May 152011
 

I’ve never been comfortable thinking of myself as a rabid Jobs-worshipping Apple fan, but I do like their products. Particularly the way they rarely push me to the point of either tossing them in the trash or leaving them on a shelf to collect dust. My 4-year-old low-end Mac Mini is still chugging along, happy as a clam, running the latest version of OS X. My iPod nano and iPod touch are both working fine. And my iPad is my most favoritest toy at home. I use it constantly. I stopped taking it to work mostly because I didn’t want anything bad to happen to my preciousssss. But I’ve always been open to trying whatever gadget gets the job done (like my Sansa, for instance, or my Windows netbook and PC). And I’ve heard many good things about Android.

So, I’ve wanted to get an Android phone for a while. OK, I really wanted to get an iPhone;  but it’s hard to justify (or even afford) the $70+ / month plan payments that both AT&T and Verizon iPhones are saddled with. Hello, Android, and hello cheap smartphone plans. Plus, Android is supposed to be fun to tinker with, better than iOS in some ways, and basically the future of smartphones. I want to see that future. I want to see it with my fingers.

I heard about Virgin Mobile’s $25 / month smartphone plan–no hidden fees or weird taxes, $25 flat, no contract. And that $25 includes “unlimited” 3G, and 300 talk minutes. There are currently two Android phones available with that plan, a Samsung with a slide-out keyboard and poor reviews, and the $200 LG Optimus V with no keyboard and good reviews. I figured that I could manage $25 a month, and my tax refund almost covered the cost of the phone. So, I bought one. And bought a 16 GB microSD card for $25 on Amazon to give it a little more space than the 2 GB card that came with the phone. And a $25 top-up Virgin Mobile card while I was at the grocery store. Total cost to get the phone up and running: $250, plus sales tax. And if I ever decide to drop the Virgin Mobile plan, there’s no “early termination” charge or any such BS. I just stop buying re-up cards. Even so, I’d still have a pretty nifty gadget that works fine over WiFi.

Here are my impressions of my first Android gadget.

The Good:

  • To my delight, the phone part of the Optimus is quite good. Even at 2 bars, I still can understand people clearly. Good stuff. I don’t expect smartphones to be good phones, but this one is quite usable. I wish I could say the same for the Android dialer app, which is very aggressive about fading away (so you can’t accidentally press buttons on the keypad with your face while talking); it makes it very difficult to punch in extra digits after you’ve dialed a number. But I’ve read that there are other dialer apps available which work much better than the stock one.
  • The rest of the Optimus isn’t bad. It’s sturdy, lightweight, and has a very bright, readable screen. The shell is pretty much all plastic, but isn’t ugly. I haven’t bought a case or screen protector for it, and it’s still fine after months of use. I do carry it in a hand-knitted Hodag sleeve.
  • The camera works surprisingly well, and takes pretty good pictures, even close-ups. Good enough that I’ll probably take this phone on vacation rather than my beloved Kodak V210. But I’ll miss that amazing wide-angle lens, which takes fantastic panoramic shots. Well, they’re small. Maybe I’ll take both the phone and the camera.
  • One more Thumbs Up to Virgin Mobile for the $25/month plan with no contract, “unlimited” 3G, and 300 talk minutes per month. Re-ups can be done via cards I buy at the grocery store–no automatic recurring charges on my credit card, no unexplained price creep. Sweet! But, hey, VM, fix your website. It’s very pretty, but that huge informative footer at the bottom makes it difficult to type data into forms that are partially covered by that footer.
  • And another Thumbs Up to LG and Virgin Mobile for not thinking that they need to “improve” Android. Unlike many phone manufacturers and carriers, LG and VM have pretty much left Android on the Optimus V alone; it’s almost straight stock, pure 2.2 goodness from Google. And supposedly, LG will upgrade it to Android 2.3 one of these days. Or not. Well, that’s a common issue on Android phones, and if it is never upgraded, I won’t mind.
  • A big Thumbs Up to all the choices out there for Android phones. Admittedly, the phones are all pretty similar, outside of keyboard or not, screen size / quality, and computing power. But it is nice to be able to choose a cheap phone with some limitations (see below) from a smaller carrier with a bargain plan. With iPhone, it’s either AT&T or Verizon, and both their plans are currently almost identical: on-contract and expensive.
  • Notifications on Android are really, really nice. When you get an email or SMS message, or an app finishes doing something in the background, little icons appear up in the status bar at the top of the phone, along with the time, battery level, and signal strength icons. Put your finger on the status bar, pull down, and down comes a list that covers the screen. All the notifications about the emails and SMS messages and whatall are listed; tap on one of the notifications, and you are whisked to the app that posted the notification. Very nice, very intuitive, and a couple of taps on the Back button takes you back to what you were doing before you looked at the list. The status bar can get pretty cluttered when you’ve got notifications from more than one app waiting, but you get used to that quickly.
  • Officially, Virgin Mobile doesn’t allow using your Android phone as a mobile WiFi hotspot. And, in fact, the configuration switch to turn it on is missing. Unofficially, you’re exactly 1 app away from enabling it. It’s amusingly trivial to do, and it seems to work fine. I don’t have any real plans to use it, but it’s nice to know it’s available if I ever need it in a pinch while traveling.
  • I don’t know why, but using 2D barcodes to link to apps has never caught on in the iOS world. Maybe the barcodes are just too ugly for Steve Jobs’ tastes or something. But it’s pretty handy to be surfing the web on my Mac, stumble across an app that sounds interesting, bring up the 2D barcode for the app on the monitor–all Android apps seem to have one, scan it with a barcode reader app on my phone, and bingo, download and install the app. It’s a very fast and painless process. It takes far longer to explain than to do.
  • I’ve read over and over again about how wonderful Widgets on Android are. Well, they’re OK, and I could see how having a few on my iPod touch would be nice. I’ve always been a big fan of Apple’s Desk Accessories–I used them heavily back in the early MacOS days–and that’s pretty much exactly what Android Widgets are. So maybe I’m jaded. To my mind, Android Widgets are the same as OS X Widgets, which are the same as Desk Accessories. And when you’ve seen one weather or stock market or email Widget, you’ve pretty much seen them all, and I saw them all 20 years ago. There is also a real downside to having Widgets on a phone: they run all the time, so they reduce battery life, and take up a smidge of computing power each.
  • The integrated voice recognition works quite well for many tasks. It doesn’t work so well for others, like recognizing arbitrary words when searching on Google. It also sends the speech to Google’s servers to do the heavy lifting, so it needs network connectivity to work, and can be a bit laggy at times, but those are small complaints for something that really makes the phone easier to use overall.
  • Google Maps is transformed into a very good GPS system on Android, just as good (if not better) than anything made by Garmin or TomTom. The only downside is that it needs a solid 3G connection to work.
  • For having a 600 MHz CPU, the phone is no slouch. Sometimes the user interface stalls or lags for a moment or two, but it basically hangs in there. My iPod touch, which has a slower CPU, is definitely smoother and faster feeling, but the Optimus is nowhere near as bad as I expected. I guess that’s a good thing.
  • I like Amazon’s new Android app store. They give away a different app, totally free, every day. I’ve snagged a few of them. Unsurprisingly, the Amazon app store is significantly better organized and run than Google’s market–even with the new upgrades to the market over the last few days.
  • On a related note, I have yet to actually purchase an Android app with cash money. This is in stark contrast to the hundreds of dollars I’ve spent on apps for my iPad and iPod touch.
    • I think that part of the reason is because all of the basic utility apps (and most of the popular social apps) are free on Android. That’s nice. And some of the free apps are really handy, like the widget that gives you individual control over the WiFi, 3G, and phone radios, to better control battery drain. Or the app that automatically switches the phone to “airplane mode” and turns off all the radios when you press the power button. Nice!
    • But beyond that, the apps currently available for Android are very weak sauce compared to what is out there for iOS. It isn’t a question of there being more iOS apps, but that there are far, far more interesting, high-quality apps for iOS. The difference between the cool toys and excellent games available on the App Store and the poor clones (or complete lack of anything equivalent) on the Market is shocking. I have yet to find a single non-free Android app that I’ve had the slightest interest in. Maybe that will change as Android continues to gain popularity, but it’s been around and popular for a while now, and the Market is still understocked.
    • Another reason that I have yet to buy an app is that I don’t trust Google’s Market with my credit card. Not because I think they’ll overcharge my card or something, but because it still seems very beta…and very Wild West. I probably will buy an Android app one of these days, but when I do, it will almost certainly be through the nice, well-run Amazon app store, not Google’s mostly-baked Market. I trust Amazon to handle sales correctly and to resolve problems should they arise. It’s what they do, and they do it very well. Google has yet to demonstrate that they deserve that trust. Google is really good at Search. They’ve yet to become good at Store.
    • Update 6/12/2011: I’ve had the phone for almost 2 months now. I still have yet to buy an app for it. I have snagged several free apps from the Amazon app store. But I haven’t used any of them for more than a few minutes. I’m mentally ready to buy an Android app–heck, I want to buy one just to finally get that over with and say that I have. But the only Android app I’ve found that I use a lot is K-9 mail (which is a pretty decent, and free, email client). Meanwhile, I’ve purchased several apps for my iPad and iPod touch. So it goes.

