SanDisk gambles more flash will set Sansa e280 MP3 apart from Ipod, Zune

Posted by Scott M. Fulton, III

Milpitas (CA) - Beating Apple to the punch by a month, SanDisk - which battles for the #2 MP3 player spot with Creative Labs - announced this morning it is boosting the maximum on-board flash capacity of its Sansa e200 series from 6 GB to 8 GB, and capping the new e280's price at $249. Prior to today, you could find the 4 GB e260 selling for $249; now, its MSRP has dropped to $179.99.

SanDisk's Sansa e200 series MP3 player, whose on-board flash capacity has just been boosted to 8 GB. (Courtesy SanDisk)

SanDisk's Sansa e200 series MP3 player, whose on-board flash capacity has just been boosted to 8 GB. (Courtesy SanDisk)

But what SanDisk had previously touted as one of its players' key advantages over the iPod appears to be played down this morning, as the company now finds itself preparing to compete against not just Apple but Microsoft. Just last month, Microsoft had been treating SanDisk, Creative Labs, iRiver, and the other minor players in the MP3 portable market as partners in advancing its Windows Media Audio format. But now that an announcement on Zune, a Sansa competitor, appears likely, SanDisk seems to be toning down its language regarding Microsoft's involvement. This morning's press release made quick mention of Microsoft's PlaysForSure DRM format as providing multiple services for Sansa users to download songs.

Yet when it came time to mention song capacity, SanDisk stuck with its estimate of 2,000 songs per 8 GB, assuming 128 kbps playback and each song's average length of 4 minutes (or 3:30, based on the same results taken from a different SanDisk Web page). Previously, that same number had been used to tout song capacity for earlier models. Had SanDisk wanted to continue mentioning WMA song capacity, it would have touted 4,000 songs, although the small print would have continued to read 64 kbps playback.

SanDisk's turning down of the volume on Microsoft, at least this morning, may be the first indication that the company intends to try "going it alone," at least from a marketing perspective, with Sansa. Just last May, BusinessWeek projected SanDisk as perhaps having the best chance in competing with Apple, mainly because SanDisk can use its position as its own flash memory producer to lower prices...which is exactly what it did today. But the magazine's analysis only took account of iPod as its primary competitor; at that time, Zune continued to be a rumor that Microsoft repeatedly denied.

Mechanically, the e280 - along with others in the e200 series - continues to have some interesting advantages over iPod, including an SD media slot that could conceivably boost capacity by another 2 GB, and a 1.8" color display tilted in portrait mode. You can tip the display sideways for slightly larger video playback than on the iPod nano (1.5"). Some reviewers have said it's also easier to learn to use than the iPod; and opinions of the e200s' sound quality appear to be very positive all around.

The one music service Sansa mentions by name is Rhapsody To Go, the PlaysForSure-oriented download service from RealNetworks. Rhapsody is a subscription-only service, charging $9.99/month for unlimited downloads. There's also an interesting built-in device said to be capable of detecting variations in high-frequency waves around you, and translating those variations into music, called an "FM tuner," based on an ancient 20th century technology that some say may be resurging in popularity.

The price restructuring for Sansa's eSeries now brings the 2 GB e250 down to $149.