For Christmas this year, I treated myself to a longtime object of my technolust: the Sandisk Sansa e280 flash memory MP3 player. Part of the e200 series, the e280 is the 8GB version. I paid $185 at Amazon (no blogger bribes here!). All e200 players have many features to thrash those precious iPod Nanos:
- Plays MP3, WMA, and secure WMA (see below)
- 1.8″ color LCD screen
- Image viewer
- Video player
- Voice recorder
- Data storage
- FM tuner, with record capability
- microSD expansion slot
- User replaceable, rechargeable Lithium Ion battery with 20 hours of play time (average)
That’s what everybody gets. The real kicker is if you have Windows XP  and a subscription service like Rhapsody-To-Go, Napster, or Yahoo! Music. This is a Plays For Sure player, so you can take subscription content with you. As long as I am a subscriber, I can transfer any track in my library, even though I didn’t buy it. Since I just got a great deal on Rhapsody-To-Go  I expect to subscribe indefinitely. That gives me any of Rhapsody’s 3 million+ tracks anywhere I want. It is the awesome.
That’s quite a feature list, in a very compact package. Here are the highs and lows.
- Screen is sharp, photos and videos look good.
- Sound quality is quite good, both for WMA (160K) and FM stereo
- Using Rhapsody’s jukebox software, transferring music is quite easy. You either drag and drop files, or synchronize with your Rhapsody Library. If you needed to, you could pick and choose from your Library instead of copying the whole thing. Personally, mine is a giant “best of” collection, so it’s very convenient for me to connect it to my PC have it automatically sync up. Right now I’ve got around 600 tracks that I’ve chosen over the last year, and it takes up about 2.7GB.
- The design is very nice. It’s shiny! And black. It’s not quite as compact or beautiful as the iPod, but… duh. As far as I can tell, Apple has kidnapped the best designers on the planet (minus Agent Hulagun), so nobody else can have such elegant-looking products. It’s the modern day equivalent of Ivan the Terrible poking out the eyes of Postnik Yakovlev after he built St. Basil’s Cathedral.
- New batteries are only $20 from Sandisk, compared to $60 for iPods.
- Like just about every other MP3 player I’ve read reviews on, the earbuds kinda suck. Sound quality is decent, they’re just these big round discs that don’t feel like they were designed to go in your ears. They’re too big for your ear canal (I think they’re more bellybutton sized), and I haven’t figure out a way to place them so they don’t feel like they’re about to fall out. I’m looking for a replacement, and have my eye on the Sennheiser PMX60 headphones. I’m pretty sure the larger drivers will drain the batteries faster, but at least they’ll be comfortable without messing up my incredible hair.
- The voice recorder seems to record a high-pitched whine along with your voice. It’s annoying, so don’t expect to make any podcasts from it. And you have to speak into the mic, so I don’t think you can use it to record lectures. Of course, the mic hole is about 2mm in diameter, so it’s a wonder it works at all. At least you can pause and continue the recording.
- When using the thumbwheel, your thumb rests on the left side of the wheel, which is not optimal. You scroll down, you’re turning counterclockwise, and the screen scrolls up. This is really an artifact of using a very compact device, and I don’t see a solution – that’s just where your thumb naturally rests. To make this more ergonomic you’d need to make it bigger, which nobody wants. I’m sure most compact MP3 players have this issue.
- When connecting to my PC for transfer, the Rhapsody software needs to scan the device for tracks. This takes several minutes, and I only have about 600 tracks (“only” meaning it’s only 1/3 full). In “mass storage” mode, you can’t transfer subscription content, only drag and drop files. So it doesn’t scan your tracks when you connect, but when you disconnect it essentially reboots and does this “Refresh Database” thing that also takes a couple minutes. You can’t win.
- The only way to recharge the battery is by hooking the device up to a USB port via the included cable. Not an issue – unless you want to travel with it. Luckily, there are many 3rd party Sansa accessories that solve this, and they’re even blessed by Sandisk. This includes USB charging ports for your car’s cigarette lighter, as well as wall chargers.
- The LCD stays on when the device is connected to a PC. Since you connect to charge the battery, it seems dumb to be draining it by lighting up the screen.
- Photos and videos can’t be placed on the microSD card.
I’m nitpicking a bit with the lows, but I’d rather be thorough in case one of them is a deal-breaker for you. Overall, I think the highs far outweigh them, and I’m quite happy with my purchase!
 And presumably Vista, but don’t hold me to that. I think it just needs Windows Media Player 10 or better.
 I’m afraid it’s gone now, but during the holidays they offered the to-go service for $8 month. I’d been paying $10/month for the Unlimited service, which doesn’t allow you to transfer to MP3 players, and the upgrade price was $15/month! I created another account, hoping to merge the two, but the best customer support could do was cancel the old one. I downloaded the entire library from my original account and then imported it from the new one, so I was able to save just about everything. After spending a year carefully selecting 600 tracks (out of several thousand), you don’t want to have to find them again!