This is the second part of our preview of the SanDisk Sansa Connect. Click here to read the first part.
Big is beautiful
The Sansa Connect device itself is made of basic black plastic, which feels a bit flimsy and certainly isn't as sexy as Apple's iPod. At 2in wide and 3.5in high, plus a small stub antenna on top, the Connect is significantly larger than similarly equipped 4GB devices. In particular, it's about twice as thick, about 10 percent percent wider and slightly taller than the iPod nano.
But, then, you may like the reasons for its size. For one thing, there's the built-in Wi-Fi capabilities. Second, it has a satisfyingly bright 2.2in TFT color display that's 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 shape of the device is that the plug-in for headphones is on the bottom of the device. Because it is right next to the proprietary USB port, it's impossible to unplug the USB cable when headphones are also 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 have resisted music subscription services, preferring, instead, 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 users, paying 99 cents per tune or 10 dollars for an album often makes more financial sense.
However, the tight, seamless integration between the Sansa Connect and Yahoo!'s music and image services make 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, selecting 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 family or vacation photos to others.
The device works with other music services that use Microsoft's PlaysForSure digital rights management system 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, however, is that it won't be attractive if you're not ready to commit to Yahoo. Such users will likely balk at paying the extra cost for the Sansa Connect - SanDisk is charging, roughly, a $50 premium for the device compared to other 4GB devices.
Another down side 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.
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.
SanDisk has no immediate plans to launch the Sansa Connect in Europe.