The Sansa e200 series has made huge waves in 2006. Launched as the world's highest-capacity flash player at 6GB, the feature-filled e200 later soundly beat Apple to the 8GB milestone. Now a special version of SanDisk's flagship player, the Sansa e200R Rhapsody, has appeared, and it looks even better than the original, especially if you're a RealNetworks Rhapsody user.
The iPod has iTunes; the Sansa e200R has Rhapsody
The flash-based e200R operates on custom-tailored firmware (Real calls this Rhapsody DNA) that's designed to make the experience between Sansa hardware and Rhapsody 4 software a seamless one, with benefits such as improved player-jukebox reliability, faster transfer speeds, and innovative extra features. Microsoft's PlaysForSure (PFS) one-size-fits-all (and bureaucratic) approach got in the way of this type of fine-tuning, so Rhapsody and SanDisk have partnered up to try to provide iPod/iTunes-like ease of use. For the most part, the combo delivers in both ease of use and extra features. Ironically, Microsoft's upcoming Zune player will not be PlaysForSure compatible at all, making the Zune ecosystem as closed as the iPod's.
This is where the Sansa/Rhapsody ecosystem has the advantage, since it's not entirely closed. PFS devices are compatible (just not as compatible) with Rhapsody, and the e200R will work with non-Rhapsody services. The firmware includes a PlaysForSure (PFS) mode, though the player's Rhapsody mode doesn't have anything to do with PFS. It will give you up to two times the transfer speed of PFS mode, and neat music discovery features including Rhapsody Channels. I'll mention some differences between the e200 and e200R GUIs later, but of the two models, I'm into the latter because it adds RAX (AAC with Helix DRM) compatibility in addition to PlaysForSure. In other words, the e200R is a dual-DRM player.
At the e200R's heart is the e200 (read our review). Same body design (minus the Rhapsody branding on the backside) that includes a scratch-resistant back, a removable battery, and a Micro SD expansion slot. You'll get the same supertactile scroll wheel, the same portrait 1.8-inch color screen, and the same proprietary dock port. It's not in the same league of thinness next to the new Nano, but it has more features, including video playback, FM radio, and a voice recorder. It may not be the most elegant player in the world (Darth Vader comes to mind) but it sure beats the Nano in terms of features (though the Nano does have gapless playback and PIM functions). The new e200R adds even more features that the Nano can only dream of at this point.
Differences between the e200 and e200R
As mentioned, the ability to play both WMA and RAX AAC files gives the e200R a unique advantage. But there's definitely more than just format support, though at first glance, the firmware looks and behaves the same: same colorful main menu icons that swivel in place, the same light blue background (not into it), and the same scrollwheel-based navigation. Closer inspection reveals much sharper text, menu options and song titles that magnify as you pass over them, and a new main menu icon called Rhapsody Channels. This R version of the e200 is much more polished (though unlike the original, the R won't allow you to add songs to playlists unless you play them first. This spoils the possibility of an impromptu mix. The e200R is also missing the e200's custom EQ. I'd also love an easier way to get back to the Music list. Please fix this stuff, Real.).
Within Rhapsody 4 (which also has a cleaner interface), one of the tabs is Rhapsody Channels, a renaming of the Radio section. You can actually drag and drop a channel (such as Pop) onto the player and populate it with a playlist. On the player itself, the feature is very radio-like--you can skip forward to the next song, but you can't repeat or skip backwards. If you like a song, you can add it to your library; if you hate it, don't do anything, as it can't be played again. If you really hate it, you can actually ban it from your personalized Rhapsody experience using the built-in rating controls. Next time you sync, this channel will automatically update with new content, including your own custom channels (my Ethereal channel was seeded with Ulrich Schnauss and Manual). This is a clever way of randomizing music (à la Urge's superplaylists) but also cutting out the fat. Though it sounds OK on paper, in practice, the Channels feature works well for me, though it won't work with any other player, including the plain e200. In case you're wondering, owners of the e200 cannot upgrade firmware to the R version, though I hope Real allows this in the near future.