My new MP3 player

As I alluded to in my last post, I finally broke down and bought a new MP3 player. In fact, it's the first MP3 player I've bought for myself. Up until now I've been using the MPIO FL100 my parents gave me as a gift 4 or 5 years ago. It's a nice player, but with 128MB of internal storage plus a 1GB SD card, it's been feeling a little cramped. Plus I cracked the screen a few weeks ago, so I fear its days may be numbered.

Sansa and MPIOFor my new player, I chose a SanDisk Sansa e280. I paid $130 for it at New Egg. I chose the Sansa because it received generally positive reviews (some even went so far as to call it an iPod killer), has a color screen, small form-factor, microSD expansion port, and, most importantly, it doesn't require special software to load music.

Hardware-wise, the Sansa e280 comes with 8GB of internal flash storage and a microSD port to allow for extra space. In addition to playing MP3's, it also has an FM radio receiver and a voice recorder. The screen is 1.8-inches and full color, running at 220x176 pixels. It has a mechanical scroll wheel with 4 buttons surrounding it. The controls are a little awkward at first, but you get used to it quickly. On the down side, the Sansa has a non-standard USB port, very similar to the iPod - but not close enough that the plugs are interchangeable.

The Sansa firmware has its ups and downs. Probably the nicest feature is that it includes a metadata database for browsing media. However, rather than requiring special client software to keep the database up-to-date, the Sansa simply auto-generates the database from the media file ID3 tags when it boots. You can just mount the Sansa as a USB mass storage device, copy your files anywhere under its music directory, and they will be detected. On the down side, this means that you may have to wait a minute or two after boot while the Sansa rebuilds the database - it does this in the foreground, so you can't listen to anything until it's done.

My main complains about SanDisk's firmware is that the Sansa's native data formats are fairly non-standard. This means that, unless you use the bundled Windows-only conversion software, it's a pain to use any of the media features other than generic MP3 playing. In particular, while the Sansa supports movies, pictures, and playlists, its native formats are Quicktime, 16 bit-per-pixel bitmap, PLP/PLA respectively. No MPEG or WMV, no JPEG or PNG, and no M3U.

All in all, the Sansa is a good MP3 player out of the box. I like it and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone.

But on the other hand, if you're willing to do a little hacking....

One of the reviews on New Egg led me to a project called Rockbox. It's an open-source firmware replacement that runs on a number of MP3 players, including the iPod and the Sansa e200 series. Rockbox is still a work in progress, but the main features are all stable and it is more than usable for every-day purposes.

If you have or want a Sansa, I definitely recommend installing Rockbox on it. Rockbox takes the Sansa from "good" to "exciting." Just take a look at some of the key features. Rockbox offers more music navigation options than the SanDisk firmware, includes an MPEG viewer, a JPEG viewer, M3U playlists, theme support, and assorted games and applications. You can play DOOM on Rockbox, for crying out loud! They have solitaire, Pacman, a Gameboy emulator, a text editor, and a paint program, among others. Of course, the controls for all this are a little awkward, but the point is that using Rockbox over the SanDisk firmware buys you a lot of functionality compared to the little that you lose (mainly WMA support and control through the USB port).

While the Rockbox installation is isn't graphical, it's quite easy: run one interactive command to install the boot loader and then just extract a ZIP archive into the Sansa's root directory. That's it. To remove it, you just re-run to boot loader installer and tell it to uninstall. It's also worth mentioning that installing Rockbox is not an all-or-nothing deal. The boot loader includes a dual-boot feature. By holding the "prev" button during boot, you can boot back into the standard SanDisk firmware.

So if you're searching for good MP3 player, give the Sansa a look. And if you're looking for a great MP3 player, give Rockbox a look.

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