Sony Walkman NW-A1000 review

Price when reviewed

Sony is in an enviable position. Its Walkman brand is synonymous with personal audio; its brand cachet across consumer and technology markets is unique; and its sprawling media empire makes Apple’s recent tie-up with Disney look like playground hand-holding.

Sony Walkman NW-A1000 review

Having had decidedly lukewarm success with its digital music players thus far, the NW-A1000 is the latest attempt to drag the Walkman brand into the 21st century. Using a 1.5in hard disk, the 6GB NW-A1000 is somewhat larger than Apple’s flash-based iPod nano. It will still slip pebble-like into a pocket, though.

With Sony finally accepting MP3 as a format worth supporting, the big news here is support for WMA too, via a firmware update that was released in January. Whereas Sony’s previous players transcoded WMA files into its proprietary format (in the same way that iPods do), it will now convert them on-the-fly, saving you substantial amounts of disk space and time.

Plug the device into your PC, and it’s recognised in Windows Explorer as a removable drive. But to actually transfer music to it, you’ll then need to install the Connect software. This is almost a carbon copy of Apple’s iTunes, complete with embedded browser to take you to Sony’s Connect online music store. If you try to use Windows Media Player or Explorer, music files will still be transferred, but will simply be treated as data and won’t actually show up on the device.

That would be begrudgingly acceptable if Connect was a worthy replacement, but the software is both slow and unstable, to the point of causing complete Windows lock-ups on previously stable systems. When it isn’t crashing, it shows some good touches including versatile library display options; but it isn’t a patch on Windows Media Player or iTunes. Thankfully, you can also use the latest revision of SonicStage, which is more stable and intuitive. We’d rather have the flexibility of Explorer or Media Player 10, though.

The hardware itself is a definite head-turner, receiving an almost universally positive reaction. With a range of six colours, Sony has taken a sensible cue from Apple, and the build quality is excellent too. The menu system displayed via the seemingly edgeless OLED display is well laid out, with some great playlist functions, including a ‘favourite 100′ shuffle and a play history. There’s also a good range of accessories available, including several docking options.

But while there are some great ideas, basic usability still pales in comparison to an iPod, with the interface at times simply obstructive. It’s also extremely frustrating that the NW-A1000 uses a proprietary connector, rather than a standard mini-USB. It does at least charge over this, and there’s a separate mains charger supplied too. Battery life matches Sony’s impressive claims of 20 hours – exceeding the iPod nano. We’ve no complaints with the supplied headphones either, which are comfortable in use, or the sound quality of the unit itself.

We were hoping Sony would fill the gap left by the departure of Technics’ Rio brand from the market, and begin to challenge Apple. But this product falls short of it. With Sony embracing Intel’s Viiv initiative already, the next stage must be to produce a player that can work both with Media Player 10 and Windows Media Center, as well as digital rights-protected WMA files – currently the format of choice for most online music stores. Ultimately, while no-one will be crushingly disappointed by this product, it’s difficult not to see it as a missed opportunity to stage Sony’s comeback.

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