Please note that a change has been made to this review. See page 4 for details.
Memory goliath SanDisk continues its assault on the flash-based MP3 player market with the launch of the flagship Sansa e200 series, along with the budget-class Sansa c100 series. The SanDisk Sansa e200 series represents a departure from previous Sansa players, thanks to a higher-quality form factor and a bushel of cutting-edge features such as photo and video support, music-subscription compatibility, a user-removable battery, a microSD expansion slot and a tactile Click Wheel-type controller system.
The e200 comes in 4GB (£150) and 2GB (£120) varieties, as well as the flagship 6GB version (£180), the last of which is known currently as the highest-capacity flash-based player in the world. While the e200 still doesn't match the £179 iPod nano in design flair and simplicity, it is definitely a premium choice when it comes to a compact flash-based MP3 player, with more features and a better price point than its main competitor.
The e200 does have a few negative points, but its biggest hurdle will be convincing consumers that the 6GB version, just £40 or so less than bulkier 30GB players like the iPod and Zen Vision:M, is still good value. The players will be available in late March.
The sturdy and sharp-looking SanDisk Sansa e200 measures 43 by 13 by 89mm, weighs 74g, and has a maximum capacity of 6GB (about 1,500 songs), currently the highest capacity for a flash player. All three capacities look and feel the same. Although it's almost twice as thick and heavy as a nano, the e200 is still compact and it boasts a liquid-metal back panel that won't scratch. Likewise, the black plastic on the front doesn't scratch nearly as easily as the nano's. In terms of raw size and sleekness, the nano still reigns supreme.
The SanDisk Sansa e200's 46mm (1.8-inch) screen is oriented in portrait mode, and gives the user plenty of real estate for navigation. It's much bigger than the nano's 38mm (1.5-inch) screen. Videos are viewed holding the e200 in landscape orientation. Although the screen is bright and colourful, it has a maximum resolution of only 220x176 pixels and 65k colours, though SanDisk says it's possible that a future version could go up to 260k colours. Therefore photos, videos and album art won't dazzle. However, the colour interface, coupled with the well-designed menu system, gives the player a premium feel.
Below the screen is SanDisk's version of the Click Wheel -- but this one is mechanical rather than touch-sensitive. The thin, circular dial (smaller than the nano's smooth Click Wheel), with raised bumps and grooves, gives the wheel a tactile quality that makes navigating the e200 precise if not a pleasure. Rather than a smooth motion, there is some resistance that gives the right amount of feedback. Zeroing in on items is no problem, and browsing through huge lists is a breeze, especially given that the e200's lists can be navigated backwards -- that is, unlike with the iPod, you can go from A to Z without having to zoom through the entire library. Still, the dial is no match for the smooth iPod Click Wheel, particularly because it is easier on the thumb joint. The e200 may even give your thumb a callous.
The dial also serves as a volume control, and while we prefer dedicated buttons, there's an easy way to return to the playback screen (more on this later). The dial also glows a cool blue when activated. You select using the big button in the centre of the wheel, which in turn is surrounded by traditional player-control buttons. The bottom of these buttons serves as a context menu. For instance, in playback mode, you can adjust playback and equaliser settings or add songs to a playlist. If there is one complaint about the layout, it's that the four surrounding buttons can feel cramped and occasionally you won't know if you actually pressed a button. The central select button can feel jiggly too.
The only other button on the face of the Sansa e200 is the power/menu button. Pressing the button always takes you back to the main menu; another press takes you back to whatever mode you were last in. This is handy, and it keeps you from navigating backwards clumsily, as one often does with an iPod. Moreover, there's no need to hold down a multifunction button for a few seconds to get to the menu, a common negative found on many fully featured flash players. This button is easily accessible if you're using it with your right hand, given its lower left corner location. Left-handed use tends to become uncomfortable.
A record button resides on the left edge of the Sansa e200. Pressing it instantly takes you to the voice-record function and starts the recording without further ado. This lightning-quick response transforms the device into a useful voice recorder in the real world.
The Sansa e200's right edge features a first: a tiny microSD slot, which can accept the latest 1GB microSD cards (these aren't widely available in the UK yet, but 512MB cards are around £35-£40). The bottom of the unit features a proprietary dock connector, where you fit the USB cable and other accessories that SanDisk claims will be hitting the market soon after launch. Thanks to SanDisk's market push (as of December 2005, the company is second in the flash market, with 14 per cent, according to NPD), third-party accessory makers may jump in and provide useful accessories. The top of the device includes a hold switch, a microphone hole and a headphone jack.
