Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:
Last week's column examined some of the new capabilities of the Sansa Connect, a portable digital audio player designed for an always-connected world. Unfortunately, we don't live in one. Adding inactivity to injury, this is especially true in locations where many people exercise accompanied to music, airplanes (hey, it's hard to return those seats to their upright positions), the New York City subway system, and the streets of cities other than Mountain View, CA. Indeed, most WiFi-friendly environments are also laptop-friendly and thus support access to not only Yahoo Music and its competitors, but high-quality free internet radio from last.fm, Slacker, and others.
To compensate, SanDisk and Zing have one-upped the portable satellite radios that must also deal with blackouts. Rather than simply simply allowing real-time recording of a radio station, the Connect can transfer a song or the song's album to the player if it is available on Yahoo! Music Unlimited. It can even generate an offline playlist on the device -- something similar in spirit to a feature I've long wanted on the iPod and other players, which is to be able to "switch gears" while listening in shuffle mode to play more tracks from just that artist, the rest of the album, or other songs like the one I've heard.
And while the Connect's implementation may fall short of the strong computer or community-generated music exploration features offered by Pandora, Goombah, iJiggy, La La, Last.fm, Amazon or others, it makes for an enjoyable self-led path to discovering new music. Skeptics could counter that this is not so functionally different from browsing a subscription music service on your PC and then transferring to your portable player, but music discovery is that odd leisure activity that requires work. Enabling it to occur untethered is a positive step.
The Connect invites a few quibbles. The generally clear and colorful Zing interface, which makes use of translucent overlays for volume and internet access and brings down album art on the fly, resorts to almost comically tiny text for its menus activated by two buttons that sit between the wheel and the screen. Especially when it's accessing the network, the user interface can get bogged down. And while many have been trained on the linear menu structure of the iPod, the Sansa Connect's hybrid navigation system is a taste that would be easier to acquire if, for example, all music-related features were grouped together.
Also, because the Connect, unlike the Zune, is not shy about using its WiFi, battery life can take a beating. While I didn't do any formal testing, I could almost see the meter run down using internet radio -- a quarter of the reported capacity disappeared in three hours. Also, there's no way to access a wireless network with a hidden SSID, although WPA is supported. Somewhat ameliorating is that the player can auto-update over the air, so perhaps we'll see these issues addressed without having to involve a PC.
The Sansa Connect has done more than any major portable digital music player to date to showcase the advantages of subscription services. While it does not offer unlimited browsing access to millions of Yahoo's tracks (and thus avoids the user interface logistics of accomplishing that on a small screen), its walled garden provides an experience that is both satisfying and frustrating -- the former because it's so fun when it's connected and the latter because it so often is not. Whether it ultimately arrives through Wi-Fi, WiMAX, the cellular networks or some other source, the future of connected entertainment has become easier to hear.
Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at http://www.rossrubin.com/outofthebox. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.