Excellent (if not original) design and physical controls.
Continues to use a solid software interface.
Very low price for the feature set and quality.
Software-independent; works with Linux, Macs, and Windows.
FM radio, microSD slot, and voice recording.
Good DRM support for those who need it.
Unnecessarily pulls AAC and H.264 support; pixelated video.
Simplistic radio and voice recording.
Slightly scratch-prone front face.
Cost of microSDHC high enough to reduce the immediate value of the card slot.
design and interface
There's little escaping the likely (if unintentional) parentage of the Sansa Fuze: it bears more than a passing resemblance to Apple's third-generation iPod nano. In fact, if it weren't for the "Sansa" lettering or the home button next to the wheel, it might be indistinguishable from a distance. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, however. Arguably, the short but squat design feels much better in the hand than most players, especially the overly tall Sansa View that serves as the real basis for much of the design.
SanDisk's version of this formula does seem to improve over its cousin at Apple. The 1.9-inch screen is only slightly smaller, but supplies the Fuze with a slightly more comfortable profile. More importantly, the rubberized backing is definitely a more practical (if slightly less glamorous) choice than the chrome for the iPod. The texture isn't just better for grip versus Apple's slippery metal; it also resists scuffs and scratches much more elegantly. I also appreciated the bright white labels, which are more useful than the light-up (but otherwise invisible) symbols on the View.
The only complaints that could be properly leveled against the design of the Fuze are its glossy front face, which can still attract dust and scratches, as well as the slightly loose-feeling scroll wheel and tricky hold switch. The aluminum front and solid-state click wheel of the iPod are more durable and better for very large lists, respectively.
The interface is largely ported over from the Sansa View, which again is a largely positive example of borrowing the right bits of technology. Navigating the menu system is often similar to nearly every media player with a hierarchical layout, only faster. The interface lag that pops up on iPods and some other players is virtually absent, and makes drilling down to a specific song or video quicker, if not as visually pleasant as on newer Apple devices.
The UI doesn't make for perfect transition for every user, however, and occasionally makes for a bumpy ride of its own. Listeners used to accessing everything from the top level will be annoyed by SanDisk's emphasis on oversized icons over small menu items. Since you can't see any more than three items at a time, you often waste time scrolling back or forwards trying to find the item you were looking for. The system used by the iPod and Zune, which present a simple text list of options, often seems more effective.
Veterans may also be annoyed by SanDisk's willingness to change the context of buttons -- the "play" and "menu" buttons often get switched to up/down, for example -- but in many cases, the control scheme isn't significantly better or worse than on other players, just different. It also has the upshot of allowing certain settings to be changed in mid-song, such as the EQ or shuffle mode.
audio and video quality, the earbuds, and formats
A lingering question for many veterans of SanDisk's players was the choice of audio chipset. Those that tried the View found that the company had chosen a lower-quality chipset whose output wasn't quite as accurate as on past players. Paradoxically, the Clip -- a budget player -- actually generates higher-quality sound than its bigger, more feature-rich cousin.
Thankfully, the Fuze appears to borrow from the Clip. Tests using Shure E2c earbuds, which should provide solid (though not extremely detailed) sound, show that the Fuze generates a very clean sound using high-bitrate (320Kbps) songs. There are no obvious signs of muddled bass or lost detail in the middle or high ranges. That said, the sound quality is also not that much different in practice than that of the iPod line (excepting the shuffle) or the Zune. While it's possible to tell that better earphones would produce better results, the difference isn't enough to justify jumping from most big-name players to the Fuze, especially not when many quality earphones would cost as much as a 4GB Fuze all by themselves.
The factory-bundled earbuds are not particularly special. From a comfort perspective, they hold a slight advantage over the iPod through an easier ability to hook on the earlobe, but the audio quality itself is typical pack-in earbud fare. It won't convert audiophiles and tends to produce a noticeable (though not extreme) muddiness to the overall sound. If saving money on buying earbuds is an important concern, skip directly to Sony's newer A-series Walkmen or the Zune 80, both of which come with better-than-average earbuds.
Image quality depends entirely on what's being viewed. As the screen is even denser than that for the iPod nano or Sony A-series, still photos look very sharp; they also tend to be very colorful and bright, revealing that the screen is up to the task.
