SanDisk Sansa e2x0

It is rare for me to contemplate new gadgetry without a pang of regret for the early passing of Douglas Adams.

Column “Dork Talk” published on Saturday 6th September 2008 in The Guardian “Dork Talk” – The Guardian headline.

I miss him both as friend and technology guru. For years, we played with digital toys together, swapping software and finding new ways to make our systems crash. Back in the 80s, we had acoustic coupler modems, capable of what we thought was a dazzling half-duplex 1,200 bps. In those pre-internet days (or, more accurately, pre-ISP days), we communicated with each other’s Macs via these modems: plugging telephone receivers into the rubber-grommeted holes of the coupler, we spoke into the Mac’s inbuilt microphone and waited for it to emerge from the other end as (broadly) intelligible speech. It took us a week to fine-tune the system, but in the end we could hold a conversation. We triumphantly told Douglas’s wife, Jane, who asked why we didn’t get rid of the computers, the acoustic couplers, the miles of wiring and the discs. “It’s called a telephone conversation,” she said. Doh.

sansa460.jpg

Douglas never lived to see his beloved Apple rise from near-collapse in the 90s to today’s position. He died a few months before the arrival of the first generation of iPods; I missed his response to them dreadfully, as I have every new arrival in the digital sphere since. Some Christians have What Would Jesus Do? as a motto; I have What Would Douglas Think?

I’m looking now at the SanDisk Sansa e2x0 (x=memory option, from 2Gb to 8Gb), a new media player from the flash data card people. Playing with it over the week, my mind has been turning on one of Douglas’s theories. When asked if everyone should become “computer literate”, he harked back to a 30s Boy’s Wonder Book Of Science in which one article extolled the virtues of the new generation of brushed DC motors and how they were going to revolutionise the world. There were diagrams of a “house of the future”, a huge electric motor in the attic with a series of belts driving everything from the washing machine to the rotisserie. The piece concluded that, as a result, everyone would be very handy with DC motors – “electric motor literate”. What its authors failed to predict was that such motors would indeed revolutionise the home, but instead of one big master, there’d be dozens of small motors, invisible to the user. They are still with us, in our washing machines, computers, cars – even in the first six generations of iPod. We don’t have to be motor literate, however – they are just there.

Douglas argued the same with computer literacy. We used to believe that homes would have one great computer controlling music, lights and heating. In fact, we have them in our tumble-driers and thermostats, cars and coffee machines. But we don’t have to be computer literate any more than we need to know how a car engine works. All we have to learn is how to negotiate the traffic.

The Sansa is good, but it is hard to get excited about an audio video player, even a cheap one with such a good battery life (its most impressive feature). Most of us have them built into our phones, and we’ll soon have them in our cameras, fridges and cars. It will be interesting to see how Apple copes with the diminishing excitement of new iPods. Meanwhile the SanDisk is fine. Small, good value, better sound reproduction than an iPod – ideal for DRM free music. But surely it won’t be long before MP3 players go the way of the electronic calculator: from eye-popping novelty to consumer essential to gift from the estate agent to dusty, solar-powered in a drawer.

Being flash memory, of course, the Sansa doesn’t have an electric motor. Shame: Douglas and I would have enjoyed taking it apart and proving our electric motor illiteracy.

Acronyms of the week

BPS Bits per second. In 1985, 1,200 bps was fast; your internet connection is millions of times faster.

ISP Internet service provider. In the 80s, only academe and the military provided internet service. The arrival of the first commercial ISPs ushered in the internet age.

DRM Digital rights management. System that ‘locks’ music or video bought on the internet so it can be played only by the authorised buyer.

This blog was posted in Guardian column

22 comments on “SanDisk Sansa e2x0”

  1. writedawg says:

    Thank you mister Fry. I feel the same way about new gadgets, and I never even met Douglas Adams. His love and passion for technology – in his writing and lectures and vision – was so perfect and revealing that I miss his thoughts every time I put a new app in my iPod touch, or play tennis on the Wii with my father.

    That said – I think it’s a mantle well picked up by yourself. Your enthusiasm and energy for new technology are infectious – so thank you for that and for the dozens of other super ways in which you entertain and enlighten.

    Shameless toadying aside – it was a good column.

    -Jason, Canada.

  2. Briantist says:

    I too miss Douglas, the man you called “Apple’s chief apologist” as I recall. The Fates seem a particularly unfair lot this week with the killing of the rather brilliant Hitchhiker’s producer Geoffrey Perkins.

