Ever since Apple abandoned the design feature with the release of the second-generation iPod Shuffle, MP3 players with built-in USB have seemed to go out of fashion. It's a bit of a shame, as this type of device is quite handy for some users. So it's nice to see SanDisk reintroducing the feature with the Sansa Express (1GB), a compact flash player with an array of desirable features and a palatable price tag of $59.99.
The Sansa Express is a simple USB stick of an MP3 player, shaped like a small pack of gum with a cap covering the USB plug at one end. The back of the player is standard brushed silver--nothing too exciting there--but the front is decked out in a shiny, mirror-like inlay, reflective enough for lipstick touch-ups. A small, dual-color OLED screen sits front and center and displays crisp orange and blue font on a black background. To the right of the display is a square control pad like that of the Sansa c250, with a center "select" key surrounded by track shuttle buttons, a Play/Pause key, and a contextual menu button. Dedicated volume controls sit on the bottom edge of the player, while the top edge houses a hold switch and a Power/main menu key. On the left side, you get a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, a built-in mic for voice recording, and a microSD card expansion slot for adding more memory.
For a small and inexpensive player, the Sansa Express offers an impressive array of features. As noted above, there is voice recording and memory expansion. The Express also has an FM tuner with autoscan, recording, and up to 20 presets. It supports MP3, WAV, WMA (including subscription), and Audible files as well as playlists. You can even create an on-the-go playlist on the device. Alternatively, use Windows Media Player or drag and drop to transfer those and other files. Music is arranged handily into the Creative step-down interface structure. Menus are basic, but the top one is icon-driven--a nice touch. You do not get album art or photo viewing with the Express, nor is the player technically compatible with Macs, but we were able to transfer an MP3 from a MacBook Pro (the player did not dismount properly, though).
During testing, the Sansa Express held up quite well in its class. The FM radio reception was very good in the building, picking up all the local stations we expected, and the voice recorder works well. Music sounded fine through the included headphones, and the Express offers a variety of EQ settings (normal, pop, rock, jazz, classical, and custom) so that you can fine-tune the sound to your tastes. Still, it's always a good idea to swap out the stock set for a better pair. We used the Shure SE310s, which helped to bring out the low end. Still, bass addicts will probably not be satisfied with the Express. In general, music was clear and detailed, but wasn't quite as rich and full as players in the top sound quality spots, such as the iRiver Clix. The rated battery life of 15 hours is decent, though not awe-inspiring; check back soon for CNET Labs test results.