Video, on the other hand, isn't as polished, and appears to reveal this latest Sansa's chief weakness: format support. Curiously, SanDisk has pulled support for H.264 video that was present in the View, leaving the Fuze with relatively low-bitrate, pixelated videos compared to the larger player as well as many rivals both old and new. This extends to audio, too, with AAC having been stripped out and leaving just MP3, WAV and WMA for non-protected formats. This strikes me as an arbitrary decision meant to shelter sales of the View; if for performance reasons, was a faster chipset necessarily going to cost enough to justify leaving out support for potential iPod converts?
Protected audio support is at least above average. Like most Sansas, the Fuze is rare in supporting more than two copy protection schemes. With Audible and Overdrive DRM for e-books as well as Windows Media, the player does have support for most online music stores, including all-you-can-eat subscription services. Even if you object to copy-protected digital music on principle, it remains true that the Fuze will have more options for music purchases than most.
Finding a truly cross-platform media player is very difficult. Most either depend on a proprietary software player available only for certain operating systems or else have no software at all, depending instead on drag-and-drop transfers which themselves sometimes work only with Windows.
SanDisk has gone a long way to solve these problems on the Fuze. Windows is still the preferred host: in most cases, it's only there that media can be automatically synchronized. However, as with the more recent Sansa line, SanDisk uses a generic system that works with most universal platforms in Microsoft's OS, including WinAmp and Windows Media Player.
In Linux and Mac OS X, the main issues are choices: most of these replacements don't exist. Even so, it's possible to drag-and-drop songs or whole folders on to clearly labeled folders when the Fuze is mounted as mass storage. It's not a perfect solution, but it's enough that switchers from Windows won't have to cast aside the Fuze to keep listening to music and a decided step up from players locked into custom applications.
battery life and extras: FM radio, microSD, voice recording
SanDisk claims to essentially match other device makers in battery endurance, and that bore out in my testing: the approximately 25 hours of continuous playback was slightly better than the officially claimed 24 hours, though not as extreme as the 31.5 hours achieved with a third-generation iPod nano. Differences in audio quality for loaded content can affect this time; suffice it to say, however, that the Fuze should at least last long enough for a long airplane ride or a weekend camping trip.
The extras on the Sansa Fuze are appreciated, but feel somewhat like niceties rather than decisive advantages in their current form. The FM tuner allows presets but doesn't have an auto-scan function, instead forcing the user to hold a directional button down to cycle through channels until an identifiable channel appears. Microsoft's Zune does have this and seems more elegant as a result.
I would also question somewhat the usefulness of the voice recorder. It's a very simple affair with start, stop, and pause controls. This may be convenient for short personal memos, but it's not especially well-suited to recording long events. There's no built-in way to pick the recording format and choose between space (such as an MP3) or quality (such as WAV), or any way to amend a recording once it's done. And without the guarantee of an external microphone to replace the internal unit, it may not be the best for noisy lecture halls.
The option of microSDHC storage is more useful, though more for the future than today. Current microSD and SDHC cards are relatively pricey compared to their full-size counterparts and may add too much to the cost of such an inexpensive device. As a form of insurance policy against obsolescence, however, it may well be wise: with microSDHC cards already up to 8GB and larger ones promised soon, it should ultimately be less expensive to drop in a card than to replace the player outright if the stock 2GB, 4GB, or 8GB isn't enough.
I came into this review somewhat jaded. While SanDisk has often been regarded as one of the better MP3 player designers, it's also had to shake its (at times unfair) reputation as a producer of "good enough" devices that do well, but never quite meet the expectations set by the iPod.
The Fuze might therefore be notable as one of the few players to at least feel like serious competition to the current-generation iPod nano, and certainly the Zune. The software is close enough to the simplicity of either the Apple or Microsoft players; more importantly, the proportions and hardware controls are near-ideal and fix nearly every design-based complaint leveled against the View. That the Fuze includes some useful (if imperfect) extras and costs as much as $70 less for the same storage as an iPod nano could almost considered a fatal blow.
Unfortunately, SanDisk may still face an uphill battle winning supporters from rival camps, in part from its own decisions. Without AAC or H.264 support, more than a few potential buyers may be disappointed to learn that their unprotected media from iTunes will need to be transcoded before it runs properly. Moreover, the same design that makes it work so well as a nemesis for the iPod may also lead some to incorrectly see the Fuze standing in the iPod's shadow and pass it by.
That would be a mistake. While it might not be an overwhelmingly superior choice and arguably misses out on the relative ease of synchronizing with a jukebox like iTunes, the Fuze is just better enough in some areas that it's easily recommendable to anyone who isn't too heavily invested in the iPod or Zune ecosystems, particularly those who would rather save some money in the process.