Sony Walkman

You can’t talk about any personal MP3 player without mentioning the product saving Apple’s bottom line at the moment, the iPod. The reason is because no MP3 player can be assessed without holding it up against the machine whose name has been synonymous with personal digital music players.

The new Sony Walkman has three directions from which to try to steal the market share from its glistening white competition.

The first is in the amount of storage you get for your money. At $379, the Sony Walkman gives you 6Gb. For $449, Apple gives you 30Gb. That works out to Sony charging you exactly four and a half times per unit of storage for your music, so if you’re the type who loves the idea of 10,000 songs on your player, it’ll soon fall short of your expectations.

The second consideration is form. It’s ironic that Apple has driven such a design culture in digital media products that function is hardly an issue to be considered anymore. The interface and accompanying software (iTunes) have set the virtual defaults for the industry, and any player that doesn’t offer functionality even close to being that easy to use probably wouldn’t even reach market stage. So design — how the thing looks and feels in your hands — is in some way the more important factor.

In this, Sony really does give Apple a run for its money. It’s a beautiful-looking device, around 80% of the iPod’s size, pleasantly shaped and gorgeously coloured. The screen is actually built into the machine behind the fruit-hued casing, giving the illusion that the onscreen information is appearing out of thin air, perhaps being projected onto the plastic. The layout of the few simple controls is easy to access and none of them upset the clean lines and ‘holdability’.

Another salvo in the mp3 wars is in what a given device can do. Sure, the Sony Walkman plays music. And if you asked, Sony marketing executives (along with those from Panasonic, iRiver and anyone else who makes digital music players) would probably tell you they’re only interesting in making devices that play music, not ones that hold photos or play movies.

But for every advance the others make, along comes a new iPod that does something else. If the Sony Walkman (or any other player) came out in front for once by including a camera or inbuilt podcasting software, they’d steal much of the thunder of other players.

The Walkman comes with the CONNECT player software (for PC only — those small few Apple users who don’t want an iPod continue to be ignored) which is easy enough to use to transfer music to and from the device and connects via USB so you can use the Walkman as a removable disc for your data as well.

The interface on the player isn’t as responsive as it could be. You’ll have to get used to the little spinning disc icon telling you it’s accessing a track or the next menu, and it can be a little off-putting when you’re used to a music player that just clicks from one menu to the next with no delays.

But it does appear free of the battery issues that have plagued its more popular competitor. The West tested the Walkman for almost a week on one charge of the battery. That’s probably got as much to do with the Walkman shutting itself down after a few seconds, but few iPods retain their charge for so long if they’re left unplugged.

So if all you want is to play music, you could do a lot worse than the Sony Walkman. There’s better value for money around but there aren’t many other manufacturers who’ve taken visual appeal so seriously.

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