iPods aren't for everybody. The ones with all the cool features will set you back at least $150, and the ones you can afford don't do much. If you want to spend less than $100 for a portable media player that can handle music, photos, videos, FM radio, podcasts, and voice memos, your best bet is the SanDisk Sansa Fuze+.
Available in five colors (red, blue, white, black, and purple), the Fuze+ is available in 4GB, 8GB, and 16GB capacities, priced to fly off the shelves at $79, $89, and $119. It should be noted, though, that the 16GB model is available only in black, and the white version (which reminds us of a "Star Wars" Stormtrooper) is available only in an 8GB capacity.
Compared with the original Sansa Fuze from 2008, the Fuze+ is a bit longer and thicker, but benefits from a larger 2.4-inch screen, simplified user interface, and a universal Micro-USB connection that replaces the proprietary dock. It measures 2 inches wide by 3.75 inches tall by around a third of an inch thick, which we'd typically call out as being chunky, if the thing weren't so unfathomably lightweight.
Around the edges of the player you'll find a convenient volume rocker switch on the left, a power button up top, a Micro-USB port on the right, and a standard 3.5mm headphone jack on the bottom. The back has a smooth, river pebble feel to it that fits naturally in your hand or pocket.
Flipping through the main menu using the capacitive touch-strip navigation pad (good-bye click wheel), you'll find options for music, video, photo, radio, podcast, voice recording, MicroSD card, and settings. The graphic interface is a far cry from the Windows 98-esque rotation of icons used on prior Sansa players, and borrows heavily from the Zune's "twist" philosophy of using horizontal swipes to switch between functions and vertical swipes to flip through content within each silo.
Overall, the new user interface works well and the logic behind the navigation makes more sense than ever before. That said, side-by-side with the original Fuze, it takes longer to work your way through menus with the new "film strip" touch navigation than it did with the previous scroll-wheel design, and pausing playback can no longer be accomplished by feel alone. Also, the main menu doesn't loop back on itself anymore when you reach the last item, forcing you to swipe your way back through seven menu icons to reach the music player again. It's a process that wouldn't be quite as tedious if the touch control were more responsive, but as it stands, your fingers can easily outpace the reaction speed of the controls. It's certainly not a deal breaker, but it is one advantage that higher-priced devices, such as the iPod Nano and flash-based Zunes, have over the Sansa Fuze+.
All of the features SanDisk got right with the first generation of the Fuze are still here--only they're better. The audio player is one of the most flexible money can buy, with support for MP3, WMA, Ogg, FLAC, WAV, Audible, protected WMA (Rhapsody, Napster), SlotRadio content, and finally, AAC. One of our nagging complaints about the original Fuze was the lack of AAC compatibility, which is the format of choice for the nation's largest online music retailer (iTunes). Now that the company has remedied the gap in support, there's nothing stopping users from dragging their unprotected music files straight out of iTunes and onto the Fuze+--which is a big deal for any iPod expats.
The Fuze is now broadly compatible between Mac and PC, thanks to a flexible USB connection mode that can automatically switch between MTP and a generic MSC connection standard. It's a small thing, but it's still one less hurdle for anyone looking for an inexpensive iPod alternative.