When it comes to small MP3 players, the iPod Shuffle and iPod Nano are tough acts to follow. The SanDisk Sansa Clip Zip is neither as petite nor as stylish, but it has features in spades: an FM radio, a voice recorder, a workout timer, and a microSD card slot for adding more storage - and all for a very modest price, making it well worth considering if you're on a tight budget.
Sandisk offers the Sansa Clip Zip in two configurations. I tested the 4GB model, which is available in seven colors (red, orange, purple, blue, black, white or gray) at $50 (as of January 4, 2012); the 8GB model costs $70 and comes only in black or gray. By comparison, the iPod Shuffle has 2GB of memory and costs $50, while the Nano goes for either $130 (with 8GB of memory) or $150 (16GB).
Like the Shuffle and Nano, the Sansa Clip Zip has a hinged clip on the back that you can open to attach to a sleeve, waistband, handbag strap, or any other garment or accessory. The bright colors of the Zip Clip's cases also recall the Nano and Shuffle, but the Zip Clip's case is plastic and doesn't look nearly as classy as the metallic iPods.
And while it's not a huge device by any standard, the Zip Clip is a lot larger than its Apple competition: It's roughly the height of two Nanos or Shuffles stacked on top of each other, and it's over half an inch thick, clip included, versus about a third of an inch for the iPods.
Like the Nano, the Sansa Clip Zip has a small (about 1 inch square) colour display. But it's not a touchscreen, and it occupies only the top half of the Clip Zip. Underneath it, a small strip of the plastic case displays the Sansa brand, and the rest of the surface is covered by a silvery metal navigation pad with four arrow controls surrounding a select button, and a return button inset into the top left of the pad. These controls move you through menus and options that appear on the display. While this approach isn't as intuitive as the iPod Nano's multitouch-enabled display, it works quite well once you get used to it.
Getting content from a PC or music service onto the Sansa Clip Zip wasn't exactly difficult using an included USB cable (which also charges the battery), but it lacked the simplicity of using iTunes - mainly because you have several options for content acquisition. You can drag and drop music files onto the device, use Windows Media Player, or use a supported music service (Rhapsody, Napster, or eMusic).
On a Windows 7 PC, all of these options are available via the standard Windows device management page that appears when you connect the Zip Clip; the page also has links for installing a firmware updater, purchasing accessories, and a number of other tasks that don't apply to the Zip Clip. (On a Mac, the Zip Clip appears as a removable drive.)
The Zip Clip supports MP3, WMA, Secure WMA, Audiobooks, Ogg Vorbis, FLAC, and DRM-free iTunes AAC files (which it converts to WMA format during the transfer process). You can also transfer Windows Media Player playlists. On the device itself, playlist creation is somewhat limited: You can put tracks on a GoList (essentially creating a single custom playlist), or you can have it play your top-rated tracks (based on ratings you assign on the device). Other music playback options let you sort your music by album, artist, song, folder, genre, or recent additions - and within each of these groupings you can opt to shuffle the content.
You access the music playback options by clicking the Music screen that appears when you first power up the Clip Zip; you access other functions by scrolling left to right. For example, the FM Radio function lets you seek stations and create up to 40 presets; you can also record up to two hours of a station to which you've tuned. Reception was surprisingly good in my tests, and I liked the way the frequency was clearly displayed in the small but bright display.
A Rhapsody function supports Rhapsody channels, which are basically playlists based on genres, including a customised channel based on your Rhapsody library. Clicking the Books function brings up a list of audiobooks and podcasts. The Voice function lets you record up to two hours of audio using the device's built-in microphone; quality, however, is so-so.
The Zip Clip also has a workout timer, accessible under the Sport screen. You can use this to record not only start and stop times, but laps. You can save the results as logs, but you can't transfer the logs off the device, an omission that diminishes the potential value of this feature.
A Card function provides access content on a microSD card (although you can also access music, audiobooks, and podcasts through their respective playback functions).
The Zip Clip's Settings function provides an assortment of controls and options, including display brightness, the way the navigation keypad works with audiobooks, and even a nifty feature that compensates for differences in volume levels on music tracks (so that you don't get blasted away by a track that was created at exceptionally high levels).
Overall, the Sansa Clip Zip is an appealing value alternative to the Nano or Shuffle. Yes, it's not as cool-looking, and yes, it lacks some of the sexier features on Apple's MP3 players (such as the VoiceOver feature that uses computer-generated speech to tell you what you're listening to), but it delivers a lot of meat-and-potatoes functionality for not too much money.