Sandisk Sansa e280 Review

The Sandisk Sansa e280 offers music-savvy consumers an alternative to buying music: renting it! For 6 to 10 dollars a month, you can have (real) access to more music than iTunes users could ever dream of buying. The Sansa e280 is compatible with Microsoft’s Playforsure that allows music rental. It is also obviously compatible with plain MP3 or WMA files. With 8GB of integrated (flash) memory plus an SD card expansion slot, most users should have enough room for their music/photos. I asked Alexei to review the Sensa e280 and he played with it for about a week before writing down his impressions below.

Design and Controls
sansa-e280 controlsThe Sansa e280 displays a stark contrast with the earlier Sandisk mp3 players such as the e100 series. While the older e100’s feel flimsy and creaky all around, the e280 has a very solid feel and a fashionable esthetic appeal. The scratch resistant metal shell on the back is particularly interesting. It has a nice matte finish and makes the player feel sturdy and durable while holding it in your hand. Sansa’s weight feels about right for its size although a bit on the heavy side. However, I did not find that bothersome at all. The player also includes a micro SD expantion slot that not only gives you more space for your music, but also turns the e280 into a card reader.

Unfortunately, what is true of the outer shell of the player is not so with the buttons. If you lightly shake the player, you can hear the wheel and the center button rattle around a bit. I do enjoy the fact that Sandisk chose to go with a mechanical wheel because it provides a better tactile response, in my opinion. However, I wished that the execution of the wheel had been better. The blue backlight looks very futuristic and cool but it is not very functional since the only thing it illuminates is the wheel while the other controls stay dark. While it is reasonably easy to remember their locations after some time using the player, I found myself poking around in the dark at first.

Software Compatibility
The included Media Converter software can be installed fairly quickly and once the Sansa e280 was connected it was immediately recognized and ready to go. The included CD came with an installer for the Rhapsody subscription music service. It would imply the two should work happily together, and indeed they did. The player was immediately recognized and I was on my way to filling it up with Rhapsody ToGo music in no time. It seems to take two to three seconds to transfer each song to the device. Album covers are automatically downloaded to the player to be displayed during playback.

The included Media Converter software is simple to use and will transfer your videos and photos to the device. It will resize all the media to the size of Sansa’s screen and convert movies to the QuickTime .mov file and photos to the windows bitmap file for internal storage. Video files seem to take around 11Mb per minute and photos are around 70K each. This means you can hold between ten to twelve hours of video or 100,000 photos if you choose to do so. The device supports two USB transfer modes, Media Transfer Protocol used to transfer DRM protected media and Mass Storage Class protocol that should work across all operating systems and allow you to use the Sandisk Sansa as a portable flash drive.

Press the power button, and about 15 seconds (fifteen?!) later the Sansa e280 is ready to use. Unlike the Zen Micro, there is no quick start mode. It’s a feature that I miss after being used to the Zen’s almost immediate surge of sound. The LCD display is bright and clear and the colors are very nice. The player is also quite responsive: changing tracks or fast forwarding is zippy. The track and album cover change almost immediately and the new song starts playing about 1-2 seconds later. Not everything is perfect though. The one particularly unresponsive feature on this device is the track rating system that allows you to assign a 1 through 5 star rating to any given song. It’s a great idea, but once you rate a track the player freezes for what seems like a minute. Fortunately, the music keeps on playing during that time.

Talking about music, I am very pleased with the sound quality. I perceived almost no ambient noise and at about half volume on the dial, the player produced output strong enough to drive my Sennheiser HD570 headphones. Many competing players don’t do as well.

Video playback was enjoyable as well, the frame rate stayed constant and the sound reproduction was good too. The included earphones are decent, but I think they are also a limiting factor. The Sansa outputs considerably better sound than the bundled unit can reproduce. After going back and forth between the Sennheisers and the earphones a few times, I think I can safely say that the user experience could be made significantly better with some better earphones.

The observed battery life is around 18-19 hours, which is close enough to what Sandisk advertises. I believe it’s possible to achieve 20 hours with a moderate usage pattern. I listened to the Sansa on my way to work for about 2 hours a day and the player was able to run without a recharge for about a week and a half, which is very respectable.

Some bonus functions that come with the Sansa are the FM radio and voice recording. In fact, you can even record the radio signal to the player. It’s great if you want a copy of your favorite morning talk show or that song you like but don’t know the artist of. The voice recording function is very easy to use with just touch of a button.

Overall, I had a very pleasant experience with the Sansa e280. It has a slick design, lots of memory, good responsiveness and a terrific battery life. There are shortcomings, but in my experience they are few and far in between. It’s certainly not enough to sway me from getting one.

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