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Apple has enjoyed an undeniable stranglehold over the $100+ portable media player market for years now—it's pretty much been iPods and also-rans. The budget realm, however, has never been Apple's strong suit, and SanDisk and other manufacturers make players that outperform the iPod nano and iPod shuffle. The Sansa Fuze+, an update to 2008's Sansa Fuze ($130, ), comes in 4GB ($79), 8GB ($89), and 16GB ($119) flavors. One of the Fuze+'s key features: video playback. Apple eliminated video from its latest iPod nano, and it's not so much that SanDisk has made an amazing product here, it's that Apple has eliminated one. And the Fuze+, for relatively little cash, can step in and fill that void. Why buy an iPod shuffle ($49; 2GB, ) or a nano ($149; 8GB, ) when the Fuze+ can do so much more?
Measuring 3.1 by 1.9 by 0.3-inches (HWD), no one is going to mistake the shiny, black plastic Fuze+ for an iPod nano, new or old. The device feels a bit bulky, and is more the size of a cell phone than what you might expect of a portable media player with modest functionality. A 2.4-inch, 320-by-240-pixel screen occupies the upper portion of the front panel; below it you'll find the touch-sensitive control pad consisting of a backward arrow, a Play/Pause button, and a four-way, cross-shaped controller, all painted on to the surface in silver to guide your fingers to the right spot. The Power button resides on the upper panel, Volume controls and a microSDHC slot on the left, a mini USB jack on the right, and the 3.5mm headphone jack is on the bottom panel. Some slightly-better-than-average earbuds—they offer some low-end response and fit securely, at least—and a USB computer sync cable are included with the player.
Generally, the touch pad below the Fuze+'s screen works well enough, but occasionally the pad doesn't respond and the swipe gestures make one yearn for a nanoesque multi-touch screen instead. The player's animated user interface behaves as if swipes on the control pad are actually occurring on the screen, and I often found myself tapping the screen, out of habit, to call up album artwork or make a song play. At this price point, though, it's hard to expect much more. Apple thinks you want a touch screen so badly you'll sacrifice video playback and pay more than you would for the Fuze+. My guess is most people would gladly ditch a tiny, limited multi-touch screen in favor of a display that plays video, and that's what the Fuze+ offers. The fact that SanDisk clearly spent some time making the user interface look handsome only helps the player's cause.
My greatest annoyance with the user interface is simple menu navigation. You swipe left to right to move to the next option, but for some reason, SanDisk thought you would like to reach the end of the menu and then swipe backwards several times in order to reach to the top again, instead of, say, swiping once and making the navigation of the menus never-ending, like a carousel. It's a mistake sure to get more annoying with repeated use, and one Apple would never make. From left to right, the menu options (each of which occupies the entire screen when you view it) are Music, Video, Photo, Radio, Podcast, Voice, Card (for accessing content on an external microSDHC card), and Settings.
SanDisk keeps things simple and, aside from the navigation annoyance, the results are quite user friendly. The music playback screen shows off album artwork in color and at a size that rivals the entire outer contour of the new square-shaped iPod nano. SanDisk also includes, amongst a bevy of presets, a custom EQ setting that you can tweak to your preference—something Apple has never included.
The Sansa Fuze+ supports MP3, WMA, Protected WMA, Ogg Vorbis, FLAC, unprotected AAC, and Audible files for audio. For video, it natively plays H.264 and WMV files, and JPEG and BMP photo files are also supported. With the aid of Sansa media Converter software—available as a free download—other video and photo file types can be converted to play on the Fuze+.
Perhaps the nano lacks video because Apple didn't think it looked compelling on a small screen. The Fuze+ has a modest screen with modest resolution and the video-watching experience doesn't come close to what you get on, say, the iPod touch ($299; 32GB, ). But not everyone is looking for high-fidelity audio and HD video perfection on their morning commute or a business flight. Some people just want to be able to watch a TV show or movie on a small, inexpensive device they can throw in a bag without worrying about shattering its glass screen. SanDisk made the Fuze+ for this crowd (the same crowd the nano used to target), and both the video and photo experience the player offers will make less demanding customers happy. The default size for viewing photos is larger than the nano's entire screen. Are things a bit jagged and pixelated? Sure, but again—you can buy the 8GB Fuze+ for $90. That's well below the entry level nano price, which has no video and only limited photo support. The cheapest iPod that plays video is now the $229 8GB iPod touch, so suddenly $90 for lower-resolution but watchable video seems like a good deal, doesn't it?
The FM radio is easy to operate and includes recording, auto-scanning, and 40 programmable presets. The Voice recorder could sound better—there is some lag between what you say and what you hear, and the act of pausing or stopping a recording involves tapping the screen, which the microphone picks up. Recordings are stored on the second page of the Voice section. Regardless, it's a handy feature to have.
SanDisk rates the Fuze+ battery life at 24 hours for audio playback. Our own rundown test results will be posted here soon.
Clearly, the Sansa Fuze+ is not a masterpiece, or even close to one. It's not a sexy-looking device, and its video and photo capabilities are useful, but the screen isn't going to knock your socks off. Keeping all of this in mind, the pricing seems quite reasonable—two of the three models ring up for less than $100. Head-to-head with the iPod nano, the Fuze+ has a larger screen, can play video and display photos with better accuracy, and provides identical storage capacities at far lower cost.
For $10 more, our Editors' Choice for budget players, the Archos 3cam vision ($99; 8GB, ) offers a camera with video-capture capabilities. Also, the same-price Samsung YP-R0 ($99.99; 8GB, ) is generally a solid player and ships with far-better-than-average earphones. None of these devices is headed to the consumer electronics hall of fame, but simply put, the latest iPod nano isn't worth the money, and the Fuze+, Archos and Samsung players are.