Looking at the design of the Sansa Fuze, it's obvious which MP3 player it's setting its competitive sights on. The slim, credit card-sized form factor, the scroll wheel and the dock connector on the base all scream "iPod Nano", but there are enough distinctions to keep Steve Jobs from speed dialling Apple's patent infringement lawyers on his iPhone.
First up, the scroll wheel rotates mechanically rather than being touch-sensitive, and its perimeter is backlit in blue. Unlike the ridged and uncomfortable wheel found on Sansa's e200 series, the Fuze's wheel is smooth and thumb-friendly and rotates with nary a snag.
At the top-right of the wheel is a small circular Home button which instantly reels you back to the graphic-driven main menu regardless of what sub-layer you're in. A microSD slot and teeny mic sit on the player's left side, while the right side hosts a combo power/hold switch. As with the Nano, headphones and a proprietary USB cable get plugged into sockets on the bottom of the player.
As for the all-important size comparisons, the Nano is 6.5 millimetres thick, 69.8 millimetres tall and 52.3 millimetres wide, while the Fuze is an elongated, slightly less emaciated 7.6 by 78.7 by 48.3 millimetres. Though it may seem disadvantageous, the Fuze's heavier weight — 59.5 grams against the Nano's 49.2 grams — gives the player a sturdier, more robust feel. In other words, it's not likely to get busted if sat on by a hefty buttock or two.
Where the Fuze trumps Apple's offerings is in its features list. Sansa's player sports an FM radio, voice recorder and a microSD expansion slot — and all this is available at a lower price than the RRP of the equivalent-capacity Nanos. Apple's players retail at AU$189 for the 4GB model and AU$249 for the 8GB version, while the sassy Sansa undercuts Jobs and Co at AU$180 and AU$233.
Letdowns arrive in the form of a plain-Jane radio interface and non-customisable menus. Fondly recalling the features of the similarly slim Samsung T10, we would have liked to have seen the ability to change font sizes as well as having more than four wallpaper colours to choose from.
With its matte metallic back, glossy front and glowing wheel, the Fuze stacks up well against the Nano in the style stakes. It's only when you turn it on that the shortcomings start to surface. The 224x176-pixel, 1.9-inch display doesn't compare favourably with the Nano's 320x240, 2-inch version. Text has jagged edges and images look like they've been attacked by the pixelation monster. It's not intolerable — the main menu looks quite good — but photos and videos look much better on the Nano.
The graphic-driven main menu is cute, and the moving scroll wheel makes it easy to plough through long lists of songs. It's a shame, though, that the blocky text menus don't measure up to the smooth contours of the Fuze's outer shell.
The earphones that come with the player are also pretty cheapo. The foam padding gives a nails-on-a-chalkboard feel when you put the big buds in your ears, and the cable is quite flimsy. We'd recommend swapping them out for a higher quality set — they'll be comfier and your music will sound better. Even just switching to another pair of earbuds made a difference for us, with less distortion at higher volumes.
With its extra features and reasonable price, the Fuze is a decent alternative to the Nano, but does feel less polished overall. If you're not bothered by displays that are on the blocky side, it's one to add to the shortlist when you go shopping for your next flash-based player.