SanDisk's Wi-Fi-enabled Sansa Connect is the first significant rethinking of the portable media player - and the way we acquire digital media - since the introduction of Apple's iPod and the iTunes online media store several years back.
In many ways, the 4GB $249 Sansa Connect surpasses iPod. For one thing, its bright, simple interface is, arguably, more engaging than the iPod's. And its most notable capability is built-in Wi-Fi, which is missing, so far, in Apple's offerings.
Like the iPod and the iTunes store, Sansa Connect is tied to online media services. In this case it's the digital music and image services offered by Yahoo. These services are tightly integrated into the Connect so that, using the built-in Wi-Fi, you can easily download music from the internet, listen to web radio and view digital images stored online.
In other words, the Sansa Connect dramatically increases what you can do with your media player and, for the first time, truly exploits the potential of subscription music services.
This being a first version of a new product line, there are a few missing pieces, but they're mostly minor quibbles. Overall, the Sansa Connect may well change what you expect from portable media players. It's that good.
The benefits of being connected
To date, the highest visibility Wi-Fi-enabled media player is Microsoft's Zune, but that device's wireless capabilities are stunted compared with the Sansa Connect. For one thing, Zunes can only connect with other nearby Zunes and users can only use the wireless capabilities only to temporarily share music.
By contrast, the Sansa Connect connects directly to Yahoo's internet-based music and image services. If you subscribe to Yahoo! Music Unlimited, you can find and download individual tracks and albums. You can also view photos stored on Yahoo's Flickr service. And we enjoyed listening to streaming internet radio offered by Yahoo's Launchcast radio, which offers roughly 150 streaming stations, making SanDisk's omission of an FM radio pardonable.
You have to pay $15 a month to download music, but 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. 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. By 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 songs they recommend. Once downloaded, you can listen to the music as much as you want. Zune allows only three plays before you have to purchase the song.
Getting connected is simple. Once you are within range of a wireless network, you select an online task from the menu, 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 on to 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 on to Yahoo. The Sansa Connect saves passwords both for specific networks and for the Yahoo services so you need not explicitly log on again. The device supports both WEP and WPA security.
While 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 is nearly the perfect toy for lounging in Starbucks, won't work there.
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 more easily accessible.
A beautiful interface
The most immediately noticeable things about the interface are the bright, animated 3D icons with descriptions below each one. These icons are brighter and more engaging than those used on the iPod interface.
SanDisk clearly copped the Connect's navigation from the iPod. The primary navigation tool is a round, rubberised 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 onscreen with brief descriptions beneath them. You select the function you want by pressing the button in the middle of the thumbwheel.
As long as Sansa was copying iPod's time-proven navigation tools, it would have done well to enable adjusting volume by rotating the thumbwheel. Instead, it has two volume buttons on the left. This isn't a huge problem, but it's easier to adjust volume with the thumbwheel and that technique also simplifies one-handed operation.
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 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 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.
Sandisk has yet to announce a European launch date for the Connect. Click here to read the second part of our preview of the SanDisk Sansa Connect, where we look at the device's physical capabilities and its music subscription services.