Taking aim at the iPod

With twice the capacity and more versatility, SanDisk's Sansa could be the Nano for the rest of us, says Fortune's Peter Lewis.

By Peter Lewis, Fortune senior editor

(FORTUNE Magazine) -- Shooting at apples has been a popular pastime ever since the days of William Tell, the 14th-century Swiss crossbow legend who famously shot one off the head of his son. In more modern times, many companies have taken aim at Apple's popular iPod digital music player, only to shoot themselves in the foot. With its new Sansa e280 player, however, the memory chip maker SanDisk appears to have hit the mark.

The Sansa e280 directly challenges the Apple (Charts) iPod Nano, one of the most popular members of the iPod family. Like the Nano, the Sansa e280 is a slender little jukebox, small enough to hide under a business card, that uses flash memory to store music, digital photos, and short video clips, which it displays on a small color screen.

SanDisk Sansa e280 flash MP3 player: $250
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For $250, or a dollar more than Apple's current top-of-the-line four-gigabyte Nano, the Sansa e280 delivers more than twice the storage capacity - eight gigabytes, or the equivalent of some 2,000 songs - plus extra features like an FM radio tuner, a voice recorder and a microSD expansion-card slot that can increase the Sansa's overall capacity to 10 gigabytes, or roughly 2,500 songs.

The Sansa's battery life is also superior to that of the Nano, 20 hours vs. 14, but even more important, the rechargeable lithium-ion battery can be replaced by the user. Replacement batteries cost $20. (Apple charges $59, and it's an ordeal.)

True, the Sansa isn't quite as skinny and light as the Nano - it weighs 2.7 ounces, compared with the Nano's 1.5, and it's nearly twice as thick - but it's still svelte enough to fit in the coin pocket of your jeans.

Despite its added heft, the Sansa feels a bit less solid. Shaking it causes the navigation wheel - which glows neon blue when the device is on - to rattle just a little. But because the Sansa is flash based, you can shake it and your booty without causing the music to skip a beat.

The Sansa does miss a beat, though, when it comes to its user interface. Navigating forward and backward through music, photos, videos, radio and settings menus is not as smooth or intuitive as it is on an iPod.

While the Nano works only with Apple's own iTunes online music store, the Sansa works with nearly every legal music download site except iTunes, including AOL Music, Yahoo, MSN Music, Napster and Rhapsody.

Apple had not announced an eight-gigabyte or higher Nano at press time, although it's hard to imagine Steve Jobs won't try to match or surpass SanDisk before the holiday season. Until then the Sansa e280 offers the same excellent sound quality as the Nano with more than twice the capacity, plus all the extra features, at the same price.

For those who place value ahead of status and don't mind using black earbuds instead of Apple's iconic white ones - or for those who feel it's time to rebel against Apple's monopoly in the digital music business - the Sansa e280 rocks.

Its integrated FM radio is more convenient (and cheaper) than the optional $49 FM remote offered by Apple; ditto the built-in voice recorder. Using an inexpensive card reader, it's easy to transfer music or photos to a microSD expansion card for playback on the Sansa. SanDisk microSD cards cost $94 for the two-gigabyte size, $48 for one gigabyte.

No wonder, then, that SanDisk has quietly sneaked into the No. 2 position in the MP3 player market, according to research firm NPD. A distant No. 2, to be sure: Apple dominates with a nearly 62 percent share of MP3 players sold in the holiday quarter last year, way ahead of SanDisk's 12.4 percent. But No. 2 certainly appears to be trying harder.  Top of page