My disdain for the latest iPod shuffle is no secret. The Shuffle is a perfect example of Apple’s obsession with form over function: a conscious decision to sacrifice useful and what some might classify as essential features in the name of producing the world’s smallest portable audio player. Of course, mini MP3 players passed the point of diminishing returns on the miniaturization front a long, long time ago. In exchange for an arbitrarily tiny body, the shuffle makes you give up a screen, which is sort of a useful feature if you want to navigate a music library, manage playlists, or even find out what song’s playing without having to resort to a Dr. Sbaitso-style VoiceOver dictation through your headphones. Oh, and those headphones just happen to have a propensity to crank up the volume when exposed to sweat. One more strike against an MP3 player whose one saving grace could have been its workout worthiness.
The iPod shuffle’s biggest problem isn’t the device itself, though; it’s the competition, namely SanDisk’s excellent Sansa Clip. I’ve been using a Clip regularly for the better part of two years now, and it’s simply fantastic. The Clip is more than small enough to be a workout companion, and it costs a fraction of the price you’ll pay for a Shuffle. Yet the Clip offers great battery life, a useful display, and the ability to withstand long, sweaty runs in the heat of summer and the cold, miserable monsoons that make up Vancouver’s winters.
Really, I couldn’t be happier with the Sansa Clip as my secondary, flash-based MP3 player. Or could I?
Not too long ago, SanDisk updated the Clip with a new model, appropriately dubbed the Clip+. This latest revision borrows heavily from the original, down to its inexpensive asking price. A 2GB Clip+ costs less than $40 online, while 4GB versions sell for around $45, and 8GB models run only $60
Basically, you’re looking at twice the capacity of an iPod shuffle for less money. The Clip+ is larger than the tiniest iPod, of course, but at 2.16″ x 1.36″ x 0.6″, it’s still incredibly small. The Clip+ tips the scales at less than an ounce, which essentially feels weightless when placed in a pocket.
This latest Clip’s casing is a mix of matte and glossy plastics. SanDisk just couldn’t resist a glossy faceplate, which unfortunately picks up fingerprints and smudges with ease. I suppose the matte finish doesn’t look as enticing on store shelves or in product photography, but it really is a more durable surface for a device that’s handled constantly.
Speaking of durability, the Clip+ seems to be every bit as sturdy as the original that’s lasted me roughly two years now. However, unlike the first Clip, this new model isn’t available in obnoxiously hot pink. You’ll have to make do with black, blue, and red variants of the 4GB model, and black only for the 2GB and 8GB flavors.
Not that you’ll be looking at the casing’s finish, though. Your gaze will most likely be focused on the Clip’s defining feature: a brilliant two-color OLED display. The 1″ screen may be tiny, but it can clearly display up to four lines of text, even with the brightness turned all the way down. SanDisk equips the Clip+ with the same simple but intuitive interface that graced the original. Although not much to look at, the UI gets the job done. Menu responses are snappy and responsive, allowing quick navigation using the directional pad and other buttons.
The Clip+’s face also features basic menu navigation and playback controls, just like its predecessor. This time around, the device can be locked by holding down the home button rather than manipulating a slider on its left edge. SanDisk has also done away with the slider-based power switch, which has been replaced by a single button.
I’ve heard a few folks talk about how easy the shuffle’s headphone-based playback controls are to access, but that argument’s always fallen a little flat with me. Perhaps that’s because when running or at the gym, I actually find my hands closer to where I have the Clip, er, clippedI generally route headphone cabling under my shirt or down my back to keep the dangling wires from getting in the way. Even when running at a full speed, I can easily reach down and adjust the Clip’s volume or skip tracks in seconds, all without looking.
A variety of music input options
The Clip+ features a standard USB 2.0 port for data transfers and charging, and there’s a short cable in the box along with the player. Software isn’t included, I suspect because it’s not needed. The Clip+ plays nicely with Windows Media Player, Winamp, and scores of other music management software. Or, you can eschew auxiliary applications altogether and treat the Clip as a USB storage device, dragging and dropping audio files from Windows. And the Clip+ can play just about any audio format you throw at it: MP3, WMA, Ogg, and even FLAC. DRM-encrusted iTunes downloads need not apply, though. I guess the shuffle does one thing better than the Clip.
If you’re familiar with the first Clip, you’ll know that SanDisk really hasn’t added much thus far. That changes when we turn our attention to the device’s right edge, which features a microSDHC slot that can be used to expand the player’s storage capacity via pinky-thumbnail-sized memory cards. You can slide in a slotMusic or slotRadio card, as well. The former is essentially an album on a memory card, which seems appropriate for the handful of people who somehow own an MP3 player but don’t have a PC to load it up or an Internet connection through which to obtain audio files.
SlotRadio is a little different. These are memory cards that offer a “radio experience,” minus the annoying commercials and commentary. Cards are grouped by genrerock, country, classical, and the likeand you can pick one up for about $40. In return, you get 1,000 tracks arranged into playlists purportedly crafted by actual DJs.
I know what you’re thinking: $40 for 1,000 songs works out to only four cents a track, which is practically AllofMP3 cheap. But you’re not getting 1,000 MP3s or even DRM-protected audio files. You’re getting a collection of playlists whose contents aren’t even completely detailed. The Rock card, for example, boasts songs by 24 individually named artists and “many more.” Just how many more is hard to say, and you don’t even get track information for the few artists whose names are listed.
At least you can see the track name and artist when it’s playing on the Clip+. However, you can’t select songs individually, just the predefined playlists. Skipping ahead on a playlist is allowed, but you can’t go back, which seems especially spiteful. Really, then, slotRadio costs a heck of a lot more than four cents a song, for you must also give up quite a lot of freedom.
I’m fine with slotRadio being a bit of a mess, because you can still load up a standard microSDHC card with your own music and plug it into the Clip+. The tracks on the memory card will be integrated into the player’s music library, giving you unfettered access to them. Refreshing the library does take a minute or two, though.
Besides, if you really want a radio experience, the Clip+ has an actual digital FM tuner built in. There’s a microphone, too, should you wish to take advantage of the device’s voice-recording capabilities to preserve any epiphanies you might have on the go. And then you have the actual clip, which keeps the player nicely anchored without the need for a case.
One might not expect great sound quality from a cheap, mini MP3 player. The first Clip was renowned for its clear playback, though, and the new model is no different. In fact, the included headphones are even better than those included with the original. They’re still just cheap throw-ins, but they’re more comfortable than the stock iPod earbuds. They sound better, too. As far as I can tell, the new buds are also unaffected by sweat and rain. Imagine that.
I’ve been using the Clip+ regularly for the better part of two months now. In addition to taking it running and mountain biking, I’ve also had the Clip serve as my primary MP3 player for everyday use and travel, replacing the larger hard-drive-based player that I usually lug around. The verdict? This really is a Clip+: all the goodness of the original plus a little extra.
Looking at current prices, you don’t even have to pay a premium for the microSDHC slot. However, having a card installed will reduce the Clip+’s battery life from around 15 hours to less than 10, in my experience. However, with the largest-capacity Clip+ offering 8GB of internal storage, most folks probably won’t need a memory card. Even without one, the Clip+ is still the best mini MP3 player I’ve ever used.