SanDisk rolled out their new line up this year at CES after a fairly successful run with previous generations. One of these included the Connect, which aimed to bring wireless players to the mainstream. Yes, the Zune hit the mainstream with wireless too but it was barely worth the battery power to leave the Wi-Fi turned on. On the other hand, the Sansa Connect has really taken advantage of this connection to offer direct downloads, internet radio, Flickr photo viewing, and buddy list features.
The Connect will not be for everyone. It is a new breed of device that falls somewhere betwixt satellite radio and a standard MP3 player. Music lovers who are willing to subscribe to Yahoo! Unlimited, though, will be very impressed with what the Connect has to offer.
The Sansa Connect comes packaged with a decent set of accessories. Included with the player are a pair of earbuds, a lanyard, felt pouch for the player, USB cable, AC wall charger, quick start guide, and an installation CD that includes a complete user guide and Yahoo! Music software.
Additional accessories such as cases, docks, speaker docks, and the like should not be too hard to come by since many third-party manufacturers make accessories for SanDisk Sansa players through their “Made For Sansa” program. The available accessories for the Connect may not be as extensive as some players but there’s definitely enough to cover the vast majority of uses.
The Connect’s casing is made entirely of plastic, but overall has a solid feel to it with a reasonable weight. The back half has a matte finish whereas the front half encompassing the screen covering is made of a hard, smooth plastic. The harder plastic is very scratch resistant and will hold up well in everyday use and maybe some slight abuse. If you treat your player with a little bit of care, you shouldn’t need a screen protector or case.
The 2.2” 65K-color display is nice and bright and clear. The screen looks a touch better than the e200 series, being a bit smoother. Since the Connect does not play video and probably never will, display responsiveness is not an issue. Still, the GUI looks great and photos look pretty good for the small screen. The angle on the screen is not as good as most; at some angles the screen looks just as it does straight on, but at other angles there is a slight color shift and odd glow to certain colors.
The screen brightness can be set from 5% to 100% in 1% increments. Indoors the screen is very usable even down toward 20-30%, but 50% seems to be the sweet spot. 100% is almost too bright and hard on the eyes, especially in a dark room, but it works well when outdoors. Also note that the backlight is a big cause of battery drain so use only what you need it.
A backlight timer can be set to dim after 5, 10, 30, or 60 seconds to save battery life. The screen will automatically turn off after 60 seconds despite the set dimming time. While powered by a dock or plugged into your computer, the screen dims but does not shut off.
The controls consist of a center tactile wheel with a separate button in the middle. The wheel is also 4-way clickable and allows you to scroll through lists and navigate the home menu. The center button selects the highlighted item. The bottom click of the wheel always operates play and pause, no matter what you are doing. The same goes for the top wheel click, which will always pull up the navigation bar. The left and right wheel clicks will skip/scan forward when on the now-playing screen, but when navigating the library or menu bar, it moves you forward or back in the menu. Additionally, there are two option buttons below the screen to activate various options that change depending on what you’re doing. Upon pressing one of these buttons you are prompted by bars at the bottom of the screen. This bar will expand to open up a small list of options that can be selected by the wheel and center button. On the left side you will find dedicated volume buttons and at the top a power button with an adjacent hold switch.
All of the tactile buttons feel solid when pressed. If you wanted to get picky, the center button is a tiny bit loose, but it’s nothing to be upset about. The wheel glides along smoothly; however, there are slight resistant bumps to indicate scroll increments.
In general, the problem with packing more and more functionality into an MP3 player is that it can complicate the interface and kill the user experience by eithe
r adding too many buttons or not enough. User interfaces are something I obsess and lose sleep over, so with every device I pick up I always look for a better solution. Being faced with the extensive feature set of the Connect, I find it hard to come up with a better solution. Overall the interface is well done.
There is one issue I have with the graphical aspects of the interface. Many of the menu and screen transitions are animated. While this offers a pretty-looking graphical interface, it seems to hinder the responsiveness of the navigation. Dropping the one or two screen renders between menu bar selections or option bar activations could possibly speed up the interface. This could easily be solved by having an option in the display settings to turn menu animation on or off.
Wi-Fi features on the Connect are pretty well developed. As of now the wireless connection can be used to stream internet radio, directly download music (subscription required), share recommendations over the internet with Yahoo! Messenger, and share recommendations with nearby Connects. Although undocumented, the Connect works great as a hotspot finder and will indicate if a network is open or secured. Each of these will be discussed in more depth in their respective sections below.
For the geeks in the room the player is compatible with WEP, WPA, and WPA2 (PSK) with TKIP or AES encryption and can work with a passphrase or hex key. The player will not support WPA-Enterprise authentication, but it will work with 802.11b/g/n access points. SanDisk has reported that since 802.11n is a finalized standard you may experience problems, so avoid it if you can.
