sharing world.
OS - Operating System (e.g. Windows, Mac OS, or Linux)
WMP - Windows Media Player
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Recommended for: Athletes - Lightweight and Portable, Perfect for the Gym