    Loving your Radio 4 series too at the moment, Mr Fry, and I hope Radio 4 can find it in their budget to commission you to do it every week.

  3. jonmoore says:

    I’m a bit puzzled. The e280 isn’t new; it came out nearly two years ago and has been superseded by the Sansa Fuze. It is still a nice piece of kit : compared to iPods, it is cheaper and has more features (e.g. radio, voice recording), although with a clunkier interface. That said, I think you’re right that pure MP3 players are going to die out – I haven’t used my e280 since getting an iPhone.

  4. Ahnion says:

    Douglas Adams will be missed for a long time by people who never had the chance to know him, and his legacy is — I think — much, much stronger than he could ever imagine.

    I’m a bit concerned with the whole idea of losing the stand-alone music player, however. I will admit this is mainly because I have never liked the idea of cramming every conceivable function into the rather impractical form of a mobile phone.

    Now, I have no problem with the idea of a multi-purpose gadget. It’s just that the mobile phone is not a sensible basic form for such an object. A phone is a simple thing. There is no reason to give a phone heaps of processing power and memory just so it can do things that have nothing to do with being a phone. Furthermore, telling a mobile phone designer to build a smart, multi-purpose user interface is a bit like giving a five-year-old a hammer and ask it to fix the radiator — there is a chance that the result will be positive, but it hardly outweighs the guarantee of it also being loud, unstable and thoroughly misshapen.

    A PDA, on the other hand, is a more sensible choice. It is a bit larger, yes, and that may throw a few people off at first glance, but there’s benefit to an increase in size if you’re going multi-function. You have the space for a more powerful battery, which will be a considerable boon. You also have the possibility of adding a interface versatile enough to make all the functions somewhat intuitive despite the lack of specialisation. A PDA obviously already has the processing power needed for the additional functions, and as such can deliver these to you gracefully. Finally, PDA user interface design is a much more rational field than its competitor on the mobile phone side — comparing somewhere on the same scale as webcoders do to actual programmers.

    A smartly shaped PDA with a built-in mobile phone — as well as a camera and a music player function if you wish — makes ample sense. A mobile phone with half a PDA, half a camera and a severely stunted music player does not. One can’t help seeing the comparison to a music player with a built-in mobile phone.

    Of course, any design that takes an existing gadget as its base is going to suffer from reactionary engineering tendencies. The most technically rational approach would be to ditch all preconceptions and build a true personal multi-gadget, but then none of the industry giants are even going to consider such a precarious gamble, are they?

    The iPhone — for all its numerous faults — could be considered a step in the right direction. Given, the step is taken from the wrong side, but at least it’s going in the general direction of the right side. I prophesize that we may expect an intuitive, smartly designed multi-gadget somewhere in the middle of the next decade.

    Until then, I’d like to keep using a separate music player, thank you very much.

  5. RubyCosmos says:

    I’ve always loved those ‘house of the future’ documentaries that Disney Channel used to dig out and show when I was younger — generally stuff from their Tomorrowland exhibit in the ’60s or so. Seems silly to us now, but I’m curious about the mentality that’s led people to believe (at several points in the past, as you’ve mentioned) that any applications new technology will be centralised rather than self-contained.

    And yet, even so, you’ll still see people who think it’d be a great idea to somehow get all your appliances and various gadgets to talk to each other, anyway. Handy in some places, granted, but it all drifts back to everything being essentially in one spot. Boils down our feeling of technological control to one safe spot, I guess. Maybe it’s a survival instinct — if we have so many separate devices, the eventual computer uprising will be that much worse.

    This is all merely theoretical, of course.

  6. Nathan Wong says:

    I might have missed something, but as Jonmoore said, the e2x0 is hardly a new device at all. I myself have owned one for two years or so (I’d hesitate to give an exact date), and can commend it as nothing if not a superb piece of kit. In its own way does nothing particularly special or revolutionary above and beyond the myriad of other mp3 players on the market, but it does everything that it should very well. The battery life isn’t half bad either.
    That said, a particular recommendation would be to replace the default firmware with Rockbox, a Linux based replacement firmware which, despite having a markedly poorer UI, trumps the default firmware in a number of ways, including support for FLAC and OGG Vorbis codecs, and some simple games which allow one to pass the time away on the bus.

