Review: SanDisk's Sansa Connect Portable Media Player

When the Sansa Connect was announced at CES 2007, the big mystery revolved around which subscription music service SanDisk would choose as its partner for its first Wi-Fi-loadable, Zing-designed flash media player.

The answer turned out to be Yahoo!, and although the player is good-looking and ridiculously easy to operate, the Yahoo! partnership is bound to be a turnoff for some consumers.

Just as the Apple iPod forces you to live in an iTunes world, the Connect forces you to live in a Yahoo! world.

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Sure, you can fill the player's 4GB of flash memory with your own MP3, WMA and secure WMA files, but unless you have a Yahoo! ID and password, you can't access LAUNCHcast Internet radio stations via Wi-Fi (not a big deal — signing up is free), and if you don't sign up for Yahoo! Music Unlimited To Go, you can't download any songs wirelessly (this will cost about $144 a year, or $12 a month).

So if you aren't prepared to marry the Yahoo! subscription service, the Connect is not for you.

For those who already have or are willing to commit, the Sansa Connect is awesome.

The design of the shiny, black Connect is simple and graceful. The 2.2-inch TFT screen is bright and the graphics for the user interface are clean and well-designed. The device's shape resembles a tiny cell phone (it even has a short, rounded antenna!).

The scroll-wheel-esque controls are augmented by a few extra menu buttons below the screen and on the side and top of the player (for volume and power). There is a built-in speaker that can be set to play automatically when the supplied earphones are unplugged.

The earphones tend to distort when pushed too hard, and they should be upgraded, but that is no surprise. With a decent pair of earphones, the Connect sounds just as it should — transparent and clean (provided your files are of decent quality, as well).

Along with the earphones, the device comes with an AC charger/adapter (the battery life is rated at 6 to 10 hours, depending on Wi-Fi usage), a USB 2.0 cable with a proprietary connection, a protective case, lanyard and an installation CD that includes a manual for both the device and the Yahoo! Music Jukebox, which users will want to install for easy song management and Yahoo! Music Unlimited To Go downloading.

You can add more storage to the unit by adding a microSD card.

The interface is a piece of cake to navigate — a semicircle of icons appears in the lower portion of the display when you click the Home button, and the icons rotate when you scroll the wheel.

This is where you'll choose to search Yahoo! for new music, suggest songs to your friends, check out photos on Flickr, and so on.

The Connect is a PC-only device — you'll need Microsoft Windows XP SP2 or Vista. It plays MP3, WMA and protected WMA files and supports all Microsoft PlaysForSure subscription music (such as Rhapsody) via a PC connection, but only Yahoo! tracks wirelessly.

You'll also need to go to Yahoo! and create a username and password for LAUNCHcast, its Internet radio.

As mentioned above, you need to sign up for Yahoo! Music Unlimited To Go in order to get the full effect, which costs money. You can also stream photos to your player by connecting directly to Flickr wirelessly.

Going Wireless

If you don't have access to a wireless network, there's no real point in owning this device — get a regular, non-Wi-Fi media player for less money.

Although you can use the Connect with public-access networks such as FON, some networks such as T-Mobile and Boingo require user-account authentication through a proxy, and that is not currently supported by the Sansa player.

In other words, this isn't going to work in every coffeeshop and park in America, but generally, you should be able to find a connection.

The Connect is compatible with 802.11 b/g wireless networks, and it receives its firmware updates via Wi-Fi without interrupting music play, which is nice.

I was quite impressed by the Connect's speed. I had no issues connecting to secure and unsecure networks here in PC Magazine Labs, and I was able to download Yahoo! Music tracks from both networks at a rate of about 10 to 15 seconds per song.

At first, however, I was confused by the downloading process. Once you're in the Yahoo! Music menu, you can scroll through popular Yahoo! downloads or see suggestions that are based on ratings you've given songs, albums, and artists.

When you see a song you like, pressing the Zing button in the lower right-hand corner of the screen pulls up a menu, and options to "Get This Song," "Get This Album," or "Get This Playlist" appear.

Pressing one, however, flashes either the message "Request Added" (if the Connect is currently downloading something else) or nothing at all (if there's nothing else being downloaded) instead of the screen showing a download progress bar.

I eventually realized that to monitor download progress, you must be in the Music Library menu and scroll down to Download Manager.

If you have selected a bunch of songs or albums to be loaded onto the Connect, there will be a progress list here, and the top song, provided you are wirelessly connected, will be downloading and, upon completion, will disappear from the queue.

If you search the Music Library, the newly downloaded track will appear there.

Of course, the Yahoo!/Wi-Fi combo isn't the only way to load this device. You can drag and drop songs onto the device using Yahoo! Jukebox software, Windows Media Player, or other Windows-friendly players, but only Yahoo! works wirelessly.

I was happy to see seamless integration of my Yahoo! Guided by Voices tracks and my eMusic Guided by Voices tracks — lesser interfaces might have listed the band twice on the artist page or not displayed the album artwork from the non-Yahoo! tracks.

