Three weeks into testing SanDisk's Sansa Fuze, it's performed very well. I've had good experiences with SanDisk's line of personal mp3 devices in the past, only recently putting to rest a two-year-old Sansa e200 (the headphone jack went kaput from heavy daily use that included running, commuting, and business travel).
Since then, I've tried several replacements -- a Creative MuVo TXFM, a Creative Zen V Plus, an iPod Nano, a smartphone, and a knock-off, drug-store-bought product that won't be mentioned by name. Each (except the latter) was a decent product in its own right, but none recaptured the e200's satisfaction levels (and please remind me never to run a 5k with a smartphone again).
So the key question in reviewing the Fuze is to find out if it would be familiar enough to measure up . . . and expanded enough to impress.
First Things First
As with anything, the first thing you take note of is price--something the Fuze gets big points on. It runs about $130 for the top-of-the-pile, eight-gig silver model, $100 for the four gig version, and about $80 for the two-gig version. Being a SanDisk product, it has a microSD expansion slot, so you can add plenty of extra memory for not too much dough.
The form factor is also nice--it's smaller than a credit card and no thicker than a magazine. Even slight as it is, the Sansa Fuze still feels very sturdy in your hand.
There is one obvious design flaw, though. The headphone jack is far too close to where the synch cable clicks into your Fuze -- unless you have tiny fingers, you must first remove the headphones from the jack to remove the synch cable. That means extra wear and tear on the headphone jack every time you synch. Being that one can reasonably expect to use such a product for several years, minimizing that abrasion would have been a good foresight. (Thinking back to the dead headphone jack that killed my e200).
The control dial's coating is nice and rubbery and delivers satisfying tactile feedback whether using it as a wheel (to scroll through songs or change the volume), or clicking it (to select tracks and more). In fact, "responsiveness" can describe a lot of the Fuze's features -- the start-up routine, once turned on, takes only about five seconds, a vast improvement from the mp3 players of only a couple years ago. Shut-off is even faster.
The battery life is excellent -- the company claims that a full charge should give you 24 hours of audio or about five hours of video. Without putting that specific claim to the test, I did verify this much: with heavy use of the device, both video and audio, and only semi-regular recharging, I never saw the battery meter go below half. Just one less thing to worry about.
The audio quality is nice--absent are the sorts of beeping and buzzing from past models. True audiophiles may demand better audio performance, but for a casual music/podcast listener, it was fine. Equalizer controls can help to optimize or customize your experience as well. Standard shuffle/repeat options for your music are available. You can create a playlist on the device, but, unfortunately, not import one from your computer. And you can't have more than one.
The fast-forwarding and rewinding work well -- starting relatively slow, then increasing speed until the minutes fly by. Great for an audiobook, recorded interview, or long podcast when you're trying to find a specific passage. It's not very exact once you get to hyperspeed, but at least you get where you're going quickly.
Speaking of podcasts (usually free mp3 downloads, like on-demand radio shows): one great convenience is the automatic bookmarking feature. Not only will the Fuze remember where you left off on a recently listened to podcast/audiobook, it will also remember the past few. For instance, if you cut out of the latest Standard & Poor's podcast to listen to The California Report, when you return to the S&P show, it picks up right where you left off.
Older Sansa models had a "push to record" feature, which is a nice concept but proved to be more of an annoyance, at least to me. Thankfully, the Fuze did away with this feature. The extra three seconds it takes to find the recording function is worth it to get rid of the hassle caused by semi-frequent, accidental changes to recording mode. The mic quality is only okay -- probably wouldn't do for a professional podcast -- but is an added bonus for those of us that need to remember lectures or happen to be in the journalism trade.
Native mp4 or avi support would be lovely, but once you go through the semi-grueling process of converting your video files into something your Fuze can use, the video is pretty sweet. The conversion process does tend to increase the file size significantly, though. Accordingly, the two-gig unit might strain fit much more than a couple 30-minute shows. The eight-gig unit is more than enough for a few full-length movies along with hours and hours of music.
Some Accessory Issues
More complaints about the synch cable -- it's a proprietary design. It's not an industry-standard connection like mini USB, which some other manufacturers use. That means going through some hoops to get it replaced should you lose the mere one cable that comes with the unit. The single cable also presents a bit of a hassle if you frequently use multiple computers (like home/office); it would be nice to have a cable at each machine.
Another minor issue: being a new product, there's not much in the way of protective accessories yet (yeah, my test unit already has a scratch, darn it).
SanDisk's Sansa Fuze measured up nicely to my expectations--with all its features and performance, it can compete with any other flash-based player. And with the low price point, you don't need to treat it like a fragile museum exhibit. The Fuze is hardy enough for real life, but won't break the bank if you must replace it for some reason. In fact, with its ease of use, small size, and attentive controls, it's very easy to integrate into your routine--it doesn't require a lot of attention. It's just there, ready to work, when you need it.
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