Since its introduction in 2001, Apple Inc.’s iPod has taken over the portable-music-player industry, gaining steam each year and rolling over competitors one after the other. Its simple interface, navigational scroll wheel and iTunes software program make it a pleasure to use–and impossible for other companies to beat. To stay fresh, Apple regularly introduces iPods with thinner builds, lighter weights, longer battery lives, brighter screens and new functions.
But despite improvements on the original iPod, none has enabled interaction with other players or wireless Internet connectivity–two features that competitors are eager to offer so as to chip away at iPod’s huge market share. Microsoft Corp.’s Zune music player, for example, was shipped with built-in Wi-Fi, enabling song sharing–albeit limited — with nearby Zunes.
Apple is about to bring out its own wireless music player in the iPhone, which combines a full iPod with Wi-Fi and cellphone connectivity. But so far, it’s unclear whether you’ll be able to use the iPhone to download or share music.
This week, I tested SanDisk’s $250 Sansa Connect player, a collaborative effort from SanDisk Corp., Yahoo Inc.’s Yahoo Music and Zing Systems Inc. that comes with built-in Wi-Fi for more than just limited sharing with other players. Unlike the iPod, which must be plugged into a computer to load new music, Sansa Connect can play and download content on the player whenever a Wi-Fi network is available, including photos, Internet Radio, songs from Yahoo’s music store or recommendations from friends.
The Sansa Connect isn’t without flaws. Downloading music on the go requires a subscription plan that costs $144 a year or $15 monthly, so you never outright own this content. The player also relies on a Wi-Fi connection for much of its functionality, and you may not always be within Wi-Fi range. Another problem is that Yahoo’s music store doesn’t sell videos and offers fewer songs than Apple’s iTunes: roughly two million versus five million. Lastly, the Sansa Connect doesn’t enable searching the store for specific music. Instead, you’re limited to Internet radio or play-lists suggested by Yahoo, a caveat that can be maddening if you want to find a certain title or artist.
But overall, I really liked the Sansa Connect. It forced me to look at my portable player as an evolving, untethered device that introduced me to lots of songs. When it wasn’t connected to Wi-Fi, I was disappointed to not be downloading new songs. My iPod suddenly seemed old-fashioned.
The four-gigabyte, black Sansa Connect isn’t as handsome as the iPod, and has a stubby Wi-Fi antenna protruding from its top edge. It measures about a half an inch wider than and two and a half times as thick as the comparably priced iPod Nano, which has twice as much memory–eight gigabytes rather than four. The Sansa Connect has a microSD card slot for expanding its capacity, but doesn’t come with such a card.
The Sansa has a movable scroll wheel similar to that found on the original iPod. This wheel aids navigation tremendously, as does its smart interface. A colorful 2.2-inch display showed seven menus in a fan formation at the bottom of the screen, and I flipped through each by turning the wheel. A tiny speaker is built onto the back of the device, which came in handy more often than I anticipated.
I cut right to the chase when I opened my Sansa Connect, testing its Wi-Fi capabilities by playing an Internet radio station through the device. The player detected my Wi-Fi network, I entered my Yahoo username and password and seconds later was listening to a new Carrie Underwood song on one of 16 pop stations.
Even without a paid subscription to Yahoo Music Unlimited To Go, owners of the Sansa Connect can access about 100 Internet Radio stations; subscribers get twice as many. Each player comes with a free 30-day subscription.
You can also view uploaded digital photos without a subscription. The Sansa Connect links to Yahoo’s free photo-sharing site, Flickr.com, so you can see your images as well as the top 50 photos Flickr labels as Today’s Most Interesting–but you can’t view friends’ albums. These photos looked good on my Sansa Connect screen, automatically adjusting to fit the screen in landscape or portrait views depending on the image.
With a subscription, the Sansa Connect’s Wi-Fi connection becomes more useful. While a song is playing, you can press a button to download it or the whole album to your player. I tried this with Mat Kearney’s “Nothing Left To Lose,” opting first to download just that song but then deciding to get the entire album. One by one, the songs downloaded, averaging about 10 seconds each at best, until they were loaded in the player’s My Music section.
Finding exact songs, artists or albums using the Sansa Connect is complete hit or miss. Rather than gaining access to Yahoo’s entire store on your player, you’re limited to choosing from general genres via the Internet Radio section, top songs on Yahoo Music or Yahoo’s recommendations for what you’ll like. So if you want to hear a certain band, you’ll have to guess which category the band falls under in Internet Radio, hope to see one of its songs and then download as the song plays.
Though this lack of a search process is frustrating at times, it also might force you to discover music that you haven’t yet heard. This is a different way of thinking for iPodders, so it may not catch on as easily as the Sansa player’s creators hoped.
But remember: The Sansa Connect is Wi-Fi capable so it can receive software updates wirelessly, adding new features to the player at any time. Its developers say search on the device is something they’re looking at for the future.
If you’re desperate to load your player with familiar tunes, you can always plug it into your computer and sync it with music in your Yahoo Music Jukebox–its version of iTunes. You can download songs with your subscription, or just buy them–each costs 79 cents with a subscription or 99 cents without. Any regular MP3s that you have stored on your computer will transfer over to the player, as expected, which I did easily.
You can also create play-lists in your Yahoo Music Jukebox on a PC and these will be wirelessly sent to your player, ready for downloading whenever you choose. I did this with a few different play-lists to get some specific songs that I wanted.
The final component of the Sansa Connect works through Yahoo Messenger. Using the player itself, you can log onto Messenger to send or receive song recommendations to or from friends who are logged onto Messenger at a PC or on another Sansa Connect player–but they must have a subscription to listen to your recommendations, and vice versa.
Wi-Fi is a real battery sapper, and the company estimates that continuous Wi-Fi usages will cut the Sansa’s estimated 12-hour battery life by half. But you’ll rarely have Wi-Fi on continuously, and the player smartly shuts Wi-Fi off the instant you’re not using it to conserve battery power.
Even though the Sansa Connect requires a Wi-Fi connection for most of its magic, this player is refreshingly fun to use when it works. I’m never completely surprised by the next tune that plays on my iPod and must rely on the radio or friends’ suggestions to hear new music. The Sansa Connect solves that problem by giving your portable player new life.
Edited by Walter S. Mossberg
- Email: MossbergSolution@wsj.com.