Hands-on Review of Sony's X-Series Walkman


Sony X Series Touchscreen Walkman

Sony X Series Touchscreen Walkman

It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of the S-Series Sony Walkman. The combination of tiny form factor, amazing battery life and un-matched sound quality keeps it at the top of my list of MP3 players. It’s the one I take with me everywhere; including the gym where normally a smaller unit like an iPod Shuffle would be preferable. I just can’t bear to be without the noise-cancellation and the SenseMe features of the Walkman.

So I was super curious to see what Sony would do with the new X-Series Walkman which made a sort of sneak-peek debut at this year’s CES show in Las Vegas. At the Sony booth it sat inside a sealed transparent cylinder, teasing us with it’s glossy screen and minimalist design. For me, the wait ended when Sony Canada finally sent me a review unit last month. I’ve now been playing with it for a few solid weeks – here’s my take on Sony’s latest addition to the Walkman family…

Form Factor

For the X-Series, Sony has bulked up the Walkman quite a bit from the S, B and E series. It’s thicker, wider, longer and heavier than the previous generation. For iPod enthusiasts it’s like going from a Nano to an iPod Classic. Sony has wrapped the edge of the case with a textured plastic that reminds me of rough-granite. I know that doesn’t sound immediately appealing but it was a good choice – holding the Walkman in your hand with the sides of the unit gripped by the edges of your palm feels good. Unlike other players which have made use of slippery surfaces for the entire case, the Walkman doesn’t feel like it’s about to slip from your hands. Even if you were all sweaty from a work out, it would likely stay put.

The next thing you notice on the X-Series is layout of the external controls, of which there are quite a few. Unlike Apple’s iPod Touch who’s super-minimalist design offers only home, power and volume buttons, the X-Series offers users a greater variety of controls which, considering the fact this is a touch screen device is a surprise – but a very welcome one.

As anyone who owns a touch screen media player will tell you, they’re lots of fun to interact with but the moment they disappear into your pocket, your left with a feeling of sensory deprivation. How do you pause or play, or switch tracks without having to haul the thing out again, unlock it and start poking and swiping with your finger?

Sony has obviously realized that there’s no reason why a touch screen can’t be complemented with a few physical buttons to allow ‘blind’ operation of the essentials. That’s why sitting atop the X-Series’ top edge is a trio of small but very accessible buttons: Track back, Play/Pause and Track forward.

With these controls, you can easily reach into your pocket (or if you’re really dexterous just feel through a layer of clothing) and do the two most-needed activities when listening to music. Navigate and Start/Stop.

Of course there are also controls for volume level, Noise Cancellation On/Off (more on this later) and a Hold switch in addition to the Home button on the front of the Walkman.
Interestingly, Sony seems to have abandoned the bottom facing headphone jack  that Apple popularized with the first generation iPod Nano and which Sony subsequently adopted on all of its recent Walkman models. The jack has now moved back to the more traditional top facing spot on the upper left edge of the device. While I was not initially a fan of bottom mounted jacks, I’ve become one since they debuted mainly because I like that when I place the player in my pocket head-down (which keep the player in the same vertical orientation if it was in my hand) it means the headphone cord isn’t being crammed into the bottom of my pocket. I’m always fearful of the headphone jack giving out due to increased stress on the headphone plug, and have had many portables die on me over the years for that very reason. So while I’m sure Sony had a good reason for moving the jack, I’d prefer it on the bottom.

Speaking of jacks and plugs, I really wonder what Sony was thinking when they designed the headphones for the X-Series. Don’t get me wrong I LOVE the way they fit, the sound they deliver, the integrated noise-cancelling, it’s all top notch. But the plug itself – it’s HUGE, at least by today’s standards. The non-flexible portion of the plug measure 2cm in length.  By comparison, Apple’s standard plug for the classic iPod earbuds is half that size. Then you need to consider the flexible portion (which frankly isn’t that flexible) which adds another 1cm to the overall length. Suddenly, we’re at 3cm for the plug which incidentally is 1/3 of the overall length of the Walkman itself. Go on, call me a nitpicker, but Sony can’t you figure out a way to make this thing shorter? Ok I had better stop talking about this  – I think my blood pressure is getting dangerously high.