For those of you who didn’t understand much of that last paragraph, don’t worry. It will work with your home network. Yeah, there is a very slight possibility that it might not, but all you need to know is that nearly all major network scenarios are covered.
Just for kicks, I did a little wardriving (actually warwalking) around the neighborhood. Of the five open networks I found, I was able to connect to four of them. The reason I could not connect to one of the networks was likely due to the way the access point was configured (i.e., MAC address filtering). This inability to access this network could have been addressed and solved if I had access to the router.
Connecting to a wireless network is fairly straightforward, much the same as you would do on a laptop. The first step is searching for a network by simply selecting “Choose network.” This brings up a list of all the available networks within range. If the network is open, select it and it will be added to your preferred networks list. If a network is encrypted, a red lock icon will show beside it. See how it would work well as a hotspot finder?
Many different factors can play into the range you can get out of a wireless signal, such as your router and its placement, interfering signals, the building materials of your house – just to name a few. So the performance of the Connect’s wireless will vary for your conditions. However, it is safe to say that if you can get a signal with a laptop, you can probably get a signal with the Connect. I got some pretty good results with the range of the wireless. I was able to walk down the street about 100 feet with the router placed inside the house in the room closest to me. On the flip side, I could only walk about 60 feet away outside from the router with its being at the far opposite end of the house. The Connect had no problems anywhere within the 3,000 square foot house with a poorly placed router.
Micro SD Card
Currently the Connect only supports up to 2GB microSD cards. However, SanDisk plans to add SDHC support that will push the capacity limit to 32GB later in 2007 with a firmware update. Don’t get too excited. We might see some 4GB or 8GB microSD cards in the next year, but 32GB cards may be a few years off.
The Connect will recognize music and photos no matter how they are organized on the card; they can be dumped directly onto the card or placed into folders. The card can be loaded using a card reader, or you can load it while it is inserted into the Connect. When the player is plugged into your computer the card shows up as a separate drive, so essentially the Connect is a microSD card reader.
The real value I see in having this is the ability to display photos from other devices that use microSD cards (for example, a mobile phone). I was able to display photos taken directly by my Treo by simply swapping the card to the Connect. On the downside, that’s all you can do, view the photos. It would be nice to be able to transfer photos or music to player from the memory card, essentially backing up the card. Probably possible with a firmware update, so cross your fingers and voice your opinion in our Sansa Connect forum.
The internal speaker is as good as a tiny speaker can get. Not quite as good as the Samsung K5’s pair of speakers, but it produces enough sound to fill a room. It’s good for background noise, but I think it is more useful for previewing and sharing without the need for headphones.
There are two options for the external speaker. It can either be shut off completely or set to turn on automatically when the headphones are unplugged.
I did four battery drain tests with the wireless off and headphones plugged in, occasionally picking up the player and activating the screen. The times fell in between 10 and 11 hours. On the other hand, when streaming internet radio the entire duration of the battery produced results at about half of that. These times were consistently a little above five hours. Your battery time will highly depend on how much Wi-Fi you are using, whether that is direct downloads, internet radio, or Yahoo! Messenger. Under typical usage you could probably just get by an 8-hour work day. So, comparing the Connect to other non-wireless MP3 players, the battery life is definitely below average.
There is somewhat of a compensation for the lack of batter life, though. Unlike previous Sansa models, you are able to fully use the player while it is connected to a computer or charging with the wall adapter. I was able to stream internet radio at the same time I was transferring songs to the player while connected to the computer. Additionally, the player was being recharged. Fully charging the player takes around three hours.
The initial firmware release is pretty solid. SanDisk learned its lesson from the e200 and spent more time working out the Connect’s firmware bugs before its release. Future firmware updates to the Connect will be pushed to the device over Wi-Fi and automatically updated. This is a very nice feature and lets you avoid the many incremental and tedious manual firmware updates, as with the e200.
Overall photos look pretty good, but as good as they get on a 65K-color screen. Darker photos will not show as well because the blacks tend to blend together and show as one. Viewing photos on the Connect is very straightforward and easy with two different methods of getting photos onto the screen.
The first is through the microSD card. As discussed above simply dumping JPEG photo files onto the card will allow you to view them on the Connect. On the downside, no matter how you load the photos onto the card they will show up as one big list. It would be nice to have them sorted in folders if you did so.
The second method of viewing photos is with your Flickr account. Once you log into your free Yahoo! ID on the Connect it will allow you to view photos with the corresponding Flickr account. If you have your photos in
Flickr organized by folders, you will be able to view them by folder on the Connect. There is also a “Today’s Most Interesting” Flickr photo folder that will show you random interesting photos.
