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Review: SanDisk Sansa e280

01/02/07 | by Adam | Categories: Technology, Music, Reviews

Link: http://www.sandisk.com/Products/Item(2057)-SDMX4-8192-Sansa_e280_MP3_Player_8GB.aspx

Summary: SanDisk's iPod Nano killer.

I decided to buy a standalone MP3 player after a recent 9 hour plane trip to the UK. While I normally use my Tungsten T3 with Aeroplayer I came to the conclusion that while it's great for short hops and bus trips, the four hour battery life wasn't great for this. Besides, since it contains all my contact information and travel details, it's not a device I want discharged while on the road. It was time for a standalone unit that I don't mind draining completely...

I had some requirements. It had to play MP3s. It had to have a long battery life. It had to charge via USB. It had to be small and relatively light. It had to be NVRAM based rather than hard drive based. It had to be 8 at least GB in size. And, importantly, it had to have decent quality sound. I would have liked Bluetooth support so I could use my headphones, but, alas, there's nothing out there had I included that as a requirement.

That narrowed it down to three units. The Apple 8 GB iPod Nano, the SanDisk Sansa e280 and the LG JM53. The LG was knocked out of the running as I couldn't find any reviews of it and the demo model that was at Future Shop wasn't functional. The Nano was my first choice but there wasn't one available in town so I ended up going for the Sansa.

Well, the first thing to note about the e280 is that it's no iPod killer. While it's roughly the same dimensions as the Nano, it is a bit deeper and rather heavier. The interface for operation is less polished than the Nano. The Windows Media Player sync implementation is significantly worse than the iTunes one.

That said, it's not a bad unit. The screen is crisp and clear. The sound quality is quite acceptable although a bit tinny on the supplied headphones. The FM Radio receiver is nice although it suffers a bit as all portable FM receivers do if the headphone cable isn't aligned well. There's FM radio and Voice recording that I'll never use but given that the iPod lacks that without buying a third party add-on, it's worth mentioning. There's also the video and static picture playback which I could care less about; a one inch screen is not my idea of a comfortable viewing area.

Documentation is spartan. There is a small quick start printed manual and then a more complete online manual in PDF format on the CD. A small slip case is supplied which prevents scuffs and little else; it's perfect for my requirements. There's also a lanyard which looks a bit fragile. The e280 has upgradeable firmware, and patches for it are very easy to apply (there was one ready when I brought the machine home) with a supplied tool on the CD.

The connector on the base is very similar to that of the iPod. Apparently it's physically the same but electrically different. I'm told that if you plug in an iPod connector you're liable to damage the unit so that's not something I plan to try. There are a few peripherals to plug into it other than the supplied USB sync/charging cable: Macally, Altec Lansing and Griffin all do some. In addition there's a micro-SD slot on the side should more expansion be needed. I doubt I'll ever get around to using it unless the capacity grows significantly beyond the current 2GB.

The interface is functional, albeit clunky. The scroll wheel in the centre is mechanical and flashes blue. It looks and feels cheap. It's raised so also makes it awkward to access the four function buttons around it. There is no support for altering the functions of the buttons so the centre wheel always acts as a volume control other than in the root menu where it duplicates the up and down edge button functionality. The centre click buttons acts as a selector when in a menu, a mode changer when playing music (between various visualizations only so it's useless), and between selected presets in FM mode (which isn't too bad, but it's forward only so if you click past the wanted station by mistake, you need to cycle through.) The auto-tune on the FM radio works nicely, but deleting stations is a pain as it's rather easy to remove the wrong one due to the design of the inteface. Still, you really only have to do that once. A small button off to the bottom left of the unit acts as a power button as well as a root menu selector. As expected, there's also a "hold" slider to lock the functionality of the player when it's in a pocket; moving any button or the slider wakes up the screen and displays a large lock icon over the top making the display impossible to read; that however disappears fairly quickly rendering it briefly readable before the display automatically turns off again.

There's no way to delete music on the unit itself. I tend to load up a lot music and then delete individual tracks as they either bore or irritate me. As it stands, I can only do that when the unit is plugged into a computer. Another interface frustration is that there's no option to switch between shuffle tracks and shuffle album: this is mostly because there's no shuffle album option. Crossfade is also completely absent. There seems to be a slight issue with gapless playback as live albums do not segue into each other properly when listened to straight through; there's a brief moment of silence when the next track is being queued up.

The unit doesn't handle imbedded album pictures so any album art has to be in the same folder as the music and given a name of "album art.jpg" or "folder.jpg"; this isn't my standard so I have to rename everything. On the upside, it does handle larger images so I don't need to resize them all to fit.

By default the Sansa goes into WMP sync mode (aka MTP) when plugged in via USB. It can be changed to be a USB mass storage device instead (MSC mode) which is what I chose after becoming intensely annoyed with the other. Files can then be dragged over to the device and the next time it's unplugged, the unit will automatically recognise them and make them available. It does this by resetting itself and rebuilding a table of contents which can be rather slow. Without some fiddling (i.e. it's possible, but not easy) it will not play music while connected to a PC; all charging is done via USB (my preferred method these days) which is nice, but this renders it useless for music playing while plugged in as it automatically enters sync mode and locks out all of the controls. While charging/syncing, the backlight stays on all the time which strikes me as unnecessary. Transfer times when copying over files are fine given the USB 2 interface. I do note that SanDisk has an optional (and expensive) dock that appears to permit this.

As regards Macintosh compatibility, the USB storage device mode works as expected so music can be copied on and off. There does appear to be an issue where if the unit is deposited into the OSX trashcan for ejecting, it will not be recognized if plugged in again until the machine is rebooted. I don't know if this is an OSX bug or something in the way the Sansa is reported. The various supplied applications for file conversion and firmware updating do not run at all under OSX, and obviously Windows Media Player syncing is a no-starter. I'll have to see if I can get Parallels to work with it for the latter purpose.

The documentation does mention support for MP3, WMA and secure WMA but not AAC, MP4, WAV or other variations. I'm not terribly interested in anything outside of my own MP3 library so I've not investigated this. SanDisk does do a Rhapsody specific version of the e200 series so I'd expect the support to be decent.

There's some playlist support. However, as I tend to use the unit as a massive shuffle drive I've not played with it. The WMP sync tool does handle syncing playlists with the desktop but since I'm not using that I can't really make any claims for how well it works. On the unit itself, there's also a "GO" playlist which is an on-the-fly playlist allowing songs to be added or removed; it looks cumbersome.

I can't speak to total battery life as I've not yet run it down; I thus know it's at least over 10 hours. SanDisk claims it'll be about 20 hours. The e280 takes a surprisingly long time to start up when turned off: it's about 15 seconds until it's usable. This seems a bit extreme for a device of this type.

On the plus side versus the Nano, the Sansa was $10 cheaper at $269 than the Nano at the time (had the Nano been in stock.) In addition, the radio and the easy drag-and-drop to install music while in USB mode were major pluses. The ability to pull music back off the device which allows me to use it as a transport device between home and work is also a good feature. SanDisk has also been pushing out firmware upgrades to address various concerns and are apparently listening to feedback in order to improve the unit, so there's hope that the non-physical issues will be addressed. Also, to be fair, the Nano doesn't do a number of things I've complained above either.

The Sansa e280's a functional device which will serve its purpose but frankly needs a severe user interface overhaul. No doubt as I get more used to its quirks, they'll seem less and less important. We'll see...

(anythingbutipod.com has a good selection of tips and tricks for users of the Sansa e200 series.)

Updated, 2006/01/08: Rewrote the conclusion to be less snippy.


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