SanDisk Sansa TakeTV and Fanfare Video Service Beta Reviewed (Verdict: Wait and See)

SanDisk_Sansa_TakeTV_1.jpgOver the weekend, blabbed on SanDisk's Sansa TakeTV, formerly previewed as USB TV. Now available, the TakeTV mobile video player will cost $100 for 4GB and $150 for 8GB. also mentioned the Fanfare video service, now in beta. It just so happens we got to play around with both, shoot some galleries and formulate some early opinions:

It's a funny little system, consisting of a video-capable USB flash drive, a dock with S-video, AV composite connectors and a power cord, and a remote that the flash drive can hug when not in use. You dock the USB drive to a Windows PC to load videos from the Fanfare service, but you can also dock it in any computer, Mac or PC, and load DivX, xVid and MPEG-4 videos onto it as a mass storage drive. Fanfare setup is extremely straightforward: you sign up for a free Fanfare account, download the Windows-only client software, browse the collections from CBS, Showtime and others (slated for heavy growth in the content-partner area, says SanDisk), and click the "plus" sign when you see something you like. If the TakeTV is plugged in, the video will begin loading. If not, you will be prompted to insert it.At the moment you can't download to hard drive, and need a TakeTV. In the future, SanDisk promises that other flash devices using the TrustedFlash DRM technology would be compatible with Fanfare downloads.

Downloads are encoded in DivX, and an hour of programming takes up just under 1GB of memory. Download time can be slow if your connection isn't up to it, but the experience wasn't unusually sluggish. A 4GB TakeTV can hold up to 5 hours of 720x480 programming.

Once your TakeTV is filled with good stuff—for now, most of it is free—you take it to your TV (like the name implies) and place it in the dock, which you connect to your TV via S-Video or composite, plus stereo audio.SanDisk_Sansa_TakeTV_Setup.jpgImmediately a rudimentary menu pops up, and shows you your content:SanDisk_Sansa_TakeTV_Screen.jpgYou select a video and after a potentially long "loading..." period, it starts to play. I'm not going to lie, the video doesn't look great on a big 1080p TV. I know that's being harsh, since it's just 480i, but the Vudu box with 480p upscaled content looked damn fine, and SanDisk's Fanfare content is nowhere near that quality. Shows look blurry (as you can plainly see in the shot below), though the sound (128 Kbps) is just fine.

SanDisk_Sansa_TakeTV_Video_Sample.jpgI had a bit of trouble with a few of the videos downloaded, but let me say that since this is a beta, I'm willing to let that slide. Of course the content on the site was sparse, and I'm willing to let that go for now, too, because I fully expect SanDisk to keep its promise of expanding options.

The beef I have now is with the hardware: the remote sucked—it was non-responsive and not terribly intuitive, and fastforwarding and rewinding were exercises in frustration. While I like the simple USB-drive technique for loading video, either with Fanfare or on your own, I think that the collection of pieces is a bit of a mess: despite the fact that the drive fits snugly in both the dock and the remote, there's no real clear way to hold all of it together in a tidy package. And if you lose the remote or leave the dock at home when you're at a friend's, you are screwed.

I branded this with a "wait and see" verdict because there's so much promise, but not enough delivered yet for a full-on gavel-banging judgment. My advice to you is to join Fanfare as a lurker, before you buy the TakeTV. If you start seeing content you want, you may consider TakeTV as it is currently the only way to make use of Fanfare video. Also, if you have loads of DivX vids and are constantly yearning for a way to shuttle them to your living room, here's your chance. But my early sense is, you'll have to put up with some growing pains before TakeTV is a mature, worthwhile product. [SanDisk's TakeTV Site]

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