The Bad:

  • You know how Android phones can run Flash and iPhones can’t? Well, guess what? My Android phone can’t run Flash. In fact, many of the cheaper Android phones can’t. They use computer chips that aren’t supported (yet?) by Adobe. Funny how that fact never seems to be worth mentioning by the Android faithful. It isn’t clear if the problem is because the phone’s hardware just isn’t powerful enough to run Flash smoothly, or if Adobe has started with the high-end phones and simply hasn’t gotten around to making the software work on the cheap phones. Either way, no Flash. But the one and only thing I’ve ever wished I had Flash on my iPad for is playing FarmVille and CityVille. Other than that, for me, it’s a non-issue. Except for being bemused by Google’s claims that Android phones run Flash. Some do, some don’t.
  • Like with Widgets, I read repeatedly about how multitasking is, like, way betterer on Android than iOS. Meh. They both work, and both get the job done, in slightly different ways. As near as I can tell, iOS does a better job of killing background apps cleanly without getting us users involved, but Android gives us a much clearer picture of exactly what all is currently running. So, here I was all excited about this wonderful thing Android can do better. After using Android for a while, I have no idea what all the fuss is about. Ultimately, it’s a technical challenge for the coders, but a very small issue for end users. Seriously, who cares?
  • I didn’t ever like using the dinky on-screen keyboard on my iPod touch, but somehow Android managed to take a bad experience and make it worse. On the plus side, the Optimus comes with the Swype alternative keyboard pre-installed, but I guess I’m just not a swyper. I much prefer poking at the screen to dragging my finger around on it. I’ve tried other alternatives to the stock Android keyboard out there that are supposed to be better. Meh. My iPod touch still reigns supreme as the best of the worst, king of the tiny marginally usable on-screen keyboards. Apple should be proud.
  • This is a minor nit, but the way that Android handles USB connections to the desktop computer is fussy and fragile compared to iTunes. It gets the job done, and dragging-n-dropping music and videos straight from my computer’s desktop to the phone’s microSD card is nice, but authorizing USB mode, then digging around in folders with user-hostile names like DCIM (or simply confusing ones, like the three folders all named “downloads” or something very similar) is annoying compared to the one-step iPhone process of “drag whatever-it-is onto iTunes and it’ll be put where it belongs and organized automatically”. The USB connection has locked up a few times, but Android always seems to recover after a minute or two.
  • There are some aspects to Android that are just clunky. For example: How you “back up” or “undo” in an app is inconsistent: sometimes you swipe on the screen; sometimes you tap on an on-screen button; sometimes the only way to do it is to move your finger off the screen and use the physical Back button, which can be mildly jarring. I didn’t appreciate how consistently consistent iOS and its apps are until I used Android.
  • Similarly, the Menu button is a strange jack of all trades. What it’s used for varies wildly from app to app, even between apps from Google. Sometimes it’s brings up a configuration screen; other times, it displays secondary options; and occasionally it does nothing at all. To me, it feels like a holdover from the pre-iPhone smartphones, a relic that Google should have left behind. I’ve come to have a Android rule of thumb: when poking and swiping every which way doesn’t seem to work, try pressing the Menu button; whatever it is that I’m trying to do is probably hidden under that button. I really dislike the Menu button; I think that Google should simply get rid of it, and have apps display an on-screen button of the appropriate kind and at the appropriate time instead.
  • Just to be complete: The Home button is fine, and seems to be equivalent to The Button on an iPhone. The Search button is a shortcut to doing a Google search through the browser; I used it once just to confirm what it did, then promptly forgot that it existed. It seems to be a button that Google put there primarily because it leads directly to Google’s big moneymaker: search and targeted ads.

The Ugly:

