A quick look at SanDisk's Sansa Clip MP3 player


— 10:06 PM on January 22, 2008

Always obsessed with finding the right tool for the job, I've long run not one, but two MP3 players. The first—currently an 80GB iPod—is responsible for storing my vast MP3 archive of almost 450 albums ripped with the most anal quality settings possible. Being able to carry around this extensive library of tunes is fantastically convenient, making the iPod perfect for toting around town and even better for traveling. I'll even take the iPod skiing, which isn't terribly jarring, and it does just fine at the gym as long as I'm lifting weights and not otherwise bouncing the fragile hard drive around. But if I'm running or navigating one of my bikes down technical singletrack littered with roots, rocks, and other bits of bone-jarring nature, I tend to shy away from anything with a spinning hard drive.

This is where my secondary MP3 player comes in. Here, I'm looking for something small, lightweight, relatively inexpensive, and with flash storage that won't mind being rattled around. Capacity doesn't matter much, since if I'm riding my bike or out running, I only need the loud, energetic, thrashy subset of my MP3 archive that makes me go faster.

For the last while, a Creative Zen Nano has filled in as my flash-based MP3 player, and it's largely been good. However, a couple of years of mud, dust, rain, and sweat finally took its toll on the Nano, leaving me searching for a new flash-based player to abuse during my workouts. Since I've been reasonably happy with my iPod, I thought it would be only fair to consider the latest shuffle. That is until I saw the price. $79 for a 1GB player that doesn't have a screen? Surely you jest.

It didn't take me long to find something better in the form of SanDisk's Sansa Clip. Like the shuffle, it's tiny and has an integrated clip. More importantly, it costs $20 less, yet packs twice the capacity and a gorgeous OLED display. And I'm just getting started.


Shuffle who?
The iPod shuffle's claim to fame is its diminutive size, and the Clip doesn't really challenge it there. Sure, the Clip is small, measuring just 55 x 34 x 17 mm. But that's still close to three times the volume of the diminutive shuffle, which measures a scant 41 x 27 x 10 mm.


The Clip is about the same size as a Phenom CPU
In the real world, the difference in size is at best academic. Both are extremely small, and while the Clip is technically the larger of the two, diminishing returns kick in long before the Clip's proportions put it at any real disadvantage. In fact, for my large, Neanderthal hands, the Clip actually feels a little too small, as if I'm cupping it rather than actually holding it.

As one might expect, the Clip doesn't weigh much, either—just 26 grams. That's 10 grams more than the shuffle, to be fair, but both are so featherweight that the difference between them is largely moot.


One of the things the Clip gains thanks to its additional volume and weight is a fancy OLED display. The screen only displays two colors—light blue and yellow—but that's all you need to navigate the player's excellent user interface. Sharp contrast makes the screen easy to read in nearly all light conditions, and the display is so brilliant that I don't need the brightness cranked above around 20% most of the time.

The presence of a screen might not seem like a big deal, but when you've got a player with 2GB of capacity, it's nice to be able to easily select individual tracks or albums for playback. Building playlists on the go is easy, too. The piece de resistance, however, is the ability to switch the display to a full-screen spectrum analyzer, giving the Clip a measure of basic visualization effects.

Navigating the Clip's interface is a simple affair thanks to a collection of buttons on the face of the unit. You get a virtual directional pad with a select button in the middle and a home button that rolls back to the main menu.


Around the left-hand side we find a slider that controls the Clip's power and hold state. Sliding the switch up turns the unit on or off, while sliding it down locks the Clip into hold mode. This is the only area where the Clip's build quality is suspect. The slider fits a little loose, and even though it has less than a millimeter of actual play, that's enough to generate a faint plastic-on-plastic rattling if you shake the player. It's hardly a dealbreaker, but something that was noticeable given the device's otherwise solid construction.

From here we can also see a standard mini-USB plug used to connect the Clip to a host PC. SanDisk ships the player with a short USB cable for connectivity, but additional software isn't required to transfer songs. Tracks can easily be moved over to the Clip in Windows Explorer, and Windows Media Player and Winamp are also supported.


Moving to the right, we find the Clip's volume buttons and its headphone output jack. The device comes with a set of cheap headphones, and like those bundled with most MP3 players, they're not particularly good. To SanDisk's credit, though, the Clip's headphones are more comfortable than the awful plastic earbuds Apple bundles with its iPods.

On the playback front, the Clip can deal with MP3, WAV, and WMA audio—sorry, no Ogg or FLAC. Voice recording is also supported, as is recording from the device's FM radio. The radio's a nice little perk to have, although reception quality tends to be either excellent or awful, depending on where you are.

Fortunately, music playback quality is excellent. Even when plugged into a decent set of stereo speakers, the Clip doesn't exhibit any obvious playback flaws. If it's pristine playback you're after, the Clip's only real limitation is its lack of support for lossless formats other than WAV.


Although it's hardly the device's defining feature, the Clip predictably features, well, a clip. Located on the back, the clip makes it easy to secure the player to straps or clothing, so you don't need to bother spending extra on a case.

SanDisk claims the Clip offers 15 hours of battery life, and after several weeks of use, I'd say that estimate is pretty accurate. Charging only takes a few hours, as well.

By now you've no doubt noticed that my Clip is a rather obnoxious shade of pink. I'm not sure why, but I'm a sucker for pink gadgets—but only hot magenta pink, not Hello Kitty pastels. If your tastes are a little more, well, normal, the Clip can also be had in black, red, and blue. A new 4GB model also just became available in silver.

Conclusions
With a street price of just $60 for the 2GB model, the Sansa Clip is one of most affordable MP3 players on the market. It's also one of the best. SanDisk has struck an almost perfect balance, managing to keep costs down while packing plenty of capacity, a useful screen and easy-to-navigate interface, plenty of battery life, and great sound quality into such a tiny form factor. That you don't have to jump through unnecessary software hoops to get music onto the Clip is just icing on the cake.

What the Sansa Clip is, then, is an honest-to-goodness iPod killer. Sure it only trumps the shuffle—by far the most anemic and overpriced member of the iPod lineup—but it's an iPod killer nonetheless, and a ruthlessly efficient one at that.

   
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