Sansa Connect by SanDisk

sansayahoo.pngThe Sansa Connect is the newest MP3 player to appear on the SanDisk roster of DAPs. The device stirred quite a bit of clamor at this year’s CES due to its innovative use of WiFi and affordable pricing.It’s been three full months since the device was first announced, but I now have one in my possession and have had an opportunity to test it out amply. So was it worth the wait?

In short, yes. Every few years the tech industry encounters a device that causes something of a paradigm shift. The Sansa Connect is that shift for digital audio players. Featuring 4GB of NAND memory, the connect is housed in a svelte little case that is comparable to an iPod Nano in size. It is, however, incomparable in practically every other way.

Where the Nano maintains the same musty old features iPods have had for years, the Connect brings to the table a battery of new and unique ideas, the most notable of which involves its use of WiFi. Unlike the Microsoft Zune, the Connect utilizes its WiFi in a way that will actually present itself as useful to anyone. The device works in conjunction with Yahoo! Music to stream audio and download tracks without the benefit of wires. Yahoo! Music Unlimited functioning similarly to the Zune Marketplace. While it doesn’t require the confusing credit system of Zune, songs can be purchased for $.99, users are clearly expected to go the way of the subscription service. A subscription can be had for just $8.99 per month or a flat annual fee of $71.88.

When logged into the Yahoo! Music service through the Sansa Connect, users can stream a wide selection of Y! Internet radio stations in addition to downloading tracks through WiFi. The one issue with this is that tracks are offered only through recommendations and popular music. This encourages you to rate your favorite tracks appropriately so the device can best offer downloadable songs, but I can see it as being a bummer if you have a song in your head and can’t get to it. If you like a track that you’ve downloaded, you can click download it in its entirety using the Zing menu — I really can’t emphasize enough how enamored I am with this feature. Furthermore, I’m impressed with Yahoo! for taking the initiative to be affiliated with the device. Its involvement here is a notable distinction from its competitors — one that I believe will payoff in quick succession. TechCrunch recently reported more specifically on Yahoo!’s involvement with the device and Michael Arrington interviewed on of the execs responsible for it.

In addition to downloading music, the Connect can sync with your Flickr account to display your photo collection on the go. This actually turns out to be a relatively cool feature as its 2.2-inch screen is a rather excellent display. Another feature that sets it apart from the pack its built-speaker. Sure it’s not the most high quality speaker you can find, but it sounds acceptable considering it’s stuck inside such a small device.

It’s not perfect. The interface definitely takes a little getting used to — though I kind of dig it now. It also feels a little flimsy. The plastic creaks sometimes if you grip it firmly and I have a feeling that it wouldn’t survive too many falls. But then again, you probably shouldn’t be dropping it.

What works though, works well and those elements completely change the DAP landscape. Carrying an MP3 player is no longer about passively listening, SanDisk has turned that process into an active, participatory transaction. If you’re on the road for awhile and away from your system you’re not limited to a finite amount of music. You can now continue to expand your musical horizons even when away from a machine. I believe this was Microsoft’s ambition with the “squirt” feature on the Zune even though it failed miserably.

When Microsoft released the Zune, I contemplated how long it would be before users could access through WiFi a subscription service that allowed them to download music from anywhere they could connect. Now approximately six months later, that day is here and it’s a great thing. I’m not going to say that this is an iPod-killer or anything, but it’s certainly a Nano contender. At $249, it’s a bit more expensive than the $199 4GB Nano, but I think the added features should be enough to sway plenty of buyers to its corner.