THE GIZMO:Sansa Connect Wireless Internet MP3 Player, $249.99.
Sony and Samsung couldn't do it. Even Microsoft hasn't pulled it off, with the brand's Zune music player. But now the SanDisk Corp. and Yahoo! Music have summoned up a portable player that's an actual threat to Apple and its iPods. Really. No joke. Read on.
A NEW TWIST:What sets the Sansa Connect player apart from the MP3 masses is its built-in Wi-Fi transmitter/receiver and companion music services. Yes, Zune has Wi-Fi capability, too, but that's simply to stream music between your Zune and another (assuming you can find one).
The Connect goes quantum leaps further. From anywhere in your (encrypted or unencrypted) wireless home network zone or at any open Wi-FI "hot spot," this cute little player can hop online to access music services from Yahoo! We're talking all by itself. No computer involved.
Just by registering a Yahoo! account name (if you don't have one already), the Connect offers instant access to 100-plus free (and commercial-free) music streams from LAUNCHcast Internet radio. The options run the gamut from current hits to moldy oldies, with multiple varieties of rock, urban flavors, world music, country, jazz . . . Really, the only genres given the total snub are classical, opera and showtunes.
If a song doesn't please you, just hit the "forward" button on the player and the stream jumps quickly to the next ditty. This is space-age radio. A wheely control, reminiscent of the iPod, runs the show.
The Connect's super crisp, 2.2-inch color display identifies the name of the song playing, the artist and even puts up a small picture of the album cover. Sound quality is good through earphones. Unplug the phones, and a little speaker on the back of the Connect puts out a tiny but listenable approximation of music.
Also for free, you can sideload music (WMA and MP3 files) from your PC onto the player's four-megabyte memory or via a microSD card that slips into a slot on the player's side. A Sansa Connect can display photos loaded up on a card, too, or accessed from the online Flickr site.
Plus, you can use Wi-Fi linking to scope out what Yahoo! Messenger friends and other Sansa Connect owners nearby are listening to. (Unlike the Zune, however, you can't listen to their music - just see their playlists.)
PAY TO PLAY:Willing to invest the cost of one album a month for a Yahoo! Music Unlimited To Go subscription? We're talking $14.99 a month, or, in advance for a year's subscription, $11.99 x 12, which works out to $143.88. (A free 30-day trial is offered with a player purchase.)
With the Unlimited To Go service unlocked, the Connect player now runs on high octane fuel. Instead of 100 specialty music streams, there are 200-plus options at your instant beck and call. (They got me good with an all-Brazilian music channel, missing on the basic station package.) And get this - whenever a song comes up that you'd like to hear again, press the "ZING" button. The device asks if you'd like to download that particular song or the complete album from whence the song comes (if available). Click "yes," and a message goes back to the service. If licensed for sharing, the music then downloads to your device's internal memory - about one tune a minute - while you continue to listen to whatever else you want on the player. These acquisitions can be stored and accessed for as long as you maintain a subscription.
The ZING mobile entertainment engine also lets you rate songs you hear. Then, in TiVo style, it pulls down a custom play-list of other content it thinks will surprise and delight you.
Yahoo! Music's LAUNCHcast division claims a current library of 2 million-plus songs, and licensing deals with most major and indie labels. While the service would allow me to download only single tunes (not albums) from the likes of The Decemberists, Snow Patrol and Norah Jones, it was willing and able to deliver complete albums from up-and-comers Amy Winehouse, Augustana and Corinne Bailey Rae, plus classic collections from Antonio Carlos Jobim, U2 and Nina Simone. I also tapped and stored current tracks from Timbaland, Carrie Underwood and Red Jumpsuit Apparatus, plus comedy bits from the likes of Chris Rock and Lewis Black.
Instead of waiting for the names to pop up on a stream or recommended list, it'd be swell if a user could just enter the name of a coveted artist to see what's available for download. But we'll have to wait for the second generation of the Sansa Connect for that enhancement.
WILL APPLE RESPOND?: Rumors are afloat that Apple's iTunes will counter with an all-you-can-download music subscription service. Being computer keyboard-centric, it could boast far superior searching/acquisition skills. But without the Wi-Fi and bonus music streams of the Sansa Connect, the iPod-friendly version may still look like the less happening choice for on-the-go listeners. Especially in a town like ours. The Wireless Philadelphia Wi-Fi service will let a device like the Sansa Connect work almost everywhere within city limits. *