- Review Price: £134.29
I was asked a question in the forums towards earlier this month about when the next generation of iPods would appear. It is a question every tech journo on the planet would like to know, but the simple answer is it better be soon because the opposition has suddenly jumped ahead.
Interestingly, the ‘opposition’ in question comes from an unlikely source. SanDisk is a company more traditionally associated with flash memory (it has manufacturing rights over every standard), but recently it has drummed up attention with its extensive advertising and eye catching ‘un-iPod’ campaign. If you’re going to slag off the Feline Obsessed White Fetish however you better have something pretty special up your sleeve and thankfully it does.
The new Sansa e200 series is a direct bitch slap to the iPod nano. It comes in three sizes: 2GB – e250; 4GB – e260 and 6GB – e270 and to say it borrows extensively from the uber-popular little player’s styling would probably be like saying Oasis found ”some” musical inspiration from the Beatles. Unlike the mono-browed Mancunians however, the e260 that I have been testing for the last two weeks is far more than a pale imitation. In fact, it batters its illustrious competitor in nearly ever area.
In typical Gordon fashion then let’s begin with an area where this doesn’t happen: size. At 89 x 44mm the e260 has a near identical footprint to the nano (90 x 40mm) but with a thickness of 13mm it is nearly twice as deep as Apple’s bulimic little player. The reason for this is simple: it has oodles more functionality and the major brownie point is video. Quite simply, the e200 series has it and the nano doesn’t but couple it with the fact that the e200s all sport larger (45.7mm v 38.1mm), brighter, automatically landscape playing screens and you’ll begin to see this is more than a mere gimmick.
The player itself runs QuickTime .mov files but the simple drag and drop converter software it comes with can rip anything from AVI to Mpeg-1, 2 and 4 to WMV and even DVDs directly onto the device itself. Conversion time is quick (though processor dependant) with my 1.7GHz Pentium M laptop transposing a 700MB AVI in 20 minutes. This is less than half the time it takes me to perform a similar operation in iTunes and all videos retain their original aspect ratios.
Playback itself is at 15fps – the same as the full size ‘video’ iPod – but it actually looks far smoother under direct comparison. This in part may be because of the smaller screen (30GB and 60GB iPods have 63.5mm displays) though that alone feels like doing the new e260 a disservice. Battery life is far superior too. SanDisk doesn’t quote official figures, but I managed to get just over six hours before the device conked out. Compare that with measly two for the 30GB iPod and four for the hefty 60GBer and you’ll see there’s just enough to support a transatlantic flight (taking into account the ‘banned’ periods after take off and before landing!).
Despite all these positives there is a downside to the e200’s video and that is it doesn’t support a progress bar. Instead videos are broken up into 10-15 minute chunks which can be fast forwarded through, but it isn’t really a good substitute and stops the device earning maximum marks. On the plus side it will automatically connect all the chunks together when playing which in essence makes them a little like the bookmarks you get on DVDs.
Ok, that’s more than enough time on video so let’s move onto audio. This is a distinctly iPoddian affair (which should be taken as a compliment) with the blue lit ring mimicking the scrolling of the iPod ClickWheel with dedicated buttons above, below, left and right copying the play/pause, skip/fast-forward/rewind and menu functions. A separate power button handily doubles up as a root menu shortcut so that no matter where you are in the menu structure you can be return to the main screen, while fast forward and rewind buttons can also be used like the back/forward icons in a web browser. Overall, the controls still aren’t quite as intuitive as an iPod’s, but they are easily the second best I’ve seen.
As for the menu structure itself this is another iPod ‘influenced’ area and features an almost identical layout where tracks can be searched by Artist, Album, Song, Genre, Rating or Playlist. The transitional screen ‘wipe’ from one sub-menu to another is also classic iPod territory (or Star Wars if that’s more your bag). Audio quality is superb with treble and bass both well represented (though obviously dependant on bit-rate) and the supplied headphones are surprisingly good. I soon swapped to my beloved Shure e3c’s but they make a far better job out of the box than the rubbish that Apple provides (and the public mysteriously continues to use). Meanwhile, battery life for music is rated at 20 hours, six more than the nano.
The oneupsmanship doesn’t stop there either since all the e200s support a microSD expansion slot to further boost memory capacity and this works extremely well since any additional data is seamlessly integrated into the player’s media archive. An inbuilt mic also provides voice recording though the integrated FM radio has been disabled because of the additional tax the EU puts on any device that carries one. SanDisk told me that its market research suggested consumers would be reluctant to pay this extra cost so the feature was switched off. Given that it does still reside in the player, I’d keep my eye out for fans’ unofficial firmware which will no doubt sort this out…
As for Photo support, this works in a similar manner to the video with Jpeg, Tiff, Gif, Png and Bmp formats supported through the conversion software which automatically converts the images to fit the player’s screen (again without altering aspect ratio). Photos can be viewed in thumbnail as well as full screen, but given that all shots are resized it is a little disappointing that no larger pictures can be viewed and scrolled or zoomed around, still a nano can’t do that either.
Now I’ve gotten this far without mentioning the software, which is so often a killer, but this is with good reason: there really isn’t any. Far from the elaborate iTunes setup which locks an iPod to a specific PC and incorporates near endless options, SanDisk has gone for a simple drag and drop approach. Plug in the player and it’s recognised as a mass storage device, from here just drag and drop audio which is automatically arranged using the files’ ID tags. In the case of video and photos just drag and drop them onto the converter and they are automatically transferred to the player. No mess, no fuss.
Certainly, there will be some who miss the advanced features of the iTunes software but as a person who has owned iPods for the last few years I, for one, was actually glad to get away from this sizeable ball and chain. The case may be different were the Sansa’s range sporting capacities in the 30GB+ sector, but for 2GB to 6GB SanDisk’s approach feels light, straightforward, and tie-free.
Finally, this wouldn’t be a proper nano referencing review if I didn’t mention the Sansa’s outer casing. SanDisk has gone to great lengths with the e200s to make them heavily scratch resistant and though I’ve only had the device two weeks that hasn’t stopped butter fingers here from dropping it a few times while out and about. The good news is the coating SanDisk has used (which it coins ‘Liquidmetal’) clearly provides a finish with the strength of Superman’s brylcream since I’ve yet to pick up a single mark. Unbuttered fingers crossed it’ll stay that way…
So the new Sansa range sounds utterly enticing but what about the price? Well, here’s the knockout blow. The 2GB, 4GB and 6GB models come with RRPs of £119, £149 and £185 respectively. This already compares brilliantly to the nano’s 1GB (£109), 2GB (£139) and 4GB (£179) variants, yet given that the 4GB e260 can be found online for as little as £134.29 and the entire iPod range features virtually no online discounts whatsoever the contest is well and truly over.
Out of the blue SanDisk has come up with a genuine nano killer. The interface may not be quite as intuitive as the all conquering ClickWheel but it is still highly straightforward and while the lack of iTunes may be an unavoidable flaw to some its absence in favour of a far more streamlined non-tying approach will be a boon to many. It feels a much more durable product than the nano, sports a far greater range of features, offers a bigger and better screen and costs significantly less. Until Apple comes up with a viable alternative there’s a new Sheriff in town.