Sandisk is a well-known and respected name in the solid state storage market. Up until recently, it was not really known at all in the media player market. They are, however, obviously a quick learner: recently they became the number two seller in the market, behind Apple, with the SanDisk Sansa 6GB.
The design of the Sansa will be nothing new to anyone who has used an MP3 player in the past. There is certainly a homage to the iPod in this device with the rotating wheel.
The Sansa is thicker than Apple's Nano, but this is no bad thing, as what it lacks in miniaturisation, it makes up for in its screen and abilities.
The Sansa has the ability to play video, as well as display picture slideshows. This is great for watching music videos and the like; however, I would not like to watch a movie on it as the screen is just not large enough. That said, the screen is a good one; it shows a good level of clarity on the device's menus. There's also the ability to record audio using either the supplied microphone, or the device's built in microphone.
The player is well bolted together as well. The back of the device is metal, and the front seems to be fairly resistant to scratches and scuffs. The left hand side of the device has the slot for a MicroSD expansion card, a great idea if you need a bit more space.
The interface itself is quite intuitive and easy to navigate, but it is not without its issues. For one thing, it would be nice to be able to tell the device to play an album, rather than having to select first the album, then the first track. The playlist functionality could also do with a tweak or two.
There are a couple of little niggles in the hardware as well: the record button – used to activate the microphone – is unfortunately set on the left top of the device; if you use it with your right hand, it is very easy to press by accident. You do get used to it, though. There is one other technical issue that is not so easy to solve – there are four buttons around the scroll wheel, and because of the height of the scroll wheel it is sometimes difficult to easily press them when needed.
The USB connector is a proprietary interface, forcing you to carry a cable for the device around with you. "Why?" you may ask! You do not get an AC charger in the box, so the only way to recharge the Sansa is via an active USB port. This would not be a real issue if you could use a standard USB cable, as almost everyone has one hanging around. There is also the potential problem of being more likely to lose the cable if you're carrying it around all the time.
While I am talking of issues and USB cables, it is worth mentioning that you cannot use the device while it is being charged. As soon as you plug it into the PC the device goes into its sync mode and stops playing. The difficulty this causes is not necessarily in the playback, but rather the problem of when and how do you charge the device? You cannot use it while it is charging, and if you have no AC charger you'll have to leave a PC on overnight to charge it.
The Sansa is a PlaysForSure device, and as such the synchronisation software — for music at least — is Windows Media Player. I know this may sound controversial, but I welcome this feature in a device! iTunes is one of my personal pet hates; I just cannot understand why Apple insist on forcing it upon people (I personally use AnaPod Explorer instead).
Connecting the device to your PC is simplicity itself. If you have Media Player 9 or later, it is just a matter of plugging the device in, selecting which music to sync, and click the sync button. If you don't use Media Player, you can just drag MP3 or WMA files onto the device straight from explorer, as the Sansa shows up as a drive under "My Computer". It's also worth noting that the device uses the USB Media Transfer Protocol (MTP) interface by default, and as such any media software that supports MTP will be able to synchronise with the device. It can be switched back to the older USB Media Storage Class (MSC) format for greater compatibility.
I tested the device in MSC mode to check the performance, which, for the curious, isn't fast enough to use it as a ReadyBoost device in Windows Vista. As you can see to the left, the actual performance of the device as a flash disk is not that great, but it does outperform the Nano ever so slightly.
This makes synchronisation over USB 2 quick and painless. The same can be said about copying movies to the player, but although this is easy, it is a little disappointing that it cannot be managed from inside Media Player.
Sandisk ship a cut-down version of ArcSoft media converter to do the video encoding. The device supports MJPEG video at 15fps, and the Sansa Media Converter software does a quick and decent job of converting and copying the video to the device. It is a bit of a pity that the player does not use WMV and the Media Player synchronisation. This will probably not be an issue; as I mentioned the device's screen is really not large enough to use as a video player in any real sense, but you could get away with a cartoon or two. The same software allows you to convert photos for use on the device, and is just as simple to use.
One part of the device we could not review here is the FM receiver. This is because, in the EU, the radio is — bizarrely — disabled due to tax laws. If you purchase an E series device outside of the EU, then you get a radio as well.
The most important part of an MP3 player is the sound quality, and here it is just fine. Testing the device side by side with a 4GB iPod Nano showed no definitive quality issues, and one surprise was that the headphones bundled are not useless! They're no Sennheisers, but they're not bad at all for freebies.
Speaking of Sennheisers, I tested a set of MX550s on both the Sansa and the iPod Nano, and playing the same tracks on each player showed that the iPod Nano edges out the Sansa in the upper range. That said, the Sansa definitely has the edge in the low range. Because of this, choosing purely on sound, it comes down to the sort of music you listen to. If you are a fan of bassier music, the Sansa will most likely sound better.
Worth noting here is that when a low bitrate MP3 was played, and the music was complex, the iPod Nano was certainly the better sounding device. If a 128k MP3 was used on the iPod Nano and a 128k WMA on the Sansa, then the Sansa edged the Nano out.
The difference was not noticeable with files at 256k and above, but it's worth noting that the WMA files where smaller than the equivalent MP3s.
The one thing that the iPod Nano can do musically that the Sansa cannot is gapless playback. Now, it's new to the iPod range as well, but at the moment the Sansa has a slight pause between tracks. This may be resolved in a future firmware release.
So then, should you buy one? There are certainly some issues, but none of them are great enough to put you off. Depending on the way you use the device, the charging issue could be a stumbling block. The device is far cheaper than the equivalent iPod, and not needing to use iTunes is always a bonus.
The Sansa also has more features than the Nano, and as such is better value, and probably the better choice.
That said, the iPod has a style that has captured the public's affections. As such, that's the device that is more likely to be bought this Christmas, even if, in reality, the Sansa is the one Santa should be supplying.