Sound quality on the Connect is about average but is very clean in terms of electronic interference noises. The early firmware versions of the Sansa e200 had this problem; however you won’t hear any clicks, pops, or whines when navigating, skipping tracks, or adjusting the volume with the Connect.
I find that the Connect is a bit underpowered compared to most players, so you may have some problems driving larger headphones, more so when you are using an EQ setting. The EQ doesn’t boost frequencies; it cuts them. For instance, when you are using the Rock EQ setting you are not boosting the highs and lows but cutting the center frequencies by 5 to 10db or so. The volume is probably limited to reduce battery drain. If you are using standard earbuds or most IEMs, you will get plenty of volume out of the Connect.
Also, the tracks directly downloaded are 192kbps WMA files so it would be difficult for the average user to tell the difference between a CD and the songs downloaded from the music service. The same goes for the streaming radio. I don’t know at what bitrate it is streaming, but I could not tell the difference between the 192kbps and the internet stream with a good set of amplified Sennhieser HD650s.
The Connect is an MTP-based device meaning that there are plenty of programs you can use to transfer music, like Windows Media Player, Media Monkey, Napster, etc. On the same note, since it is only MTP, it will only work with Windows XP SP2 and Vista.
The Connect is also a standard PlaysForSure device, which lets you use it with a handful of other music services. Keep in mind that there is a strong device tie-in with Yahoo! Music, so it may be the best choice for most people. However, there are cheaper subscription services than Yahoo! Music that may be better suited for others. It’s really nice to have that option.
Yahoo! Music Jukebox
If you sign up for the Yahoo! Unlimited subscription you will be using Yahoo! Music Jukebox. It is like any other media player and fairly straightforward. However, it has a few extra features that tie in with the Connect. For instance, when you are logged in to Messenger your friends can send you recommendations that will show up in the Jukebox media player. You will also be able to see your friends when they sign onto their Connects and what they are listening to through Messenger.
[One very important thing: Install the software from the CD that came with the Connect. Do not download Yahoo! Jukebox from the web! Both will work, but the install CD does not install junk that clutters and slows down you computer, like toolbars and other various Yahoo! background applications.]
Music Library Management
Under the music library option you will find a few ways to view/play your library: Shuffle All, Playlists & Mixes, Artist, Albums, Songs, Genres, and Download Manager. All of them are self-explanatory except maybe the last one. The Download Manger shows the queue of tracks to be downloaded. It will also show you what was not able to be downloaded.
The Connect’s on-the-go delete is well done. You can delete single tracks, entire albums, entire artists, and even entire genres. It also has an Auto Delete feature that can be turned on under the settings menu. This will automatically delete lower-rated and less frequently played songs when memory starts to get too full.
You are also able to set how much memory is used for mixes and recommendations under the settings. This can be adjusted from 0% to 90% in increments of 5%. This setting may determine how many songs are put in a mix.
Rating Artists, Albums, & Songs
Rating your music will help Yahoo! better recommend music for mixes and your library. This feature is a bit different than what is used on most players where you can only rate the song. The Connect allows you to rate the artist, album, and the song.
Discovering New Music
When the song is selected there is a common tie throughout the interface that allows you to create auto-mixes (more on that below) and queue up downloads. This feature requires that you have a subscription to the unlimited download service. In most of the screens where you are selecting or browsing music, the Zing option buttons will let you “Get song” or “Get album.” When this option is selected, the songs or albums are put in the Download Manager and begin to download to your library.
Now whether you can download that song to your library is a different story. Some songs and albums cannot be downloaded because of licensing issues with record labels. Some record labels don’t understand how to work digital distribution into their business mode and therefore will not allow their music catalogs to be downloaded though music services. However, I found that a good majority of my requested music was downloading, but still not 100%.
There is a downside to this feature. The Zing menu options will only work on music downloaded from Yahoo! This is pretty disappointing, considering it would be really nice to have this option for your own collection. I think this could possibly be addressed in a firmware update given that the player could collect the file name or ID3 metadata from each song.
When connected to your access point, you can directly download songs and albums. The direct downloads are subscription based, so you need to pay the monthly fee in order to keep listening to the songs. When you stop paying, the tunes stop playing.
The catalog of music is limited compared to what you can indirectly download with the Jukebox software. On the Connect you can only download some of the top music by genre or download from a selection picked based on your song ratings. It definitely would have been nice to have access to the entire catalog from the device, but browsing or searching 2 million songs on a MP3 player may have been a logistical and interface nightmare. I doubt that we will see entire catalog browsing with the first generation of the Connect, but we may see it in the next generation.