  7. AzureBlue says:

    I think you have your ‘kilo’s, ‘mega’s and ‘giga’s confused slightly there. A connection truly 1,000,000 times faster than your 1,200 bps would be 1.2Gbps, or 1200Mbps. My admittedly fairly average by todays standards 4Mbps connection is a lowly 3333x faster than your early attempts at emulating Skype. It needs to improve by another 300x to be an improvement of the magnitude you suggest. Things have improved a lot in a short time, but not that much!

  8. Jeebus says:

    When I think about DNA, I often go to http://www.towelday.org and look at his smile…

  9. breadbox says:

    My problem with sansa is that it is not DRM-free friendly enough: many of their products won’t easily play .ogg files for example.
    I’ll admit to being pretty happy with my Cowon I7Aaudio I bought six months or so ago: pricier than I wished, but 16 GB, so it holds a good amount of music.

    I wish I could have sat in on some of the conversations you and DA had — sounds amazing.

    N.

  10. ukebloke says:

    Happy days indeed. I still possess a 300 baud acoustic coupler. It has long been my intention to construct a glass fronted case for it, with a label bearing the legend “In case of emergency break glass”. The case can then be positioned next to my ADSL router.

    Douglas Adams’ work continues to give me a great deal of pleasure; re-reading all, or part of one of his books is like visiting a dear old friend.

  11. ShavenHeaden says:

    This is actually a comment for the latest Podgram. I’m probably missing some obvious way to comment on it directly but…I don’t really care that much.

    There are a few fortunate sites that have .uk rather than .co.uk – nhs.uk, parliament.uk and british-library.uk – seems these few were lucky enough to get in before Nominet were given the task of overseeing the naming conventions for .uk

    Of course, I’ve taken all this from Wikipedia, so it could all be bollocks. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/.uk

  12. He was, indeed, a man of rare qualities and is greatly missed.

  13. Gertrude Susanne says:

    I thought we were only a few steps away from computer-controlled homes? Not as in electrical appliances with in-built computers, but rather as in managing your home digitally or receiving notification of any alerts with live video via your mobile phone (I think there is even open source software available for this purpose…). Am I right in believing that Douglas Adams would have been delighted? GSK

  14. Simes says:

    I have a problem with the iPhone that is a purely practical one, and I can’t help but wonder whether anyone else feels the same as I do. I think it is something that affects multi purpose gadgets of all kinds, and it is the simple issue of size. I’m not anti gadget, or any kind of a luddite. I have worked in the IT industry for over 20 years, and I am as much of a sucker for the latest, shiniest, cleverest doodad as anyone else. However, this kind of convergence gives me one huge, and i say that deliberately, issue. I own an iPod touch. I love it dearly, and consider it a very fine machine. However, it is too big to comfortably sit in my pocket, therefore it has to be carried in my briefcase/rucksack/whatever (depending on the occasion) and extracted for use. Now, for the iPod I don’t consider that a problem. I don’t listen to music as I am wandering the streets, because, apart from the fact that it can be very anti-social, it is also potentially dangerous in my view. I would prefer to hear the bus in time to get out of the way. However, for a phone, in order to fulfil its function properly it has to be accessible quickly. This means usually in a pocket. The iPhone is just too big. I have the same issue with many of the phones that attempt to be PDAs as well. For me, small and unobtrusive is an essential requirement in a phone.

  15. Momgoth says:

    I would love to have an iPhone. The size wouldn’t be a disadvantage, as I could find it by touch alone in the Giant Black Hole (my handbag). It would be a hell of a lot easier to find than the one I have now. My problem is the cellular provider here in the US. I loathe them with every fiber of my being; so unless Apple decides to allow other carriers to provide access, I won’t be buying one any time soon.

    Mr. Adams was a truly amazing man. My sister and I are both eagerly looking forward to sharing The Hitchhiker’s Guide with our daughters.

  16. ukebloke says:

    I know this is pedantic, but I can’t help myself:

    Surely such abbreviations as BPS, ISP and DRM are just that, abbreviations. As I’ve always understood it, an acronym is an abbreviation or initialism, which forms a pronounceable word (e.g. NATO). My experience is that the misuse of ‘acronym’ seems to have crept into the IT industry – and probably others – during the 1980s.

    Given that Stephen Fry is the author of the referenced post, I can only assume that either,
    a) My understanding of the definition of ‘acronym’ is incorrect, or
    b) Mr. Fry’s original text fell foul of a Grauniad editor.