  • As Google becomes a larger, more successful, and more profit-oriented enterprise, I trust them less and less, to the point that I don’t trust them at all nowadays. (Which is not to say that I trust Apple or Amazon or Microsoft more. I don’t. But I’ve always been more careful with them than with Google, because they never said that they’d not be evil. They’re aggressive for-profit corporations, and have always acted the part.) So, I’m growing ever more leery of Google’s increasing harvesting and exploitation of any and all data that they can collect. Which, for me, is a lot of data. I’ve pretty much had my entire on-line life on Google’s servers for several years. But I never trusted them as much as I would have liked to, and now that trust is gone. In terms of my Android phone, as soon as I activated the Optimus, it merrily connected to the Google mothership, and sync-ed up with my GMail account. And with every other Google account I have: pictures, blogs, maps, RSS feeds, you name it. A lot of stuff. A lot of stuff. It was a bit shocking to see it all collected in one place, so effortlessly and so rapidly. And to realize that all that stuff is on the servers of a company that makes most of their money off of analyzing the data on their servers, and using it to sell targeted ads (and possibly some of the info itself) to their clients–other large corporations. So, while there’s not much I can do about my personal data that Google already has,  I’m now actively moving my life away from Google, and will keep a suspicious eye on exactly what information is being stored on this phone, and thereby eventually on Google’s servers. It won’t be much.
  • This leads to a convenience issue: Is the phone mine, or is it Google’s? If Google’s servers go offline, much of what makes my smartphone uniquely useful go with them. This is because Android follows Google’s approach of centralized design. Android doesn’t just check in for messages and email, it synchronizes lots of data with Google’s servers, and relies on them for much of its magic. Without those servers, there’s no Google Maps, no integrated voice command. In contrast, if Apple’s servers go down, almost all of an iPhone continues to function. You lose the ability to buy or update apps, but that’s about it. Android has an Achilles’ heel, a single point of failure, and that point is Google itself. The centralized design is also network-heavy; it uses a lot of traffic, and requires a reliable, fast connection to make it work. To me, it seems like a design that is bound to be outdated within–at most–a few years, as smartphones’ computing abilities continue to grow: Why have a remote server do speech processing, when the phone has the hardware to do it itself? Why fetch maps and route-planning data when it can easily be stored locally? Ultimately, to me, Android’s design appears to be as much for Google’s benefit as it is for mine.
  • I actually ran out of space to install apps. I’m not kidding. With a 16 GB storage card with about 1 GB used. And maybe 50 apps on the phone, if that many. And they’re all small apps, like maybe 10 megs each, tops. It seems that even though Android is now capable of installing apps on the microSD card, it still needs to put a few megs of info per app on the internal storage (and many apps won’t play nice on the microSD card at all, and must live entirely on the internal storage). The Optimus V, like many of the low-end Android phones, has only a couple hundred megs available for those little slivers of apps that don’t go on the microSD card. Well, when you’ve got a bunch of little slivers, the space they need adds up, and the next thing you know: plenty of space on the microSD card, but no more apps for you, because the internal storage is completely full. D’oh. Coming from my iPad and iPod touch where I literally have hundreds of apps installed on each, and many of the iPad game apps are well over a gig in size each, it’s a shock. As in: This is broken, Google. Fix it.
  • I thought the iPhone had bad battery life. Even with light usage, I had to be careful to plug it in at the end of the day every day. But this Android phone brought battery suck to a new low. After a full charge, and before I installed any new apps, with it just sitting there, screen off, it was dead after 5 hours. Yikes. I was able to get things under control by installing the app that gave me control over the radios, and the app that auto-switched to airplane mode when I hit the power button. As a result, the phone goes for several days of occasional light use without needing a recharge. The downside is that it won’t receive phone calls except while I’m using it. But for my purposes, that’s fine. I never intended to actually use it as a phone–I’ve got a throwaway Verizon contract-free dumb phone on a much cheaper plan for that. But come on, Google. A phone that you need to either charge twice a day or take direct control of the battery management of is more hassle than it’s worth. Apple is kicking your butt here. This is a bad joke. Fix it.
  • I can’t ever recall having to do a hard reset on any of my iOS devices. Ever. I wouldn’t even know how. Within the first 2 days of using the Optimus, it completely locked up and couldn’t recover no matter what I did. Twice. Both times it happened while accessing the 2 GB microSD card that came with the phone (so perhaps it was a bad card–but still). Pulling the battery solved the problem both times. A brutal solution, but a reliable one. At least the Optimus has a battery cover that’s easy to remove. Google is infamous for releasing stuff that’s still beta-quality, and clearly Android is no different from their other software. If Android is going to rely on microSD cards for basic functionality, then it should be able to handle them, good, bad, defective, whatever. No excuses. In a device sold to regular consumers rather than techies, low-level hardware stuff like this should just work; Android should never have a problem that requires pulling the battery to solve. This is broken, Google. Fix it.

Overall, I think the Optimus V is a fine phone for the price, and Virgin Mobile’s plan is a very good deal. Android 2.2 is pretty OK, but it’s definitely not iOS, either in terms of robustness or user-friendliness. The apps currently available on the Android Market are either utilitarian or uninteresting. Battery management is far more hands-on than it should or could be. I would strongly recommend this phone to anyone who likes gadgets that are in and of themselves fun to tinker with, or who is looking for a bargain phone that can be made quite usable with a little sweat equity. I would not recommend it to anyone who is at all technologically phobic; anyone who is concerned about Google’s access to the data stored on their phone; or anyone who is looking for a phone that just works.

Update 6/12/2011: I still completely agree with my earlier assessment. I’ve been carrying the phone with me as a replacement for my iPod touch for almost two months now, and I use it only slightly more than I used the iPod, which is faint praise. I use it more because I can check my email without having to connect to WiFi (and enter a login and password to access the WiFi, which is a serious hassle on a device this size). I listen to music about as often; it sounds about as good as on the iPod, and ol’ WinAmp is usable without being overly “helpful”. I was thinking that I might tinker with the phone: root it and install an XDA ROM. But I’ve yet to find a compelling reason to do so. Perhaps when an Android 3.1 ROM is available for this model (if one ever is). In the mean time, it’s a good phone for a good price. Android is OK, but it’s not iOS. The uneven requirements for usage of the Menu and Back buttons is a constant irritant. I’ve tried different browsers, but haven’t found one nearly as good as Atomic on the iPod. Long term, I hope to replace this phone with an iPhone when or if ever one becomes available on a contract-free low-cost plan. Until then, the Optimus is an adequate placeholder.

