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Apple-Free MP3
Love 'em or hate 'em you can't ignore 'em, and the status that Apple have attained with their ubiquitous iPod deserves the doffing of caps and tugging of forelocks on a worldwide basis. That said I can't be the only person that gets slightly worried when I speak to people who think that iPod means MP3 player in the same way that Hoover means vacuum cleaner. The brand of choice for electronics fashionistas has been Sony, but they have been left truly by the wayside in the portable MP3 war. So they brought out the iconic Walkman brand and used it on 21st century hardware but is it enough?

Click to enlarge MP3 players aren't just about the music anymore, at least not for the majority of users. Owning an MP3 player, in particular an iPod, is a bit like wearing RayBans or carrying a Gucci handbag; a statement, proof that you're Ďwith ití. You may never listen to the music on it, or you may not need it because your mobile phone could perform the same task, but listening to music on your phone doesn't give off the same trendy aura. It's what the "B"-listers do.

The NW-A1000 from Sony proudly carries its "Walkman" moniker. They clearly believe this to be the latest and greatest in their line of high quality portable music stations, but unfortunately any positive vibes given off by the name Walkman will, for some people at least, be all but wiped out by the negative vibes recently associated with the name Sony. The recent rootkit controversy where Sony managed to put PCs worldwide at risk of being hacked by secretly installing potentially dangerous anti-piracy software on users' computers has left many vowing to never again knowingly nudge a single penny in their direction.

The Walkman is a lozenge shaped lump of lovin'. The high gloss finish, the silver highlights, the gently swept curves, it's about as tactile as hardware comes. The impression isn't complete until you pick one up. There's sufficient weight to make it feel solid and substantial with a reassuringly cold feeling from handling metal.

The NW-A1000 is a 6GB MP3 player which is good for up to about 4000 tunes, while thereís also a 20GB version, the NW-A3000, which can cram in up to 13000 songs. Both players are hard disk based rather than Flash which means slightly longer access times, though rarely more than 5 or 6 seconds.

The NW-A3000 comes in black, blue and violet while the 6GB NW-A1000 adds a pink version to its line-up.

Click to enlargeThe NW-A1000 Walkman is made in such a way that the 1.5" OLED screen is invisible when not active, and even when in use it can be difficult to see its borders giving the illusion that the entire front surface might in fact be part of the display. In reality behind the front surface and is a traditional square. Because OLED screens donít require a backlight like LCD ones, itís easier to see in a wider range of light conditions and uses less battery power.

Navigation and playback control is by way of the three buttons positioned on the bottom half of the player. The larger button has an outer 4-way directional ring for menu navigation and a central select/play/pause button. To the right of this are the option button which gives access to the home menu screen or let's you "go to" an operation on a song. Holding the option button down for a couple of seconds also shuts the device down. Below this is the "back" button which steps backward through the menu options, eventually to the 9-icon home screen. All the Walkman's buttons are back-lit making night use a doddle.

The built in equaliser allows you to choose between heavy, pop, jazz, unique or one of two custom presets you set yourself. Also I've managed to discover a way to disable the soft volume limit of 100dB.

Three shuffle modes are offered, a basic "Shuffle All" which does as the name suggests and also a "my favourite shuffle", which randomly plays the titles in your "top 100" list and a "time machine shuffle" which randomly plays songs from the same year as that of the currently playing song.

The USB data cable plugs into a slot positioned at the bottom edge of the player. It's tempting to accuse Sony of opting for a proprietary connector when the standard USB 2.0 connector would suffice, but without knowing what all the pins here do it's possible a regular USB port wouldn't do the job.

Click to enlargeUnusually, the supplied headphones are pretty decent though perhaps not that unusual considering the price. They don't quite punch out what I'd call a percussive bass but they're generally well balanced and pretty competent right across the frequency spectrum.

If there's a weakness in the whole product it comes courtesy of the software. It's not awful, but it's not great either. Sony clearly felt they needed to create an iTunes clone which considering iTunes stinks seemed like a very strange decision. However if iTunes stinks then CONNECT Player brings tears to your eyes and a lump to your throat.

It worked pretty well on my PC, though from what I've read I'm one of the lucky ones. What really bothers me is that I can't place songs on the Walkman without doing it via the CONNECT Player. This device is USB and is detected as a mass storage device, so adding songs should be as simple as dragging and dropping them, but if you do that they won't be visible. Instead you have to fire up the software, show it where all your careful sorted and organised files reside on your hard disk so it can completely jumble them up again and ask you to put them back in order. Sometimes I don't want to sort my songs by album, or by artist, sometimes I just want them transferred in the same directory structure as they're in on my hard drive, but no, not an option.

Click to enlarge

CONNECT Player is more complex and less reliable than it needs to be. It's clunky, layered and badly organised, particularly to anyone new to this type of application. Then there's Sonic Stage, which was apparently the forerunner to CONNECT Player. Alas even with Sonic Stage installed I can't get my free album until I register, clicking the "register new user" link either tells me to install Sonic Stage which I have, despite not needing it, or just takes my back to the home page, which is where I started.

Sony has a reputation for providing poor software with their music players and CONNECT player with its sidekick, Sonic Stage havenít done much to change status quo.

A sound choice?

Crappy software aside once you do finally get your tunes onto the Walkman the results are almost worth it. Sound quality is excellent, easily on a par with any MP3 player I've feasted on to date. I'm not sure if any kinds of audio trickery are employed but the SoundStage was wider than you'd expect from earphones without any electronic help.

Like the mighty iPod the Walkman collects fingerprints for the fun of it, and though it has yet to pick up any serious battle scars that might because I use a neck strap rather than keep it in a pocket with biros or loose change. I find the lack of a soft pouch unusually mean on Sony's behalf. As is the lack of an in-line wired remote, something else that's available as an optional extra.

Navigating through the Walkmanís menus is relatively simple, but because the buttons are located so close to the bottom edge it made one-handed operation a little clumsy and certainly made me glad I don't have arthritis. They're also quite small which doesn't help, though I found them less tricky than I expected.

Battery life is currently little more than average at around 8 to 10 hours, though it's likely that increased listening volume hasn't helped. It's also likely that battery life will increase after a few more charges before it starts its slow deterioration, something suffered by all rechargeable batteries.

With a street price at around £160.00 at the time of writing, the NW-A1000 Walkman is at the more expensive end of the range considering similarly capacity players like Creative's ZEN Micro also feature FM radio tuners, voice recording and organiser functions yet still manage to cost less.

What you do get though is style and lots of it, and for some people that's worth more than a slightly larger price tag.

On balance this is a slick, sexy music player that turns heads and sparks conversations. This plus its comprehensive menus and superb sound quality means it meets all the important criteria for a top notch music player. Awkwardly placed control buttons, disappointing software and a mean bundle take away some of the shine but on all told it's still a very capable piece of kit and one that's worth persevering with.


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