Walt Mossberg

The Sansa Rhapsody Comes With Music Inside — Like It or Not

What if you bought a portable music player and found that it was already loaded with hundreds of songs selected by an online digital music service? You might be delighted to be getting all this content with no effort, or you might be annoyed that a huge portion of your new player’s storage capacity has been taken up with music you may not want.

That’s the issue with the Sansa Rhapsody, the latest portable music player to challenge Apple’s iPod hegemony. This is the first player to be specifically designed to work with RealNetworks’ Rhapsody music-subscription service, and it’s no mere iPod clone. The player, made by SanDisk, is designed to show off the Rhapsody music-rental model, which is about music discovery rather than individual song or album purchases.

Sansa Rhapsody
Sansa Rhapsody

Like other subscription services, Rhapsody charges a monthly fee for unlimited access to millions of songs. You don’t actually own these songs, and any music you’ve rented and downloaded from Rhapsody becomes unplayable if you stop paying the monthly fee, which is $14.99 a month if you want to hear the music on both a PC and on a portable device.

But Real believes that for people who love to try new artists or hear “channels” of music, this is better than buying individual songs and albums that never expire, which is Apple’s model. It stresses quantity and variety, and for the new Sansa Rhapsody player, it drives this message home by filling the devices with music. You can play this music free for up to two months before you have to buy a subscription.

Microsoft’s forthcoming Zune player will also come loaded with a small sampling of music, but the Sansa Rhapsody goes much further. On the base, 2-gigabyte model, fully half of the storage capacity is taken up with preloaded music. On the higher-capacity models, which feature up to 8 gigabytes of total storage, 2 gigabytes is taken up with preloaded music.

The Rhapsody service itself also has been overhauled, with a new, cleaner interface. Best Buy stores will be launching a store-branded version of Rhapsody and sell the new player.

I’ve been testing a Sansa Rhapsody player for the past week or so. I’ve compared the player with Apple’s midrange iPod Nano, the closest iPod model in size and capacity. The base-model, 2-gigabyte Rhapsody player I tested is a bit cheaper: $140 versus $150 for the 2-gigabyte Nano.

The Sansa Rhapsody isn’t really new hardware. It’s a variation of existing SanDisk players, and is formally called the e200R series. But this isn’t just a marketing gimmick. Unlike previous players that worked with Rhapsody, which relied on Microsoft software, this uses Real’s own music formats and copy-protection software and is more tightly tied to the service. The player can be switched into Microsoft mode for use with Microsoft files.

Personally, I found the preloaded music more of a hassle than a boon. It included both canned playlists and channels — preprogrammed radio stations. They featured numerous artists and genres I didn’t like, or actually hated, and I was forced to delete most of them and replace them with music I wanted to hear.

Before I could do this, however, I was amazed to find that Rhapsody wanted to keep adding its own choices to my player. The minute I plugged it into my PC, the service began downloading 73 songs of its own choosing to the Sansa, to “refresh” the choices that came on the device. Real says it plans to change this behavior to ask users first whether they want such a refresh.

The player itself is small, black and good looking. It has two big advantages over the iPod Nano. First, it has a larger screen, allowing for a better display of album art and text. Second, it has a replaceable battery.

But in most other respects, the Sansa Rhapsody is inferior to the iPod Nano. It is bulkier — more than twice as thick and almost twice as heavy as the Nano. It doesn’t have a feature for playing audiobooks or podcasts, and its battery life is lower than the Nano’s. I also found transferring music to the player from Rhapsody to be slower than on the iPod, despite Real’s claims to the contrary. And when I added my own tracks to the Sansa, it failed in many cases to display the album art.

Also, after the initial 60 days, you must plug the player into your computer and synchronize with the Rhapsody service at least once a month to verify that your subscription is paid up. Otherwise, all the songs on the device become unplayable. (Rhapsody also sells nonexpiring tracks a la carte, like Apple, but that’s not its main business.)

The player does a good job of displaying photos and videos, but getting them onto the device was more of a hassle than on the iPod. You need separate software, and that software was confusing to use.

For people who don’t want to choose their own music, or who value discovering new artists over hearing familiar ones, the Sansa Rhapsody may be just the ticket. For those who place a higher value on personal choice, the iPod is better.

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