The new line of Sansa Rhapsody portable media players represents the strongest challenge yet to Apple’s market supremacy. One of the iPod’s key strengths is its’ integration with the iTunes Music Store. The Sansa devices, ranging from the 2 GB E250R to the 8GB 280R, are built to work seamlessly with Real’s Rhapsody music subscription service.
The Sansa Rhapsody is slightly shorter and somewhat thicker than a comparable iPod Nano, but it’s packed with more features. A built-in voice recorder and video playback capability, for starters. It’s light but substantial, with a scratch-resistant steel back and smooth matte black front. The interface mimics the iPod’s click wheel, though the arrow buttons are separated from the raised ring used to navigate through selection lists. Best of all is the small menu button at the bottom left of the keypad, used to quickly return to the top level; it’s also an on/off switch.
The screen is bright, and the main interface looks like the Mac’ OS X “dock,” with icons inflating like balloons as they move into the select position. It’s neatly organized; most users will be navigating it easily within minutes. The only complaint is that backing up from choices isn’t quite as easy as moving forward.
The player’s main innovation is integration with Rhapsody Channels, genre and artist-themed playlists designed to encourage musical discovery. The player comes standard with a few already built in, and its’ easy to add favorites. Each channel contains up to 200 songs, which are discarded after they’re played. Synchronization with Rhapsody adds new tracks. If you want to save a song for later use, it’s a click away. Tunes can be added as subscription tracks that expire when the monthly credit card charge stops, or purchased outright.
Once a song is added, it’s immediately available on the device. Upon computer synchronization, it’s placed in the music library. So far, the Sansa Rhapsody is the only player to offer this kind of on-the-go functionality, though some integrated portable satellite radios let users click on songs and sync to a PC.
Channels can explore a certain theme, like alt-Country, Classic Rock or Acid Jazz, or present like-minded music for fans of particular groups. The Rolling Stones Channel, for example, included selections from Bo Diddley, Humble and Eric Clapton, along with a healthy dose of Stones. If a certain song offends your sensibilities, you can skip it or use the player’s rating system to ban it from ever being played again.
DNA is the new DRM
Another interesting element introduced with the Sansa Rhapsody is Real’s new Digital Rights Management (DRM), known as Rhapsody DNA. Unlike Apple’s DRM, which only works on iPods, songs with DNA DRM will work on other players.
Playing encoded songs on DNA-enabled devices like the Sansa Rhapsody enhances the user experience with additional metadata such as album artwork and artist notes. This information adds particular value to the Channels feature. When the Small Faces’ “Itchykoo Park” came on, a quick click revealed a mini-band biography and the song’s release year.
Digital music often provides a bloodless listening experience, all bits and no bite. Real DNA’s metadata doesn’t supplant liner notes and CD booklets, but it illuminates the experience better than anything offered by any content provider to date.
With the ever-present tether to the Internet, one can only expect metadata quality to improve. Sansa routinely updates the player’s firmware, adding new functionality to the device.
Priced to Move
Prices for the players range from $139 for the 2 GB (500 song) E250R, which costs 10 dollars less than a comparable iPod. The E280 is priced the same as an 8 GB Nano. Feature for feature, however, the Sansa leaves the Apple player in the dust – though the inclusion of an FM radio makes no sense at all.
Currently, the Sansa players are only available through Best Buy. The big box retailer is bundling a store-branded version of the Rhapsody music service with a two-month trial to entice customers. The player’s free content, which fills up half the device, syncs fine with other versions of Rhapsody.
There have been many pretenders to Apple’s throne since the iPod was introduced six years ago. Microsoft’s wireless-enabled Zune player, along with a dedicated music service, is due next month. The Zune Marketplace may be the player’s undoing, though, as content bought there won’t work anywhere else. Apple, for its part, also insists on keeping iTunes songs exclusively tied to the iPod.
By opening their new players enough to work with other services, and allowing Rhapsody content to work with other devices, the Sansa Rhapsody performs a neat balancing trick. Loyalty is rewarded with an improved user experience – but it’s an added benefit, not a requirement.