SanDisk Sansa Connect

By Joseph Moran

April 26, 2007

Is this the ultimate Wi-Fi enabled MP3 portable? Not quite. But we're edging ever closer.

Price: $249.99
Pros: Excellent display and user interface; built-in Wi-Fi.
Cons: No online library search; wireless download options are limited to pre-defined lists; so-so battery life.

There's no question that digital music players like the Apple iPod have revolutionized the way we purchase and listen to music. But considering our increasingly wireless world, the most common method for obtaining songs -- downloading them to a PC and then transferring them to the device via a cable -- seems almost antediluvian.

Leveraging the ubiquity of Wi-Fi is a logical way to further enhance the convenience of music players, and a few products are already trying to take advantage of it. There's the MusicGremlin we looked at last year, for example. Microsoft's Zune also has built-in Wi-Fi, but the feature works a lot like money in a 401(k) account -- it may be there, but your ability to use it is severely constrained. You can't use it make purchases from the online store, for example.

Now SanDisk is offering its own Wi-Fi-enabled music player in the form of the $250 Sansa Connect, which works with the Yahoo! Music service. It's a glossy black device, roughly the same size and thickness as a Motorola RAZR phone -- though at 2.8 ounces, it's slightly lighter. Except for a small stub antenna at the top and a control wheel in lieu of buttons, the Sansa Connect looks fairly similar to the company's non-wireless eSeries Sansa devices.

Hardware Features

The Sansa Connect supports native 802.11g or b connections, and it also happily works with WPA/WPA2 Personal encryption, so you don't have to fall back to brittle WEP security in order to use it on your home network. That's a big plus, and something you can't take for granted in consumer electronics these days. On the downside, there's no way to use the Sansa Connect on a WLAN that requires user authentication, such as a paid hotspot -- or even on WLANs that are free but require a username and password.

Owing to Wi-Fi and to a lesser extent the Sansa Connect's large 2.2-inch color LCD, the device's Lithium ion battery doesn't last super long time. It's rated for 6 hours with Wi-Fi on or 12 with it off, and I got around five hours out of the unit with Wi-Fi enabled most of that time. To conserve power, the Sansa Connect will turn off its Wi-Fi after periods of inactivity, and when the battery level gets really low--just a sliver on the meter--the Wi-Fi is deactivated entirely until a recharge. (Along with an AC adapter and USB charging/sync cable, the Sansa Connect also comes with a tether and suede-like carrying pouch.)

The Sansa Connect offers 4 GB of internal storage -- all flash memory; there's no hard drive -- and audio support consists of MP3, WMA or protected WMA files (since it's a PlaysForSure device, the Sansa Connect will play tracks purchased from compatible services like Napster or Rhapsody). In spite of the largish screen, the Sansa Connect doesn't support video playback, though you can use it to view JPG or PNG photos stored on a micro SD memory card or viewed online via Flickr. Unfortunately, you can't use the expansion card to store purchased music.

Niggling hardware issues aside, I really like the Sansa Connect's user interface and controls. Menus are accessed using a rotating wheel and center button which I much prefer to the less precise control you often get with an iPod click wheel. The Sansa Connect's menus are well organized and easy to navigate with large icons. My only complaint is that you need to go several levels deep into the menu to get to the equalizer settings, but the Sansa Connect is hardly alone in that regard. (While I'm on the subject of sound, the device has a built-in mono speaker for times you don't want to use the included earbuds.)

Getting Music

Taking full advantage of the Sansa Connect requires a subscription to Yahoo! Music Unlimited To Go, an all-you-can-eat service that allows you to download songs and transfer them to a portable device. That subscription costs $14.99 a month (or $143.88 annually, which works out to $11.99 monthly).

In spite of the Wi-Fi, when it comes to finding and downloading music online, the Sansa Connect leaves much to be desired. In a nutshell, although Yahoo! boasts over 2 million available songs, you can't access the entirety of its catalog from the Sansa Connect, because it lacks a search feature to locate music by genre, artist, title, etc. Rather, downloadable songs are limited mainly to a couple of pre-defined Yahoo! lists -- there's a list of popular titles, as well as a 'Recommended' list which changes based on ratings you give your msuic. When you tag songs for download, they're queued up in a Download Manager and are usually available within a few minutes.

The Sansa Connect's lack of a search function isn't fatal, though, because you can always search the full breadth of the Yahoo! catalog with their Music Jukebox desktop software and then transfer purchased songs to the device over USB. Then again, that negates much of the benefit of having a wireless connection in the first place. SanDisk says it's evaluating search and other features as part of future firmware versions (having Wi-Fi certainly facilitates device updates), but the company isn't disclosing a timetable for upgrades.

Aside from the aforementioned lists, you can also use the Sansa Connect to listen to streaming Internet radio via the Yahoo! LAUNCHcast network. There are many stations to choose from, and it's fairly easy to find one you like, since they're categorized by genre or theme (e.g. kids, work, party). A nice touch is that while listening to a LAUNCHcast station, you can press a button to download the song currently playing or the entire album it came from.

DRM always looms large on digital music players, and the Sansa Connect is no exception. In some cases, download options for a song or album carry the caveat "if available," and in at least two cases, my chosen songs failed to download, presumably due to license restrictions. That would be disappointing enough if the Sansa Connect informed you of any restrictions when the download was requested (or better yet, didn't offer the download option for certain songs), but it doesn't -- the only way to find out is to consult the Download Manager to see which, if any, songs were not successfully downloaded.

Sharing

You can take advantage of the Sansa Connect's connectivity to share music with others. Sort of. While online, a Friends menu will let you locate other nearby devices, or you can log into Yahoo! Messenger to find out what songs your friends are currently listening to. You can't actually transfer songs (nor can you use Yahoo! Messenger to chat, given that there's no text input method), but provided both parties have Music Unlimited To Go subscriptions, you can flag any of these songs for download, subject to the same restrictions mentioned above. You also have the ability to recommend your own songs to others and receive recommendations from them. In this case, the Zune is one up on the Sansa.

With a nice screen, great interface and built-in Wi-Fi, the Sansa Connect has the potential to be a excellent digital music player. But for now, it's only a good one. While it certainly makes better use of Wi-Fi than the Zune, for the moment, the Sansa Connect is hamstrung by its non-existent search and limited download options.



Comment and Contribute
(Maximum characters: 1200). You have
characters left.