    As I often say, Associated Constituent Roots Only Numb Your Mind.

  17. gordonakelly says:

    The comments are right I’m afraid Stephen, the Sansa e2x0 series is a legacy player which has since been replaced by the Sansa Fuze.

    As a technology journalist myself I reviewed the e260 back in July 2006 and I was highly impressed.
    http://www.trustedreviews.com/mp3/review/2006/06/20/SanDisk-Sansa-e260-nano-Killer/p1

    That said, I could read you review a year old packet of pork scratchings!

    Warm regards,

    Gordon – News Editor, TrustedReviews.com

  18. tudde says:

    Re what Simes and Ahnion has touched upon already: there are obvious limits to which appliances can be crammed into a phone, as far as the resulting doodad’s (doodads’s?) shape goes. The way I see it, a sensibly-shaped mobile phone allows for an inbuilt camera, GPS and music player without any major problems. (The only problems I can see are regarding display size, which is especially important for both a useful GPS and camera.) But for organizer software or even E-mailing I’d like something with a larger display, such as a PDA/iPhone.

    I’m wondering if the future might be that of larger, PDA-sized phones such as the iPhone, but with the use of headsets becoming more common? I am reminiscing back to the late nineties when I had a Sony Minidisc player (I held on for the longest time hoping the minidisc format wouldn’t die…). The Sony minidisc players had remote controls attached to the headphones, with a small display. I really miss having all the buttons of the music player clipped on to the front of my jacet, with no need to reach into my pocket/backpack/handbag to change songs or stop the music.

    The obvious downside to this, though, is that the remote control is bound to die before the gadget itself (practically a law of nature), so one would have to be able to buy a replacement without having to buy a whole new gadget.

    Now. What I would *really* like, is for some major company to give customers the possibility to custom-build (a-haha. Pun!) their own gizmos. “Yes, I would like a cell-phone-sized thingy with an FM-radio, GPS and 20 GB of memory, but I don’t need a camera, darnit. Gimme!”

    I wonder what the future holds :) BTW, you can see what the future thought it held in the past here: http://www.paleofuture.com/

    By the way, I love how this forum isn’t a flamewar :) It’s so good to see that there are still civilised places online!

  19. Sean says:

    My boss and I are both big fans of Douglas Adams’ work and with CERN’s Large Hadron Collider having the potential to turn what we know about the university on its proverbial ear, she and I were wondering what will happen when the LHC goes full throttle in October. Will the world end on a Thursday like it did for Arthur Dent? Will a sperm whale and a pot of petunias materialize out of nowhere? You get the idea.

    What if the scientists capture an image of the particles that result from the initial collision and they see the number 42? Now that would be something. :)

    Cheers.

  20. tudde says:

    All I can say is: make sure you know where your towel is.

  21. Sour Grapes says:

    The future you predict has already arrived. Apple made a big palaver last week over new iPods which have different colours than before, or more vibrant colours, or volume controls on the side, or they’re all thinner.

    They have nothing more to say. In the meantime, for a few quid you can buy an MP3 player that’s as handy for passing music on to a friend as a CD, assuming anyone bothers with CD players any more. Soon, as you say, they’ll be giving them away at the bank.

    I look forward to the day when I can Bluetooth all my music to an implant in my erm tooth, which I’ll listen to via a tiny speaker in my skull. Nobody else on the bus will be able to hear a thing.

    That day will probably be a week next Tuesday, at the rate things are going.

  22. areyouscreening says:

    Dear Mr. Fry,

    What the heck, let’s pretend you read this.

    I’m a bit of a tech geek, and I love all sorts of gadgetry, but to be honest, I don’t give a fig one way or the other about this particular device.

    However, I felt compelled to comment because you made me throw myself back into my thoughts of Douglas Adams, and I had not strolled the lane with him in quite a while.

    I didn’t know him. I’m just a fan. I first read Hitchhiker’s when I was… I think… about ten. There are a handful of authors who you feel you know pretty well when you read there work. He was one.

    Thanks.

    Marc Eastman

Leave a Reply

Read Stephen’s previous blogs

AUDIO BOOK

Available from Apple iTunes Store.

Audio Book Link

The Dongle of Donald Trefusis

Dongle of Donald Trefusis

The new audio series of Professor Donald Trefusis.