2022 review: Sansa Fuze+
2022 June 8
$(date +%Y) is 2022, and I'm reviewing a device from 2010.
The SanDisk Sansa Fuze+ is a portable media player from 2010 which can be purchased online for around 40 USD. What's notable about this device is that it can run Rockbox, a GPL-licensed firmware for various digital music players. I have one, and I use it daily to listen to music and podcasts.
The device has three buttons and a touchpad providing 9 additional inputs. It uses a standard microUSB cable for charging and data transfer. It comes in 4GB, 8GB, and 16GB variants and supports a microSD card for additional storage. The headphone jack is located at the bottom of the device. It also has a microphone and an FM receiver.
I chose this device (from those with Rockbox support) because it was inexpensive, expandable with a microSD card, and possible to use with a standard cable type (of which I already own several). I would have preferred its predecessor, the Sansa Fuze (which had a mechanical click wheel), but the previous Fuze used a proprietary connector. I worried that if I got one, its charger would break, and I would be unable to replace it. I opted for the 4GB variant because it was the cheapest option, and I planned to put all my media on the microSD card anyway.
The button at the top is used to power the device on and off and to lock/unlock the device. (This is not a password lock for security, just something to lock the touch sensor buttons so they don't register unintentional contact.)
The other two physical buttons are volume up and down buttons.
Of these three buttons, the volume down button feels nice and responsive to me. The volume up and power buttons (which are connected differently from the volume down button) feel unpleasant (less responsive) to press, and I worry that they will stop working at some point.
I don't like using the touch interface. It's hard to know if I'm pressing the right region, which often results in me doing the wrong thing.
Overall, the plastic body seems pretty durable. I dropped mine on concrete once, and it just has some superficial scuffs on the case.
I was not able to find a teardown video or similar for the device. I haven't tried prying mine open, but I believe it is not intended to be repaired. This is unfortunate.
I used it only as much as was needed to install Rockbox.
Rockbox on the Sansa Fuze+
I wrote a separate guide for installing Rockbox on the Sansa Fuze+. This section is just about my experience using it.
Overall, it's fine. It's a little slow and unresponsive sometimes, and I have to wait a second for it to catch up. The menu layout is a bit unintuitive to me, but I've gotten used to it. Rockbox includes many theme and customization options. I ended up going with the rayboradio_ypr0 theme.
Rockbox supports many plugins. (Yes, it can run Doom!) It has a One-Time Password Manager plugin (otp) which ostensibly supports both TOTP and HOTP, but I was unable to get it working with Duo's HOTP codes.
As far as playing audio goes, it's generally a good time. It's a little quirky, sometimes in annoying ways, but nothing I can't deal with.
My only real complaint is that Rockbox does not support video playback. The Sansa Fuze+ hardware and original firmware support a couple video formats. It would be nice to have this functionality with the free firmware.
This device supports an incredible volume range, from -100dB to 12dB. For scale, I usually listen to music in the -40dB to -30dB range. The highest I've ever wanted to push the volume was around -10dB for some particularly quiet ASMR audio. (On my desktop, I would play the same audio through the same headphones at 100% volume.)
Battery life is good. (I believe mine had not been previously used when I got it.) I haven't done any proper testing, and I don't trust the displayed percentage to be correct, but as long as I plug the device in for a bit every few days, I haven't run into any issues. (I often do that anyway to load new podcast episodes to the device.)
Update 2022 September 7: My device wouldn't turn on last night. I guess the battery ran down all the way. I charged it, and it worked again, but there was a lot of noise (static, whining) coming through my headphones/speakers. I solved this problem by reinstalling the Rockbox bootloader.
There are some issues here and there which might be either bugs or me just not knowing what I'm doing. Generally, any problem can be solved by just rebooting.
The only consistent issue I've had is with the button lock. I use this periodically so I can keep the player in my pocket without it pressing against my body and skipping to the next song.
The buttons can only be locked and unlocked from the "Now Playing" screen. This becomes a problem when these events happen in sequence:
- I select some music to play.
- I enable the button lock.
- My "Now Playing" playlist ends.
At this time, the device exits the "Now Playing" screen but stays locked and cannot be unlocked because it's not on the "Now Playing" screen.
To address this, I have to hold the power button to shut down the device, then power it back on.
It should be unsurprising that I chose this device with privacy in mind.
Actually, this device fills a void in my life left by a privacy-oriented choice: getting rid of my phone a few years ago. In the past, I used my Android phone to listen to music on-the-go. A few years ago, I stopped carrying a phone altogether. (Explaining my specific motivations is a topic for a separate post, but privacy was a major factor.) Since then, I've been missing the ability to have audio pumping into my ears all the time. I spend a lot of time using computers, so I can listen to music, podcasts, etc. while seated, but not while walking around, cooking, lying in bed, and so on.
My biggest consideration was that I wanted a device that did not have any wireless networking capability. No Wi-Fi, no Bluetooth. I wanted something that couldn't talk to the outside world at all.
The only wireless capability this thing has is the FM receiver, which doesn't concern me since it's receive-only.
Truth be told, I'd prefer something I carry around not have a microphone, but I'm not actually worried about it surreptitiously recording me, especially since, again, it doesn't talk to the outside world. Without physical access, activating it to record and subsequently exfiltrating that data would be a challenge.
(I've also been transferring files to/from it only using virtual machines without network access. It's not so much that I think that's necessary for my threat model as that Qubes makes it easy, so why not?)
I like this thing. It has some issues, but I get to have a little music player that runs free software and doesn't track me. That's all I really need.