The back of the Sansa e200 is made of a strong, virtually unscratchable metal alloy. You'll notice four screws that can be undone so that users can actually replace the lithium-ion battery themselves -- without breaking the guarantee. This characteristic gives the e200 a mobile-phone-like feel. SanDisk has no price set for replacement batteries, but having this option available is a huge benefit.
The music library filters are pretty standard on the Sansa e200, with Play All tracks at the top, along with Artists, Album, Songs, Genres, My Top Rated, Recordings and Playlists as options. On the playback screen, there's thumbnail album art, track info and a time-elapsed meter. Pressing the select button takes you to a neat graphic-level meter, full-size album art and the next song.
The e200 package includes the player, earbuds (better than the typical e100- or m200-series headphones), a black slip-on case reminiscent of the iPod case, a USB cable and a software CD.Features
The SanDisk Sansa e200 includes many features that truly distinguish it from the nano. It plays MP3, WMA DRM 10 (subscription) and WAV files. Audible support may be coming soon, but that has yet to be confirmed. Also, the device includes a voice recorder and the ability to display photos and play back video. Missing in action is a line-in recorder, as well as USB on-the-go capability, which is best suited for digital photo enthusiasts. We can live without these two extra features.
When you're dealing with video and photos, you won't get the streamlined experience you do with the iPod and iTunes. Although Windows Media Player is the primary audio-transfer application for the Sansa e200, you'll need to use the included SanDisk Media Converter to enable photos and video to play. The utility is simple to use, and it can convert most popular video formats (DivX, MPEG-4, WMV and so on) into the 15fps MJPEG format. Video won't look stellar, but it works well enough for casual use (as well as showing off to friends). JPEG and BMP photos are also downsized. Slide shows don't include fancy fades and wipes, but you can listen to music while viewing photos.
For those interested in the growing world of online video, the process of getting video working on your device will be time-consuming. Plus there is no iTunes-like download, transfer and play option -- conversion is your only recourse. The e200 is not a portable video player and certainly isn't a video iPod. But those who are patient will benefit greatly from having this video included in such a compact MP3 player.
The SanDisk Sansa e200 is an MTP device but can be switched into UMS mode, meaning it can be used as a hard drive, which is a good thing for Mac users and those who prefer to drag and drop tracks. The only caveat here is that the expansion slot will not work when the unit is in MTP mode. Other observations: as mentioned, you can create a single on-the-go playlist with the e200. Unfortunately, voice recordings are made in WAV -- MP3 would have been a better space-saving option.Performance
A fistful of features and supercompetitive pricing are hallmarks of SanDisk products. While many may argue that SanDisk's build and sound quality have been traditionally on the value end of the spectrum, the SanDisk Sansa e200 is no slacker when it comes to performance. The physical build is obviously nicer than that of the m200 or e100 series, but beyond that, the unit's sound quality has improved as well, though picky listeners will notice some system noise.
SanDisk is one of the first manufacturers, if not the first, to use a PortalPlayer chip designed specifically for flash players. The nano and the video iPod use a PortalPlayer chip as well, but those are optimised for hard drive-based players. Audio sounds bright, and the unit gets loud, driving our Grado SR80 headphones well beyond normal listening levels. There is no custom equaliser, but there are seven presets that sound decent. The e200 may not sound as beautiful as a Cowon or a Sony player, but it comes close.
The only misgiving we had was a dim but noticeable clicking when adjusting the volume and bits of noise caused by internal electronic interference, definitely noticeable when the dial lights up blue. We hope SanDisk can address this hit to the overall sound quality. The device also works reasonably well with subscription applications such as Napster.
For quality of video and photos, we're not as impressed, though currently there aren't many flash players with big-screen multimedia capabilities, save for the iRiver U10. As mentioned, the screen is bright and video looks reasonable -- even at 15fps -- but the viewing angle from the left side is not great. In addition, most photos end up cropped (with black borders) due to the screen ratio. Still, the screen is bigger than the nano's 38mm display, plus photos and videos look decent if not supersharp. Overall, processor performance is excellent, with the e200 seldom pausing and freezing up only once in our testing.
The SanDisk Sansa e200 has an audio-battery rating of 20 hours. This is a very good number, far exceeding the 12 hours of the iPod nano.
Look out iPod nano and other high-end flash players -- SanDisk, which can be aggressive with its prices, thanks to its advantageous place in the memory business, is releasing some powerful WMA weapons. Although the new players aren't as competitive pricewise as its older players, the Sansa e200 series helps SanDisk establish a presence in the high-profile luxury class.
Editor's note: A previous version of this review incorrectly stated that the SanDisk Sansa e200 has an FM radio and recorder. The UK version of the player does not have these features.
Edited by Jasmine France
Additional editing by Nick Hide