Sansa e250, iPod nano, T809
My experience finding a new flash based MP3 player

Apple’s iPod has held the majority market share of the portable MP3 player market in the last couple of years. This isn’t too surprising as the iPod sports a simple and elegant design, light weight, is quite trendy and has celebrity endorsements—a feat no other MP3 player has. There’s also the RED special edition model where $10 of each sale is donated to the Global Fund to fund HIV/AIDS in Africa programs for women and children. This is just the social aspects of Apple’s iPod.

There’s also the hardware aspect of Apple’s famed MP3 players. While other manufacturers have released technically superior players, no manufacturer has had as much success as Apple has. While the iPod may lack playback support for audio formats such as OGG, FLAC, etc… it has a feature no other manufacturer has been able to match—the dock connector. This forms the basis for a ton of third party accessories from alarm clocks, car integration, home integration, camera adapters and even bathroom accessories.

The car and home integration aspects of Apple’s iPod have always been the main reason to why I owned an iPod. The simplicity of being able to bring my iPod into the car, plug it into my Pioneer iPod adapter and have full control from the head unit, than bring it home and drop it into my Harman Kardon dock and have full high-speed control of the iPod from my receiver has always been a major selling point for me.

This brings me to my recent search for a new MP3 player. This time around I didn’t care for the car or home integration aspects as I needed something to play music while I was at the gym and walking to campus. I required a lightweight flash based MP3 player that was small enough to fit in my pocket. This would be replacing my phone as my MP3 player. Although I love my Samsung T809, the MP3 playing capabilities are quite limited, not to mention the terrible ear buds that use a proprietary connector. Nevertheless I started researching MP3 players in this class. My three primary candidates were Apple’s iPod nano 2GB, Creative Zen V 2GB and SanDisk’s Sansa e250. Pricing for the players were below $150.

After holding an iPod nano in my hand I was quickly turned off of it. Although it’s the smallest player of the three, there’s such a thing as being too small. It was too thin and light for my tastes and there wasn’t enough weight to it and felt fragile. I quickly disregarded the iPod nano and turned to the next player—the Creative Labs Zen V 2GB. I’ve never been fond of Creative Labs MP3 players as the designs never really appealed to me. The Creative Labs Zen V was no different. It was a bit bigger than I typically prefer and not too aesthetically pleasing in my opinion.

This brought me to my last choice and purchase, the SanDisk Sansa e250. I came across this player a while back when a couple of my friends purchased them and raved about it. The size is quite nice; it’s thicker than an iPod nano and weighs a little bit more—just enough to feel solid and not fragile. There’s also the addition of a microSD expansion slot for additional memory expansion, FM radio and built in voice recorder that sealed the deal. The screen and user interface are quite nice as well. Pricing was very attractive as well. I managed to pick one up from the local Circuit City for only $109.99, quite a bit cheaper than the iPod nano and still $10 cheaper than the Creative Zen V.

My experience with the player has been quite good. Unlike some other MP3 players that require a music management application, SanDisk has equipped the Sansa e200 series with two methods of copying music to the player. The first uses Play For Sure for universal music synchronization while the alternative method is to use the player as a mass storage device to manually copy and organize music. I chose the latter as I prefer my own directory structure. The only downside to using the device as a mass storage device is the lack of album art that is typically downloaded. Nevertheless I found an application called Album Cover Art Downloader that did this.

After getting the necessary album art I copied music to the player. Transfers were relatively quick across the Sansa e200’s USB 2.0 interface. I also popped in my 1GB microSD card preloaded with music from my phone as well. This was immediately detected and the music was detected. The Sansa e200 series also have limited video playback and picture viewing capabilities. Using SanDisk’s converter utility I transferred an episode of South Park and various images to the player.

With everything loaded onto the Sansa, I started playing around with it. The bundled ear buds are terrible and were quickly tossed out in favor of my Sennheiser HD570’s. After listening to a variety of music from Linkin Park to Red Hot Chilli Peppers I was quite pleased. The sound is clean and full. A manual equalizer is available to tweak the sound to your liking too. SanDisk has done an excellent job with the GUI which is simple and clean. The user interface is also simple with a scroll wheel and a couple buttons. Video playback was very smooth, albeit at 15fps. Image display was pretty good as well.

Not all is well with the SanDisk Sansa e200 series. I do have a couple of gripes with the player. In terms of build quality the overall unit is quite solid. However, the plastic scroll wheel lacks the precision of the iPod nano’s wheel. The buttons surrounding the scroll wheel could also be slightly more sensitive or bigger as well. My last gripe is with the video playback capabilities and its ability to only playback QuickTime MJPEG files. These files take up a lot more space for the quality than comparable AVC or even 3gp files.

Nevertheless, even with the gripes I’m very happy with my purchase and glad I bought something other than an iPod. The Sansa e200 series is an excellent player that is fairly priced and feature rich. It may not be as trendy as an iPod nano but it gets the job done and more.

"What would I do? I'd shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders." -- Michael Dell, after being asked what to do with Apple Computer in 1997
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