Update 10/5/2011: I am fairly happy with the phone overall. For $25 / month, I’m quite happy with the Virgin Mobile service; it is an honest bargain. VM has since raised the rate to $35/month, but my phone is grandfathered in at the older rate. I’d still consider the service a bargain at $35 / month.

The phone is an excellent feature phone. Is it a $200 feature phone? No. But that’s pretty much exactly how I use it:

  • As a phone (it is a pretty good phone, though the Android dialer drives me crazy)
  • To take pictures (the camera is good and is easy to use)
  • To check email (using the K9 email client, which is a little buggy, but is free)
  • To listen to music and podcasts (using WinAmp, which is pretty good)
  • To check a mobile-web-based city bus tracker (using the Dolphin web browser, which is adequate for this one use, but is free).

There is nothing special about any of these uses; I can do all of them on my backup $20 feature phone, but they’re easier and faster on this phone. However, that’s where my usage of this phone ends. I find that once I start trying to use other apps or Android features, I quickly end up in the Android quagmire:

  • Responsiveness goes down because some app is doing something or other in the background. Screen touches are ignored, or worse, are queued up until the phone is less busy, then processed inappropriately. Menus go from sorta-sliding to stuck. It’s amazing how many apps seem to do this. Once you’ve launched them, they never really go away, they just linger around and occasionally decide that they need to do something that sucks up the CPU.
  • All those lingering apps also kill the battery. Which is short-lived enough as it is, thanks.
  • The phone often freezes within moments of unlocking the front screen, because Android has zero self-control and tries to do everything at once. Multiple app updates are all started as soon as the phone has a 3G signal. Every single app (weather, text messages, email) jumps onto the dogpile, all trying to update at the same time. Android thrashes to the point that it is completely unresponsive and the battery starts getting very warm, or completely locks up and the battery cools back down. I’ve turned off most of the automatic settings that cause this problem to happen, but the Marketplace won’t work at all unless background communication is allowed, and that opens the barn door. Oh, good, another chance to see if holding down the power button will cause Android to shut down cleanly (nope) or it’s time to fix Android by pulling the battery.

So, I stick to the basic, safe apps that don’t seem to cause too many problems. I keep most of the automatic features turned off. And as a result, I have a very fancy feature phone.

As soon as Virgin Mobile or one of their many competitors offers an iPhone 4 on a similar plan, my fancy Android feature phone goes on Craigslist.

Jun 252008
 

Apple iPod Nano 2G Woe. My iPod Nano 1 GB is full. It is full of songs, and can’t hold one more. I’ve done everything I can to alleviate the situation, deleted random songs, albums, and podcasts, but to no avail. Clearly, the only proper solution is to get an iPhone. Because, you know, the iPhone has more storage space on it. That’s why I need one. But the iJuju will have to wait for my checkbook to reach Apple-compatible levels, no matter how many rationalizations I come up with for buying one.

Sansa e260 So, as a sort of nicotine patch for my iHabit, I recently bought a “throwaway” MP3 player, a refurbished Sansa e260 MP3 player ($45 including shipping from Woot.com). The e260 is a 4 GB iClone, with a shape, size, color, and button layout that are remarkably similar to my Nano, with the following exceptions–the e260:

  • Is about twice as thick as the Nano.
  • Is much heavier; 2.7 ounces versus the Nano’s featherlight 1.4.
  • Has a slightly larger screen, at 1.8″ diagonal 176 x 220 pixels, as compared to the Nano’s 1.5″ diagonal 176 x 132 screen. That’s enough to make Solitaire much easier to see on the e260.
  • Has the Play / Pause and Menu buttons reversed.
  • Has a light-up scroll wheel that actually turns.
  • Has an FM tuner.
  • Has a replaceable batter.
  • Has a slot for a microSD card, so that additional songs and videos can be stored there. Scroll down to read more about this.

It is otherwise a very faithful (if less elegant) replication of the second-generation Nano.

Overall, I am surprised and delighted to say that the e260, particularly when combined with the remarkable Rockbox F/OSS upgrade, is a great little player. With Rockbox installed, it can do everything the Nano can do, plus a lot more. My favorite things to do are to listen to a random selection of jazz while playing “Xobox” (a Qix clone), “Jewels” (a Bejeweled clone), or good old Solitaire. I can even play Doom, though the screen is a bit small to see exactly what’s going on.

There are, however, some major caveats.

Caveat #1: Officially, the e260 isn’t Mac-compatible. Sansa makes it extremely clear that the e200 series (which includes the e250, e260, e270, and e280, but no actual e200) are in no way compatible with Macintoshes, and that even contemplating putting both in the same room will lead to mass panic, fire in the skies, cats and dogs living together, and a world-ending event that would put the Large Hadron Collider to shame. Which is, of course, an open invitation to us Mac people to find out for ourselves. Clearly, the e260 appears to be a USB drive to Windows, so it probably will do the same for Macs, yes? Well, yes. Sort of. More about that under Caveat #3. (Note that there is a similar yet different e200R series, of which I know little except that they need additional tweaking to support Rockbox. And that they’re not Mac-compatible either.)

