Possibly the best wearable MP3 player yet. (September 20th, 2009)
Nowhere is it harder to make a good portable media player than in the ultra-small, wearable field; even Apple decided it would rather go without a screen than try to fit the usual controls into something that clips on your belt. SanDisk has long thought differently and has carved out a niche for itself with the Sansa Clip, but can its Clip+ sequel topple the iPod shuffle?
Product Manufacturer: SanDisk
Price: $40 (2GB), $50 (4GB), $70 (8GB)
- As simple to load and play as ever.
- microSDHC slot a useful addition.
- Good audio quality.
- Long battery life for its size.
- FM radio, voice recording.
- Audible, podcast, FLAC, Ogg support.
- No AAC support.
- Small screen.
- Thick compared to the iPod shuffle.
design and the microSDHC slot
When the original Clip appeared in fall 2007, it was shaped much like a baby version of the Sansa Fuze, albeit with a circular directional pad instead of the scroll wheel. It was praised for fitting reasonably sized controls into a small space without dropping the screen, but it was docked for being somewhat cheap-feeling.
The Clip+ is a cosmetic reinvention of this formula, but functionally the same. The pad is now square and is not only easier to understand for a newcomer but easier to use: it has a more definite action than the old model. As a whole, the body is also generally better constructed. It feels more like the two-piece design it was meant to be. There's still a hollow feeling to the controls, though: the pad in particular makes relatively loud clicks with each press and feels cheap.
We like the clip mechanism on the player, which is plastic (unlike the metal of the iPod shuffle) but has a smooth, sturdy hinge. There was never any give or other worries the player was going to detach itself during a run, though as always it's a bad idea to clip a player like this to very loose clothing that could send the player flying. The size of the player is something of a problem here, though. The Clip+ is very thick compared to Apple's offering and is more likely to bounce around or simply draw more attention; the iPod shuffle is more discreet, if nothing else.
A mini USB port serves as the conduit to a computer, which we appreciate. Mini-to-full USB cables are very common for those with cameras or other handheld devices, so a trip to the store for a proprietary cable isn't likely if the bundled item goes missing.
In terms of actual new features, the only real addition is the microSDHC card slot, though this is arguably the centerpiece of the design. On a player with such limited capacity, it's appreciated to know there will be room for more storage if you see fit, or simply that content you own on one device (like a cellphone) can be shared with others. As of this writing, 16GB cards are the largest you can get, but that's enough to give the top-end 8GB Sansa a total of 24GB of space -- enough that even genuine enthusiasts could fit their whole music collections onboard.
If there's a drawback to the expansion, it's that it may be adding bulk (to accommodate the reader) and features that some buyers won't need. If you can afford a 16GB expansion card, the likelihood is rather small that you insist on such a physically small device for all your music, especially as navigating it will be that much more difficult. We see users more likely to use the slot on the 2GB model, where an initially less ambitious user might decide months later that more space would be ideal.
music, FM and voice recording
The advantage of a back-to-basics player is that it's very easy to design effective controls: here you use left and right presses to go deeper into or out of menu systems, up and down to scroll through menus, and both select as well as home buttons to start play or go back to the very top. About the only complication is the transformation of the direction pad into shortcuts once playback has started, but even these are easy to understand.
One definite plus is the integration of the microSDHC slot with the library. Many players in this category with card slots force you to browse the removable memory separately, defeating much of the point of the extra slot. Here, the player just needs a short scan of the card to integrate any music into the main library, even if it's in a sub-folder.
It's the display which is at once a virtue and a vice for this field. Just having the screen gives the Clip+ an immediate advantage over the iPod shuffle; SanDisk was also wise in choosing a very high-contrast OLED display whose true blacks won't blind you in the dark but also shouldn't wash out as easily as on a large, complex player like the Zune HD. However, as on the original Clip, there are only three lines of items visible at any time: that makes scrolling through a large list of content a slow and potentially agonizing process. Again, we can't see many filling the Clip+ to the brim with music as wading through dozens of artists and hundreds of songs may get tiresome.
FM radio exists here and of course doesn't face the obstacle of sheer size. While we wish it had auto-scan to find stations, it's easy to manually scan them and add them as presets for later. You can also stop and resume tuning from within the app, which not every player handles properly.
Voice recording exists, too, but we'd consider it a specialist feature than a must-have. We've found that the microphone here and on most other devices isn't detailed enough enough to capture sound in more than a quiet environment, and preferably close to the user. Class lectures and business meetings are still best recorded with a larger or dedicated microphone.
audio quality and battery life
The Clip developed a reputation as having unusually high-quality audio not just for its price but for any player, and thankfully that reputation can persist here. We'd immediately replace the stock earbuds with something better -- as we would on most any other player -- but once you do, you get surprisingly clear and detailed output from such a low-cost device, even with radio. It won't alter your perception of music, but anyone who has encountered the background hiss of some iPod shuffles will appreciate the difference.
Battery life is similarly impressive. Other wearable players' longevity has actually gotten shorter over time, even without a screen; the Clip+ in our experience lasts close to the claimed 15 hours of runtime promised despite having a screen of its own. The OLED and thick body logically help achieve this goal, but it's nonetheless a shock to get 50 percent more usefulness than an equivalent iPod.
the sync process and format support
Loading the Clip+ is as easy as it is with most SanDisk Players. Any computer with support for USB mass storage can at the very least drag and drop music through the operating system. There are pre-made folders for various types of content, including podcasts, so there's never a mystery as to where files should go. An inserted microSDHC card doesn't need to have a particular folder structure to work. We've successfully loaded the player on a Mac, but Windows users get the best treatment as they can use WinAmp, Windows Media Player or another app for a conventional sync.
We do wish there were at least an in-between app for syncing music from iTunes, but that's not very likely given the main flaw of the new Sansa: a lack of AAC support. Despite two years' time and some older players recognizing the standard, the Clip line still only sees MP3, Ogg Vorbis and WMA among its conventional compressed music formats. Why this is, SanDisk hasn't said, but it's not for lack of processing power. Besides the processor-intensive Ogg Vorbis, the player can also recognize lossless FLAC as well as Audible's specialized format, so we suspect it's either lack of interest or a delay that's preventing AAC from showing on this player.
There's also support for slotMusic and slotRadio cards, but the truth is that neither format has been particularly well accepted and will mostly appeal to those who like getting a large volume of music at a discount and don't mind losing some control over how it's played.
Aside from this inexplicable foible, the Sansa Clip+ is a textbook example of how to design a simple player perfect for the gym or the morning run. It could be thinner and use a more solid directional pad, but both loading it with content and playing music are as straightforward as they could be. The extras clearly fill out almost every need you'd anticipate from this player, whether it's running out of room (the card slot) or tuning into FM, which can be especially handy at gyms that use FM to broadcast their TVs' audio.
The price is hard to resist, too. At $40 for a 2GB model, it's inexpensive enough to be a good secondary player or a child's first MP3 player that won't hit the pocketbook as sharply if it's broken or lost.
Those heavily invested in iTunes will have to turn to an iPod, a larger SanDisk player, or a more AAC-friendly competitor like the Sony Walkman, but everyone else looking for a no-frills player should certainly at least consider the Clip+. In fact, we'd go so far as to tell SanDisk to scrap its poorly executed slotMusic and slotRadio players altogether and make this new entry the preferred model for the preloaded cards. It's still simple to use, but has all the controls and features you'd expect from a music player made in 2009.