On the same subject as browsing direct downloads, the current top picks catalog feels somewhat unorganized. The songs are browsable by genre and subsequent sub-genres, but when you reach the song list they are scattered. It seems like they are in no order, except maybe popularity. It would be nice to see better organization by album or artist or even alphabetically.
How fast you can download songs will depend on your connection speed. On a cable connection you can expect to get a single song in 15-30 seconds. You can see what you are downloading in the direct downloads area in music library.
The Connect gives you free access to a nice assortment of LAUNCHcast radio stations. If you subscribe to Yahoo! Music Unlimited, you will have access to almost double the amount of stations with LAUNCHcast Plus. At the time of this writing, the LAUNCHcast Plus has around 300 genre and theme stations to choose from. A full list of the stations showing what is free-versus-paid is on Yahoo’s site.
While listening to stations, if you don’t like the song you can press the forward button to skip to the next song on the station list. However, you cannot go back once you skipped to the next track.
Radio stations can also be customized according to your musical tastes. Stations will show on your Connect under “My Stations” but must be created using the Jukebox software. These stations are created based on your music ratings as well as your direct input of your favorites selected using the Jukebox software. Multiple stations can be created based on your mood. For i
nstance you might want to create an “upbeat” station for the gym or maybe a “bedtime” station for your nighttime rituals.
Overall the internet radio function is great, giving you access to a ton of music, but there is a rather annoying aspect of it. All of the stations play “edited” or “clean” versions of songs. While this may be good for the sheltered children and intolerant adults, it is definitely not what the majority want. If you have ever worked at a B&M music store, you’d know that the only “clean” versions purchased are by customers mistakening them for the unedited copies. (Not to mention that it really takes the “hardcore” out of the Hardcore Rap station.)
Friend Recommendations / Yahoo! Messenger
There are two ways to socialize with others: through direct wireless of nearby players or through Yahoo! Messenger. Both of these allow you to share mixes, songs, and radio stations. But the catch is that you are only sharing metadata. So when I recommend a song to a friend, the player basically send the song information to the other player. That other player then downloads the song. This means that in order for this feature to work both players need to be subscribers of Yahoo! Unlimited.
On the device you sign on with your Yahoo! ID. Your friends using Yahoo! Messenger will now be able to see that you are online with your player and will be able to see what you are listening to if you have that feature enabled. You can send recommendations to friends that are logged into Yahoo! Messenger or the Connect.
There are two downsides to this that may be able to be addressed with firmware updates. One, you cannot recommend songs that you loaded yourself. Two, you cannot be logged into Yahoo! Messenger and the Connect at the same time.
Auto mixes are an awesome way to discover new music. This feature is found under the Zing menu option. After you have selected a song, album, or genre, you choose “Make a Mix like This Song.” The player will automatically create a playlist and download all the songs for it. The cool thing is that the list is dynamic and will update and add songs as needed.
The downside of this is that the mixes are not tight enough to the genre. Occasionally you will get an odd track that doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the mix. Also, you are not able to make auto mixes with the music you put on the player yourself through ripped CDs.
Keep in mind that when considering this device for your next purchase that it is not a standard MP3 player, and it may not be for everyone. It is a DAP that offers new features that are not common to what we are all used to. It has a feature set that puts it in a category somewhere between a standard MP3 player and satellite radio.
The device itself has a few issues such as weak battery life, no custom EQ, no on-the-go playlists, and a sometimes lagging GUI. The interaction between the device and Yahoo! Unlimited could also use some tweaks – mainly the ability to interface with songs you have loaded yourself. The good news is most of these issues can be addressed with a firmware update.
The Connect does have some really great stuff going for it and has really taken advantage of the wireless feature, but I find it hard to justify the price if you are not going to subscribe to Yahoo! Unlimited, considering that without it, the Connect is a standard MP3 player with one hundred or so internet radio stations and the ability to browse your Flickr photos. (Although it may be more viable without the service once it drops below its introductory $250 price tag.)
However, with the subscription service the Connect is a very attractive and feature-filled digital audio player. It is a definite recommendation for the music lover who wants it all and is willing to subscribe to the monthly service.
- Access to a ridiculous amount of music
- Automatic firmware updates
- Charges, transfers, plays/streams simultaneously
- Good wireless range
- Choice of music software/service
- No custom EQ
- No on-the-go playlists
- Cannot browse entire Yahoo! Music library directly from the device
- Weak battery life
- Not all albums can be downloaded
- Clean/Edited versions of songs
- Cannot be signed in to your Yahoo! ID on your computer while signed into the Connect
- Many features don’t work with music you put on the player yourself