Caveat #2: You’re on your own. Which is to say, all the handy and useful Sansa utilties are Windows-only. For us iHeads, that’s business as usual, and no reason to get excited. Some sort of Windows capability (dual-boot via Boot Camp, virtualized Windows via Parallels or VMWare Fusion, etc.) is needed to run the Sansa utilities, mostly just to upgrade the e260’s firmware to the latest version. For Mac users who are comfortable with the UNIX command line, everything else can be done via the Mac. So, if you don’t care that your Sansa has old firmware, you can get by without needing Windows at all.

Caveat #3: The e260 does indeed show up as a removable USB drive on the Mac (on the Desktop as “Sansa e260″ and on the command line as /Volumes/Sansa e260), but it takes a little futzing. If you go into the Settings menu on the e260, there is a “USB Mode” setting, which by default is set to the Windows-friendly but Mac-hostile “MTP” mode. To work with a Mac, it needs to be set to “MSC” mode. In fact, my experience has been that both modes need to be used to get a reliable connection between my Mac and the Sansa. Here’s the dance that always works for me:

  1. Before connecting the USB cable between the Mac and Sansa, power up the Sansa. (If you’ve installed Rockbox, be sure to press and hold the “<<" button while pressing the Power button. Don't let the Sansa automatically turn itself on when you connect the USB cable. This is a complex tango and the Sansa will refuse to cooperate if you don't follow each step precisely and in order.)
  2. On the Sansa, go to “Settings”, then “USB Mode”, and select “MTP” (yes, the one that doesn’t work). Press the “Menu” button to leave “Settings”.
  3. Connect the Mac and Sansa with the USB cable.
  4. Wait a few seconds for nothing to happen. The Sansa will show “Connected”, but it won’t show up on the Mac.
  5. Unplug the USB cable.
  6. On the Sansa, go to “Settings”, then “USB Mode”, and select “MSC”. Press the “Menu” button to leave “Settings”.
  7. Connect the Mac and Sansa with the USB cable.
  8. Wait a few seconds. The Sansa should show “Connected”, then “Writing”. It’ll show “Writing” for the rest of the time it is connected. The “Sansa e260″ removable drive should show up on the Mac’s Desktop. If this doesn’t happen, start over from step 1. Don’t skip any steps.
  9. Drag files from the Mac to the Sansa drive, music into the “MUSIC” folder, photos into the “PHOTO” folder, videos into the “VIDEO” folder.
  10. When done, use the “Eject” icon next to the “Sansa e260″ icon in the Finder on the Mac to close down the connection.
  11. Disconnect the USB cable.
  12. The Sansa will probably restart and then do its “Refresh Database” navel-gazing.

Caveat #4: The Sansa really likes to do a “Refresh Database” operation every single time you add or delete any files from it. Every single time. The e260 will start up, show the “Refresh Database” window with a progress bar below it, and slowly do the update. Once you’ve got a few gigs of stuff on it, this will take over a minute. And will quickly transform from cute quirk into an annoying time-waster.

Caveat #5: Music from the iTunes store? Officially, no. You can transfer songs from the iTunes Store to your iPod, but not to the Sansa, because they’re in a M4P or M4A format that the Sansa can’t handle, and because they’re encrypted to protect them from Music Pirates, yarrr. However, the Sansa can handle standard MP3 files, and there are ways to convert the iTunes songs into generic MP3s. (Hint: iTunes can be set to burn playlists of songs onto a standard audio CD. This can be a good way to safeguard your iTunes investment by making a safety backup of your purchases. iTunes can also be set to import standard audio CDs into generic MP3 files. And those generic MP3 files can be copied from iTunes to other places on the Mac, like, say, removeable USB drives.)

Rockbox So, with the Sansa caveats out of the way, it’s time to look at Rockbox. Rockbox is, like many F/OSS efforts, both amazing and frustrating. It works very well, has a ton of features, and has a user interface that takes a bit of getting used to. Here are a few important things to know about the combination of the Sansa e200 series, Rockbox, and the Mac:

  • It’s easiest to use the Rockbox installer / utility and do a complete installation of Rockbox rather than to download the latest build of Rockbox itself and install it by hand. The installer will download and correctly install all of the zillion and one bits that make up the Rockbox universe, including all the themes (skins), fonts, games, everything. You can do this by hand on the Mac, but you’ll be downloading, unzipping, and copying a lot of files. The Windows version of the utility seems to work a little better than the Mac version, but they both get the job done.
  • Once you’ve installed Rockbox, the original Sansa firmware will still be on the e260. Rockbox doesn’t overwrite it, but does a sort of Boot Camp type of dual-boot. To cause the Sansa to bypass Rockbox and run normally do this:
    • Press the Power button to turn the Sansa off.
    • Press and hold the “<<" (Previous or Left) button.
    • While continuing to hold the “<<" button, press the Power button. The Sansa's screen will show the SanDisk logo, then turn white, then show a bunch of techie-looking text starting with "Rockbox boot loader", then will start up normally.
    • Release both the “<<" and Power buttons.

