TECH & YOU PODCAST
Trying to beat the iPod at its own game has been a thankless strategy for makers of rival music players, who have barely made a dent in Apple's overwhelming market share. SanDisk, a company better known for computer memory than music, has wisely devised something different: a wireless player that downloads music on demand.
The $250 Sansa Connect is the result of a collaboration among SanDisk (SNDK), Yahoo! (YHOO), and ZING Systems, which is responsible for the software and network infrastructure. The Connect, which is smaller than the standard hard drive iPod and bigger than the nano, has 4 gigabytes of memory, which you can double by adding a memory card. You download music to it—MP3s and copy-protected or unprotected Windows Media files—from a Windows PC. But the important advance is the device's deft use of Wi-Fi networking.
This is not a novel idea. A startup called MusicGremlin offers a similar product and service, though the player is a lot clunkier than the sleek Connect. Microsoft (MSFT) also put Wi-Fi in its Zune player, though it's so crippled as to be almost useless. What's special about the Connect is its tight integration with the Yahoo! Music Unlimited to Go subscription service, priced at $15 a month or $144 a year.
DON'T EXPECT TO USE THE WI-FI LINK to shop for online music in the ordinary way. It's hard enough to navigate through an online music store on the big display of a computer, let alone on a 2 1/4 -inch screen like this one. In fact, the Connect offers no way to search the Yahoo music store, and it's hard to find anything by browsing. What the Connect does offer is discovery. If you're in a functioning Wi-Fi hotspot, you can listen to programmed playlists. (Yahoo calls them Internet radio stations.) When you hear something you like, press the ZING button and a copy of the song, or the entire album it came from, is downloaded to your Connect so you can play it whenever you want, whether you're online or not. While you can't use the Connect to send or receive instant messages, a version of Y! Messenger lets you show your buddies what you're listening to and send them recommendations. These tunes, too, can be downloaded.
To get the best experience with Wi-Fi, you really need an all-you-can-eat subscription plan. The iPod/iTunes pay-per-song approach that forces you to sync with a PC just doesn't cut it. Apple (AAPL) never believed its customers would spring for subscriptions, which is why there's no Wi-Fi iPod. Even the upcoming iPhone, which will have Wi-Fi, won't be able to download content from the iTunes Store over the air.
The Connect links seamlessly to Yahoo! Music Jukebox, the Windows player. What you download to the handheld appears automatically in your Jukebox library, and vice versa. Unfortunately, Jukebox and its music store look like iTunes maybe four versions back, a problem Yahoo promises to fix. And while Yahoo's claim of 2 million songs sounds like a lot, it is at best two-thirds of Apple's offerings. Classical and jazz selections are particularly dismal.
The Connect works quite well with photos, relying on a social networking approach. Instead of storing pictures on the player, you hook up to Yahoo's Flickr photo-sharing service, where you can view your own albums or a selection chosen by Flickr.
The device can use Wi-Fi in your home or any hotspot that doesn't need a browser to log in. Even free Wi-Fi comes at a price, though; being connected to the radio full-time cuts the 12-hour battery life by more than half.
It remains to be seen if Wi-Fi plus subscription can give SanDisk, Yahoo, and ZING traction against the iPod juggernaut. But I find the Sansa Connect a welcome addition to the field of music players.
For past columns and online-only reviews, go to Technology & You at businessweek.com/go/techmaven/
By Stephen H. Wildstrom