SanDisk Sansa e280 MP3 Player

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One reason that the iPod is so successful is peer pressure: kids, embarrassed by clunky old CD players, joined the White Earbud Brigade to fit in. Now that so many kids have iPod nanos, the self-styled outsiders who may have previously chosen Apple for niche appeal are looking for an alternative MP3 player. SanDisk made news recently by introducing the highest-capacity flash player — the Sansa e280, with 8GB of internal storage. It's small enough, powerful enough and different enough to be the un-iPod of choice.

Many competitors sell products that are similar in size to the iPod nano, with features the nano doesn't yet have including video playback, voice recording and an FM tuner. Nevertheless, the cost has been the same, or just slightly discounted. SanDisk is one of the largest manufacturers of flash memory — the solid-state storage chips found in MP3 players, digital cameras, cell phones and USB drives — so it can compete seriously on price, where Creative or iRiver just can't. The $250 that would buy you a 4GB iPod will get you an 8GB Sansa. If you buy an optional 2GB MicroSD card for $100, the player's memory capacity reaches a perfect 10GB.

Shiny and black, the Sansa is about twice as thick as the nano, and has a ring that glows blue when used to navigate the clean colorful user interface. The ring is raised a little too high to easily tap the four buttons surrounding it, but that sort of interface issue tends to fade away with constant use.

So much internal storage means huge amounts of music — between 2,000 and 4,000 songs, depending on where you got them. It's compatible with the Windows Media all-you-can-eat subscription plan; for a flat fee of around $15 per month, you can download enough songs to fill it up. I tested the player with Napster To Go, and I'm happy to report that everything went smoothly. You can also use Rhapsody (a trial edition comes in the box), Yahoo or MTV's new Urge service, all of which have similar subscription plans. You can't use iTunes-purchased music, of course, though I'm willing to bet the key audience for this product doesn't do a lot of music buying at all.

The extra gigabytes come in handy for video, too. A media converter program that accompanies the player automatically reformats all kinds of video files so that they look decent on the Sansa. I loaded up AVI, QuickTime MOV and WMV files, in addition to several different types of MPEG video, and the system didn't balk at any of it. I even loaded a full-length feature film — Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle — and though the system divided it up into small chapters, I could watch the whole movie. It wasn't easy to make out a letterboxed widescreen film on the Sansa's 1.8-in. screen, but the action was surprisingly smooth. Battery life wasn't even an issue — although SanDisk won't release details on the battery life for video playback, my guess based on my testing is that you can watch three to four hours. SanDisk says that you can play 20 hours of music.

The media converter also formats and transfers photographs for slideshows. Like the video player, it's a nice perk although it's limited on such a small screen. I wanted to copy full-size pictures directly, making it a useful device for carrying and displaying pictures, but I was foiled in the attempt. It turns out, you can load photos only through a media converter.

It is a shame that such a high-capacity flash player can't also be used as a storage drive — if I could dump out the contents of my camera into it, I'd be really impressed. Still, the Sansa has plenty of other talents, such as the voice recorder and FM radio, that the nano doesn't have. I think it would suit many as a dark-horse alternative to iPods. But if you want it just for the 8GB, bear in mind that it probably won't be long before there's an 8GB nano with video capabilities. You know, for the rest of the herd.