After two years on the market, SanDisk is refreshing its design for the Sansa Fuze--the crown jewel of low-cost portable media players. Priced at $79 (4GB), $89 (8GB), and $119 (16GB), the Sansa Fuze+ is available immediately from SanDisk's Web site, and is rolling out to major retailers in the coming weeks.
For all the the "+" in the name might imply, the Fuze doesn't provide frills, such as a video camera, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi. This is a died-in-the-wool portable media player that delivers a thorough set of features at an outstanding price. You get a 2.4-inch 320x240 QVGA screen, microSDHC memory expansion, excellent format support (including AAC audio and h.264 video), and up to 24 hours of audio playback from a single charge.
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 "twist" philosophy of using horizontal swipes to switch between functions and vertical swipes to flip through content within each silo. It works well, and the touch strip control is reasonably responsive.
As far as size goes, the Fuze+ measures 2 inches wide, 3.75 inches tall, and around a third of an inch thick--so it's not going win any awards on svelte design. The Fuze+ comes in five colors (white, purple, red, blue, and black), although the 16GB model only ships in black. A chrome plastic volume rocker switch sits along the left edge, along with a memory card slot that supports microSDHC cards (as well as preloaded SanDisk SlotRadio cards). There's a power button on the top, a headphone jack on the bottom, and a universal Micro-USB port on the right, which is a welcome change from the original design's proprietary dock connector.
In our limited testing so far, nothing really stands out in terms audio, video, or system performance--though, there's nothing to complain about either. SanDisk's strategy of making reliable, broadly compatible, inexpensive media players has earned them a strong second place behind Apple in this product category, and we imagine the Fuze+ will only strengthen that position.
So far, it's the little updates and nuances that have us excited about the Fuze+. Being able to drag and drop unprotected AAC music files and standard definition h.264 videos right out of iTunes is a big win. Also, as occasional Mac users, being able to switch the Fuze from a PC-only MTP connection mode into a generic mass storage USB mode, is nice. SanDisk also employs a custom background image on the main menu, stitched together from your music library's album art. Again, it's a small touch, but it's the little things like these that typically get thrown out the window when you're dealing with a sub-$100 portable media player.
We'll have a full review up soon, once this week's impending iPod storm blows over. Until then, check out CNET's.