Sony levels iPod playing field

A term we’ve heard a lot over the last few years is ‘iPod killer’. Since Steve Jobs & Co changed the playing field of digital music with the machine that’s gone beyond a mere brand to become a cultural icon, consumer technology manufacturers have been lining up to try to knock it off its perch and grab a piece of a market so hot it’s said to have rescued Apple from several sales downturns.

The latest contender is the Sony NWHD5. Competing with the 20Gb iPod at almost the same price, the onus will be on Sony to give potential purchasers a point of difference.

One obvious area they could have paid more attention to was the name. Anyone who markets a digital music player is already behind the eight ball; Apple is seen to own the market (to say nothing of flogging their product with the marketing budget of a Hollywood blockbuster). Sony could have thought of a much more exciting name than ‘NWHD5’. Even if it had been the ‘Sony MP3Man’, that’s a lot easier to say and brand than something that sounds like the code for a computer part.

But anyone selling a digital MP3 player has two areas in which to impress. The machine itself, and the interface you use to organise and access it.

Here again, any competitor to iPod and iTunes has a thankless task. Is there even a help file for use with iTunes? Who’s ever needed one? The program is so easy to use its functions are obvious from the time you first look at it. The equivalent you receive with the NWHD5 — SonicStage — seems to have a simple enough design and functionality. It will present some challenges for you if you’re used to other music library software as it deviates from several usual conventions and some digging into help files will be essential.

It also wasn’t very responsive when we tested moving tracks from the PC to the unit. It wasn’t clear if it had crashed or was just taking an incredibly long time — as it connects via USB rather than Firewire, it does take longer.

The other area of potential advantage is in the unit itself. Simplicity of use and straightforward handling together with the longevity of the battery are the cornerstones of performance in a portable MP3 player. In the former, working the NWHD5 is much like navigating through SonicStage as they go together naturally, so you shouldn’t have any trouble if you’ve already mastered the software. Taking several design cues from the iPod, the volume, menu, stop and go buttons are more or less clear and easy to work out and the screen is a decent size and resolution for the purposes of playing music. You can even reorient the display to a different angle if you hold it side on.

After the bad press Apple’s had with the iPod battery, 40 hours of playtime sounds like a dream come true, a promise the NWHD5 mostly lives up to. The Sony website even (somewhat cheekily) talks the battery up as being removable and replaceable. The unit features what’s called G-sensor technology; if dropped from a height of more than 1 metre, the sensors lift the head off the disk platter so the impact doesn’t cause a major disk crash. And it doubles as a 20Gb hard disk, so if you don’t fill it up with 13,000 songs, it’s a great backup solution. Once again however, copying by USB is a set and walk away matter.

Unlikely to kill the iPod any time soon, Apple’s competitors will inevitably keep trying, and to the few buyers not caught up in the Apple marketing net, the NWHD5 needs to offer much more to claim superiority, but it’s a worthy equal.

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