  • Rockbox is playlist oriented. Every time you select a song, Rockbox creates a playlist on the fly made up of the album that the song is part of. You can add songs to playlists and save the playlists right on the Sansa, but it’s kind of a pain to do. However, it is possible to create playlists using the Mac.
  • Rockbox uses the very simple text-based M3U format for playlists. Essentially, the M3U playlist file is just a list of filenames, one filename per line. You can edit an M3U playlist in TextEdit. The contents will look something like this:
    ./MUSIC/Eagles/Their Greatest Hits/Eagles—Tequila-Sunrise.mp3
    ./MUSIC/OMC/How Bizzare/02 How Bizarre (Mix).mp3
    ./MUSIC/Denis Leary/No Cure for Cancer/03 A_____e.mp3
    ./MUSIC/Elvis Costello/My Aim Is True/Elvis-Costello—-The-Angels-Wanna-Wear-My
    –Red-Shoes.mp3
  • To create a “master” playlist which contains every song on your Sansa, you can do this:
    • Start the Terminal app.
    • Type the following into Terminal, substituting “e240″ or “e280″ for “e260″ if you have a different model, and be careful to include the quotes and to make sure that the slashes all tilt the right way:
    • cd “/Volumes/Sansa e260″
      find . -name “*.mp3″ > all.m3u
      find . -name “*.MP3″ >> all.m3u

  • Now you can use the Finder to make copies of “all.m3u” (make sure to create the copies in the same folder on the Sansa as the “all.m3u” file, and not on the Mac), and edit the copies with TextEdit. For example, you can make a copy and call it “jazz.m3u”, then edit the “jazz.m3u” copy in TextEdit and delete all the songs from it that are not jazz. You can make similar copies for different musical genres, country, world music, whatever. Just be sure to edit the copies and to not edit the original “all.m3u”.
  • To edit the M3U files in TextEdit, DO NOT double-click on them. This will open them in iTunes, which will take forever and will cause iTunes to attempt to import all the songs. Instead, right-click or cntl-click on the M3U file to bring up the pop-up menu, then select “Open With”. Select “Other…”, and choose TextEdit. You’ll need to do this with every file, since the Mac is convinced that M3U files should be opened with iTunes, even if you click on the “Always Open With” box.
  • Note that you’ll need to recreate the “all.m3u” file each time you add new music to your Sansa. And you’ll need to copy and paste the new songs from the “all.m3u” files to the appropriate playlists.
  • You might think, “Wait a second. iTunes can export playlists, even as text files. Why can’t I just use my iTunes playlists instead of going through all this hassle?” Well, the problem is that iTunes can’t export an M3U format playlist. And the other problem is even if you use one of the iTunes-M3U translation apps out there, you’ll still need to hand-edit the resulting M3U files to fix the pathnames of the files, since they’ll have the Mac pathnames instead of the Sansa pathnames. And the other other problem is that if you use the workaround hinted at in Caveat #5, the track numbers embedded in the filenames won’t match up between the Mac and the Sansa, so you’ll have to hand-edit those as well. By the time you do all that editing, you might as well do it this way. Once you’ve done it a couple of times, it is easy, if a little tedious.
  • To play your newly created playlists in Rockbox, you need to do something a little odd. Don’t select “Playlists” from the main menu, as you might expect to do. Rather, select “Files”. Scroll down to the M3U playlist file that you want to listen to, and click the Select button. Rockbox will immediately start playing the first song in the playlist. You can press the Menu button and turn Shuffle and Repeat modes on if you want.
  • You can also go to the “Plugins” menu, then “Games”, and then play a game like Solitaire or Jewels while your music continues to play. (Hint: In Solitaire, to get the next card from the deck, press the “Record” button on the side of the Sansa. Everything else is done with the front buttons and scrollwheel.)
  • Rockbox is highly configurable. You can change the theme (or skin), fonts, and just about everything else. But be prepared to edit some configuration files to really tweak your Rockbox settings. The most important one is in /Volumes/Sansa e260/.rockbox and is called “config.cfg”. If you want to change the background image under Rockbox (to, say, a picture of your dogs or kids), you’ll need to edit this file, and you’ll need to use Terminal to get to it, since the “.rockbox” folder won’t show up in the Finder. You’ll also need to resize or crop the picture to exactly 176 x 220 (176 pixels wide by 220 tall) and save it as a BMP file on the Sansa. You can do this in Preview or another photo editing app. Then add or change this line in “config.cfg” to reflect the name and location of your picture:
    backdrop: /cutepups.bmp

Kingston 2 GB microSD card and USB AdapterThe Sansa e200 series comes with a microSD card slot. I purchased a Kingston 2 GB microSD card (which came with a USB adapter for the card), plus a SanDisk 4 GB microSDHC card to see how the Sansa handles them.

