At this point, WiFi-equipped DAPs aren't completely novel, but they're still novel enough to command a good deal of attention -- especially when they're coming from companies like Sandisk through collaborations with Zing. In fact, the $249 Sansa Connect bears a truly striking resemblance (both physically and in user experience) to the reference device Zing was showing off last year -- much more so than its distant cousin from the same Zing drafting board, Sirius' Stiletto. Though the Sansa Connect obiviously loses the Stiletto's satellite radio capabilites, it dominates the Stiletto (and the Zune, for that matter) in its effective use of 802.11 airwaves. Why most manufacturers have yet to pick up on the WiFi formula for this class of devices, we don't understand, but hey folks, it's easy: give us streaming, easy PC-free downloading, and firmware updates over the air. We're all awash in hotspots at this point, so let's take full advantage, yeah? The Connect is tied to Yahoo! Music Unlimited for its subscription download model and streaming radio, and we've gotta say, a WiFi DAP really brings the model into its own. It almost trivializes the need for serious storage in the device -- this one makes do with 4GB plus microSD expansion -- because you can get literally any music in Yahoo's catalog whenever you have a data connection handy. All of Yahoo's features carry over, too: ratings can be saved from the Connect, album art is downloaded in real time, and you've even got Messenger on here. All of LAUNCHcast's stations are available to stream, and of course, you can build your own station based on personal tastes. And for users of other services that employ secure WMA, rest easy: you'll be able to pull your songs into Yahoo Music Jukebox (or, if you subscribe to Unlimited, just grab the song again if you're so inclined). We tested this with URGE and it worked like a champ.
On to more superficial matters, we were pretty delighted with the Connect's size, appearance, and gorgeous QVGA display; the integrated speaker is a cute trick and the interface was, by and large, easy to navigate and understand. The scroll wheel has a slightly nicer feeling to it (in our most humble of opinions) than the Stiletto's, and the buttons have decent spacing and feel. The device wasn't without its fair share of gotchas, though. For example, dynamic menus for choices involving live data from Yahoo! Music (recommended tracks, for example) would occasionally require two presses to actuate where they should've required one. The first press would cause the display to say "Updating" -- fair enough, it's gotta grab new data from the 'nets -- but after it would update, it'd take us back to the same menu again and the second press would get us going. Hey, whatever, that's what software updates are for, and since they're automatically pushed over WiFi, we're not going to worry about it too much.
We're disappointed that the Connect isn't a little more open than it is; we'd like to be able to stream whatever the heck we want for starters, but Yahoo! Music Unlimited and LAUNCHcast aren't bad starts. Now the trick is to keep up the WiFi momentum for these things -- Apple, Creative, iRiver, Archos, we're looking straight at you!