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In a move that most technophiles consider too slow to the game, SanDisk has started working with all four major music labels to release a new music medium where albums are distributed on microSD cards. Called slotMusic, the new format offers artists a CD-like model for distributing songs, album art, liner notes, and videos on one tiny package. The aim behind SanDisk's idea is to ease the transition from CD to MP3 for those who have been hesitant to go digital. To that end, the company has released the $20 Sansa slotMusic Player, an extremely basic device that works much like the original Walkman or the more recent Discman. The music media is strictly removable, songs play in album order, the battery is alkaline, and no computer is required to use it--but the player is much smaller and music playback requires no moving parts.
Using the Sansa slotMusic Player could not be easier. Simply pop a slotMusic card into the microSD slot on the left edge of the unit, plug the included headphones into the standard jack on the right edge, and hit play. You can pause playback and skip through tracks using buttons on the bottom of the device, and, of course, there are volume controls (by the headphone jack), but that about sums up the player's capabilities. There's no shuffle or repeat mode, and no FM tuner or any other extra features. Fortunately, it does include an autoresume feature, which picks up where you left off in the song that was playing when you powered off. The player also supports high-capacity microSD cards--currently offered at up to 16GB--though we can't imagine listening to that much music with no screen or shuffle mode.
In fact, you don't even need a computer to use the Sansa slotMusic Player, and the package doesn't include a USB cable--there's no syncing port on the device anyway. Instead, SanDisk includes a USB adapter that can be plugged into the computer for transferring content directly to and from the card (you can add your own content to the slotMusic cards, which generally have a fair amount of leftover space). Rather than having a built-in rechargeable cell, the unit is powered by a single AAA battery (rated for 15 hours), which is concealed beneath a removable faceplate that wraps around the player. SanDisk will offer a variety of the "shells" in different colors and designs for sale as optional accessories. Although the device has a hefty and durable feel, it's relatively compact at 2.7 inches wide by 1.4 inches tall by 0.6 inch deep, making it about half the size of a cassette Walkman and significantly smaller than a Discman--plus, there's no skipping with flash memory.
No doubt, $20 is cheap, but it's important to keep in mind that the Sansa slotMusic Player on its own is little more than a paperweight awaiting a higher purpose. A microSD card--preferably of the slotMusic variety--is a necessary accompaniment, and it's important to keep in mind that this format is tiny and easy to misplace. (To SanDisk's credit, a Sansa Card Case is available as an optional accessory.) Albums in slotMusic format are roughly the same price as CDs, carrying an MSRP of $14.99, and that ain't cheap when you consider a blank 1GB card can be found for $5. Various branded bundles, including a Robin Thicke slotMusic Bundle and a "Don't Quit" Fitness Bundle, will be available for $35, so that's the price you're looking at for an uberbasic MP3 player with a 1GB capacity and an album's worth of music (plus any extras the artist chooses to add to the card). Overall, that's probably a decent value for the target audience.
The Sansa slotMusic Player uses the same audio chip as the Sansa Clip and the Sansa Fuze, so one might expect sound quality to be on par with its siblings. In the case of the slotMusic player, we did the majority of the audio testing using the preloaded slotMusic cards, for which each track is encoded at 320Kbps MP3, but WMA is also supported. Of course, the included earbuds aren't the best, though they actually sound decent--music came through reasonably clear and warm-sounding. To get a better idea of what the device is capable of, we swapped in our Shure SE310s, although pairing $250 earphones with a $20 MP3 player seems a tad ridiculous. Audio had a decidedly less muffled quality to it, and we actually heard some (but not much) bass. Mids were smooth, and high-end detail was impressive across genres. Overall, the slotMusic device is a solid-sounding MP3 player.