SanDisk's impressive Sansa e200 series
Editors' note: 10/10/06 CNET has adjusted the score of the Sansa e200 series from 8.3 to 8.0 in light of the arrival of the Sansa e200R Rhapsody, which scores slightly higher (8.3) than the e200.
Editors' note: This review has been updated to reflect the addition of the 8GB version of the e200, the lower prices of each model, and the latest firmware update.
Memory goliath SanDisk continues its assault on the flash-based MP3 player market with the CES 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 6GB ($220), 4GB ($180) and 2GB ($140) varieties, as well as the new 8GB version ($250), the last of which is known currently as the highest-capacity flash-based player in the world. Prices have shifted downward, as well, with all previous models reduced $40 to $50. While the e200 still doesn't match the 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. Currently, the 4GB iPod Nano costs as much as the 8GB Sansa e280. The e200 does have a few negative points, but its primary hurdle will be convincing consumers that the 8GB version, just $50 less than bulkier 30GB players like the iPod and Zen Vision:M, is still a good value. The sturdy and sharp-looking SanDisk Sansa e200 measures 3.5 by 1.7 by 0.5 inches, weighs 2.6 ounces, and has a maximum capacity of 8GB (about 2,000 songs), currently the highest capacity for a flash player. Stick a 2GB Micro SD card (about $100) in the expansion slot and you have a maximum of 10GB. All four 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 backside that will not scratch; likewise, the black plastic on the front does not 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 1.8-inch screen is oriented in portrait mode, and gives the user lots of real estate for navigation. It is much bigger than the Nano's 1.5-inch screen. Videos are viewed holding the e200 in landscape orientation. Although the screen is bright and colorful, it has a maximum resolution of only 220x176 and 65,000 colors, though SanDisk says it's possible that a future version could go up to 260,000 colors. Thus, photos, videos, and album art won't dazzle. However, the color 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, only 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 a bit of 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 backward--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 volume control, and while we prefer dedicated buttons, there's an easy way to return to the playback screen when in need (more on this later). The dial also glows a wicked blue when activated. You select using the big button in the center 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 EQ settings or add songs to a playlist. If there is one complaint about the layout, it's that the four surrounding buttons can feel a bit cramped, and occasionally, you won't know if you actually pressed a button. The center select button can feel jiggly too.
The only other button on the face of the SanDisk 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 backward clumsily, as one often does with an iPod. Moreover, there's no need to hold down a multifunction button a few seconds to get to the menu, a common negative found on many full-featured flash players. This button is easily accessible if you're using it with you right hand given its lower left corner location. Left handed use tends to get uncomfortable.
A record button resides on the left spine of the SanDisk 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 SanDisk Sansa e200's right spine features a first: a tiny Micro SD slot, which can accept today's 2GB Micro SD cards (as low as $100). The bottom of the unit features a proprietary dock connector, where you fit the USB cable and other accessories and other accessories that SanDisk sells on its Web site. Thanks to SanDisk's market push (as of June 2006, the company is second in the flash market, with 15 percent, 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 SanDisk 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 voiding the warranty. This characteristic gives the e200 a cell-phone-like feel. SanDisk offers replacement batteries for $20--having this option available is a huge benefit.