I was also pleased to see multitasking skills that I think we should be able to take for granted but that rarely appear on most portable media players. You can use the Connect while it recharges or even while it is connected to the PC and Yahoo! Jukebox is running, for instance.

Want to listen to an Internet radio station and browse pictures simultaneously? No problem. That this device can walk and chew gum at the same time seems as if it should be a given, but it isn't, and I applaud SanDisk for making it so flexible.

Flickr, Friends, and More

As mentioned earlier, you can access your Flickr account and view your photos on the player quite easily. I wish you could access your friends' Flickr accounts, but you can't. The Netgear Digital Entertainer media extender device lets you do it, so it ought to be possible.

You also can't store photos on the Connect itself — you can only bring them to the player on a microSD card or stream them via Flickr.

In the Friends menu, you have the option to send music recommendations and receive them from fellow Yahoo! subscribers, provided you are both currently signed in. This is done via Yahoo! Messenger and requires both users to have Yahoo! Jukebox in order for it to work.

Unfortunately, you cannot actually send messages (even though you have the ability to type, as we learned from entering our password for our protected wireless network).

Want to suggest a song from your player that you didn't download via Yahoo!? Too bad.

If you rip a CD in Yahoo!, supposedly you can send songs from it as recommendations, but I had no such luck with a Bob Dylan song from a store-bought CD.

I also couldn't recommend eMusic (non-DRM) tracks, even though the Connect loaded and played them. So, for the time being, "friend-recommendation" is just for Yahoo! Music.

The Internet radio stations offered a decent selection. I usually gravitate to "indie rock," and Yahoo!'s LAUNCHcast indie station wasn't perfect, but certainly offered up tunes I am familiar with and bands that I like. And, hey, the skip function works like a charm if you don't dig what the radio's throwing down.

Yahoo!'s music download selection is pretty good, too, though I'd prefer being able to type in an artist's name and search for albums and tracks rather than wait for music to be suggested to me, rate it, and hope something I'm looking for pops up.

Alas, the Connect offers no search field. If you haven't already downloaded a track by, say, Urge Overkill before using Yahoo!'s Jukebox, your chances of finding a track by them are not great; Connect depends entirely on what Yahoo! chooses to show you.

At first, for instance, I think the 50-song list of indie-rock suggestions for me had two Ween songs and two Postal Service songs, although I'd never downloaded a track from either group.

If the list doesn't have what you're looking for, refreshing it just seems to provide more songs by the same artists. So seeking out obscure songs is still best left for a PC session, and the Connect has some annoying, repetitive artist placement instead of tons of variety at first.

Comparing the Connect with other portable media players is a difficult task. The Apple iPod nano is another excellent flash player, but it has no wireless capabilities. The Microsoft Zune has limited Wi-Fi capabilities, but it uses them in a completely different way and is not a flash player.

It's safe to say that the Connect's wireless capabilities are much more useful than the Zune's restricted player-to-player functionality. Of course, the Connect is restricted to Yahoo!/Flickr wireless compatibility.

Without the Wi-Fi, it's hard to make an argument that the Connect is a better overall player than the nano — it plays fewer types of files, and no one has matched the iPod interface's ease of use.

The overarching point here, however, is that it's very hard to compare the Connect with anything on the market.

The forthcoming Slacker portable media player is probably the closest rival, as it will use Wi-Fi and satellite signals to get you music. But the Slacker player won't ship until this summer.

Overall, the Sansa Connect is a fantastic product. Purchasing one means accepting Yahoo! Music as your service of choice, but if you can live with that, the Connect is simply awesome.

Download as many tracks as you want from Yahoo!, and do it while you're at the bar or in your buddy's apartment, all without using a computer.

That's the concept, and the product delivers on the concept with no glitches and very few annoyances. We have our first excellent Wi-Fi-enabled portable media player.

BOTTOM LINE: If you can stomach the $12 monthly charge for Yahoo! Music Unlimited To Go, the Sansa Connect is a fantastic device. Once you subscribe to the service, you can wirelessly download content onto the flash player, which also provides access to your Flickr account and Internet radio.

PROS: Uses Wi-Fi to download music. Wirelessly stream photos via Flickr. Plays MP3s. Plays tracks from Rhapsody and other Windows-based services. Easily connects to secure and unsecured Wi-Fi networks. Sleek design. Bright screen. Plays while recharging.

CONS: No way to search for artists wirelessly. Requires Yahoo! Music Unlimited To Go subscription ($12 monthly) for Wi-Fi downloading. Can't recommend some non-Yahoo! tracks to "friends."

COMPANY: SanDisk Corporation


Price: $249.99 List
Player Type: Flash MP3 Player
Radio: No
Recording, Voice: No
Recording, Line In: No
Screen Size: 2.2 inches
Storage Capacity: 4 GB
Dimensions: 3.58 x 2.05 x 0.63 inches
Weight: 2.72 oz
Music Playback Formats: MP3, WMA, Protected WMA
Photo formats: JPEG

EDITOR RATING: Four out of five stars

Copyright © 2007 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.