You can put additional music or videos on a microSD or microSDHC card and play them in the Sansa player. This capacity of the cards supported by this slot appears to be a source of great confusion. I’ve read that some versions of the e200 series can only support microSD cards that are 2 GB in capacity or smaller, while newer versions can support the larger microSDHC cards. I’ve also read that using Rockbox gives all of the e200 versions the ability to handle the microSDHC cards. Here’s my experience so far:

Card Capacity 2 GB 2 GB 4 GB
Card Format FAT-16 FAT-32 FAT-32
Card Type microSD microSD microSDHC
Mac Can Read/Write Card via Kingston microSD USB Adapter? Yes Yes Yes
Sansa Can See Card? Yes Yes NO
Sansa Can Play Music From Card? Yes Yes NO
Mac Can Read/Write It via Sansa USB Cable ? Yes Yes (If card is inserted after Mac “sees” Sansa) NO
Rockbox Can See Card? Yes Yes Yes
Rockbox Can Read Card? Yes Yes Yes
Rockbox Can Write Files To Card? Yes Yes Yes

I have a “version 1″ e260 (as opposed to the newer e200R and “version 2″ series). When i put a 2 GB microSD card into the e260 and connect it to my Mac via USB, I see two disks show up: “Sansa e260″ (the e260’s built-in flash drive) and “NO NAME” (the microSD card). The disks appear to be similar except that “Sansa e260″ is 4 GB in size and “NO NAME” is 2 GB.

Here’s the important difference: When I click on “Get Info” for “Sansa e260″, it is reported as FAT-32 format. This is the Microsoft format that was used in Windows 95 and newer versions of Windows. FAT-32 formatted disks can be up to 2 terabytes in size. However, “NO NAME” is reported as FAT-16 format, and FAT-16 disks can only be 2 GB in size or less.

So, does the Sansa only support FAT-16 formatted microSD cards? Yes and no.

As an experiment, I connected “NO NAME” directly to my computer via the Kingston microSD USB adapter, and reformatted it as FAT-32. Then I copied some music onto it, disconnected it from the computer, and plugged it back into the e260. The e260 was still able to read FAT-32-formatted “NO NAME” and could play the songs on it. However, when I connected the e260 to my computer via its USB adapter, it would lock up and wouldn’t show up on my computer. But when I inserted “NO NAME” into the e260 after the e260 was already connected to the computer and “Sansa e260″ was showing up on the computer’s desktop, then “NO NAME” showed up, and I could copy files to it just fine.

So, in other words, if a 2 GB microSD card is FAT-16 formatted, the e260 handles it just fine. If the 2 GB microSD card is FAT-32 formatted, the e260 almost handles it just fine, except during the initial handhaking when connecting to a computer via the Sansa USB cable.

This leads me to believe that the (“version 1″, at least) Sansa e200 series can’t support the larger microSDHC cards, not because they’re larger, but because they aren’t FAT-16 formatted (nor can the cards be, since they’re too big for FAT-16). Rather, my guess is that it almost supports them, because it mostly (but not quite totally) supports FAT-32. It possibly can read them and play music and videos on them. It possibly can show them on a connected computer’s desktop if they’re inserted into the e200 after it is connected to the computer.

Now, when I put a true microSDHC 4 GB card (which is of course formatted FAT-32 because it is too big for FAT-16) into the Sansa, the Sansa doesn’t see the 4 GB card at all. It acts as if the card simply isn’t there.

As for Rockbox and the 2 GB microSD card, everything works fine. I can create M3U playlist files at the top of the “NO NAME” disk exactly like I can for “Sansa e260″ and Rockbox sees them and plays them:

cd “/Volumes/NO NAME”
find . -name “*.mp3″ > noname.m3u
find . -name “*.MP3″ >> noname.m3u

The only oddity is that Rockbox’s “Files” app ignores the volume name “NO NAME” and instead displays the disk as “<microsd1>”.

The same is true for Rockbox and the 4 GB microSDHC card. Rockbox sees the card, can play music from the card, and can even write files to the card. (Note: since the Sansa can’t use Rockbox during USB transfers to and from the Mac, the Sansa can’t be used to copy music or video files to the microSDHC card–the microSD USB Adapter must be used for that.)

Overall, the 2 GB microSD card is quite useful, since I can connect it directly to my computer and quickly copy files to it without involving the Sansa (or the Sansa’s need to do the full “Refresh Database” process every time I copy over a single file). The 4 GB microSDHC card is almost as useful, but is slightly limited since the Sansa in native (non-Rockbox) mode can’t use it. However, I rarely use the Sansa in native mode, since Rockbox makes the Sansa so much more versatile–and Rockbox accesses the microSDHC card just fine.

And that’s it. There’s some hassle involved, but in the end the Sansa e260 and Rockbox can be used with the Mac, and will have all the capabilities of the iPod Nano plus a lot more, for a fraction of the price.

 Posted by at 5:54 AM