e280 come with 8GB of internal storage and holds another 2GB with an expansion card.
By Columnist
updated 10/16/2006 9:56:40 PM ET 2006-10-17T01:56:40

The world of portable music doesn’t begin and end with iPods. There are other choices.

Take SanDisk’s sansa MP3 players. They don’t have to sync with iTunes and aren’t limited to playing Apple-centric files.  Instead, sansas play music and video files, store photos (so far, just like an iPod) and also handle voice recordings. Plus, the sansa lets you listen to, and record, FM radio broadcasts.

Don’t get me wrong.  iPods are popular for thousands of good reasons.  But this is to remind you that there are other good options out there — and the sansa is one of them.

The e200 line of portable music players are small (3.5 by 1.74 by 0.49 inches and sturdy (nice metal case on the back). They come in a number of different memory configurations: 2GB (e250, $140), 4GB (e260, $180), 6GB (e270, $220) and the unit under examination here, 8GB (e280, $250). 

It should also be noted that the sansas also accept microSD expansion cards — currently peaking at 2GB.  That means my test unit contained 10GB of storage space. Using SanDisk’s computations, 8GB is good for 2,000 songs (4 minutes each, ripped at MP3 128Kpbs).  My 10GB sansa, therefore, could theoretically hold 2,500 songs.

The sansas have nice looking 1.8-inch (diagonal) TFT color screens, metal alloy rear casing and user replaceable, rechargeable Lithium Ion batteries (boasting as much as 20 hours between charges). 

Speaking of charging, the sansa utilizes a high-speed USB 2.0 cable to handle both battery refreshing and data transfers. There’s also a rudimentary set of earphones, a faux leather case and a nice lanyard inside the box.

Sansa requires a computer which runs Windows XP and Windows Media Player 10.  That means it doesn't run/sync on a Mac unless the Mac has an Intel processor and also runs Windows.

I'm not a big fan of downloading and paying for compressed music files, but my editor reminds me that a gazillion people spend gazillions of dollars each year doing just that.  The sansa proudly supports download sites which support Microsoft PlayForSure technology (unlimited music for a flat monthly fee) including the Rhapsody To Go service among others.  That means sansa will not work with iTunes. 

Back to the device itself.  For any portable music player there are two categories for testing: how it works and how it sounds.

How it works
Synching was a snap.  I have lots of test WMA and MP3 music files (and AACs for iPods) on my laptop's hard drive so reaching sansa’s memory/storage limit was easy. For the record, 10GB can hold a lot of music depending at what rate you use to rip your tunes. More about that in a minute.

Navigating sansa's menu system was, for me, the weakest point. It took me too much time to become proficient at changing music selections on the run. There always seemed to be an extra menu I had to deal with to change the song selection. After awhile, I did get used to it — but I always found myself looking at the screen to make sure of what I was doing.

And the actual navigation buttons deserve a mention too. They’re a little too small for my big fingers. Once I got used to using my fingernail to press the forward, reverse and menu buttons I found the sansa easy to handle.

How it sounds
Actually, this is where sansa excels. Before I sat down for some serious listening I tossed the SanDisk-supplied earphones. They stink — as do all free earphones included with music players, iPods included.  Do yourself a favor and buy a good-sounding pair right when you buy your player. There are hundreds of good ones out there (in all price ranges) from companies like JVC, Sony, Koss, Sennheiser and Shure.

With good-sounding earphones the sansa sounded very, very good  I tried WMA and MP3 files ripped at different resolutions (256K, 128K, etc.) and found that 128K WMAs sounded best — with 96K WMAs very, very close behind. FM sounded like FM. That means radio stations providing good signals sounded better than the overly-compressed crap one usually hears on today's broadcast band.

I was also able to play with videos (after being processed by SanDisk’s included software) and they looked fine if you don’t mind watching videos on a screen the size of a large postage stamp. Photo files are better suited to the screen. The voice recorder worked well recording voices.

In summary, the sansa e280 can hold a lot of music for a comparatively reasonable price. Its internal navigation system is not as good as some of its rivals but its sound quality is superior to many other similar devices —especially when using slower ripping speeds — means you can carry more good-sounding music.

The e280 — and its main competition, the 8GB iPod nano — both sport a suggested retail price of $249,  But I found the sansa selling for a lot less on the Internet. Best price was $206 (plus postage) on eBay. That makes the sansa something of a bargain when compared to a similar iPod.

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