Touch Screen

The screen on the X-Series is a delight to behold. The OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) display is bright, clear, and crisp and the colours absolutely pop out at you with a vibrancy that makes you wish your TV was made of this stuff. The 16×9 aspect ratio lends itself perfectly to viewing movies and the 3” diagonal size is big enough that you could easily sit through a feature-length film without too much trouble. While the iPod Touch’s screen is a more generous 3.5” diagonal, the Walkman’s vivid display, tighter pixel spacing, wider viewing angle and super-fast pixel response rate makes for a more appealing viewing experience. One thing I learned however is that OLED screens, unlike LCDs, do suffer from burn-in if the same image is left on the screen for too long. Not a problem for watching movies, but something to keep in mind if you’re leaving a photo or other static image displayed.

The touch interface is good, though it takes some getting used to and those with thicker fingers may find some touch activities awkward. Using the touch screen is very straight forward and there are no multi-touch gestures as on the iPod Touch. You’ll find that the X-series prefers light, quick taps instead of heavier ‘presses’.  The on-screen ‘buttons’ respond with both a subtle amber glow and an optional audible ping to let you know you’ve successfully made contact.  This generally works very well and I found that after a few minutes I was navigating around the various screens quickly and easily.

Then there are times when using the touchscreen to navigate your music can be tricky. You can ‘flick’ to scroll through a Cover-Flow style view of your albums, but it takes a while for the Walkman to update the album cover thumbnails leaving you with a series of placeholder icons as it catches up. The flick motion is not as sophisticated as on the iPod touch. The “spring-back” feeling is imprecise, and on longer lists you can often end up scrolling much faster than you want.

Where it gets really awkward is trying to surf non-mobile friendly websites with the Walkman’s built-in browser.  It’s not actually the touch-screen’s fault as much as it is the browser’s.  It’s just not up to the task of rendering and navigating full-scale webpages. More on this in a bit.

Lastly, and this is a sad truth for all touch screens, the thing is a crazy finger-print magnet. No sooner have you peeled back the factory plastic protective coating and tried a few of the device’s features, and it’s covered in smears and blotches. Since there’s obviously no getting around this with the current generation of materials, Sony, I suggest you take pity on your buyers and include a micro-fibre cloth or bag with every X-series. It wouldn’t cost much and it would be welcome accessory.

Sound Quality and Noise Cancellation

Let me repeat, in case I haven’t made it crystal clear. Sony’s Walkman media player sound great. But the S and X Series take it to a whole new level. The secret is in the unique combination of high-quality circuitry and software that they use for sound processing, and the superb earbuds that are also the conduit for the Walkman’s noise-cancelling function. If you stripped away all of the other bells and whistles and simply kept MP3 playback, noise cancellation and the earbuds, this would still be a device worth owning.

While the S-Series had noise-cancelling, it was non-digital. This means that exterior sounds are picked up by the earbuds’ built-in microphone and these are automatically cancelled by an opposite noise profile being generated through the speakers in the earbuds. It’s a great system that generally produces the desired effect. In the X-Series, Sony has introduced a digital version of the NC system. The primary benefit is that you now get three options for fine-tuning the noise-cancelling to your environment. The choices are Airplane, Bus/Train and Office. Although subtle, these settings do make a difference.  Which mode you choose depends a lot on what the primary source of noise is in your immediate vicinity. At my office, I keep a fan running under my desk because I tend to feel to warm if I don’t. The constant whir of the fan is best cancelled by the Airplane mode. But if I turn the fan off, and switch to Office, the Walkman seems to do a better job of dampening the general buzz of activity combined with the HVAC’s white noise that is present in so many office environments.

On the music side of things, the X-series shines. Sony has kept the plethora of equalization and surround effect options that they implemented on the S-Series. The abundance of choice means that, with a bit of experimentation, anyone can tailor the sound to suit their tastes. The earbuds have a shape that so far is unique in the headphone universe, a design that I call a ‘hybrid-bud’ because it looks like someone fused a traditional earbud with an in-ear sound-isolating model. The result is the best fitting and best sounding earbud that I’ve found – at any price. I think Sony may have realized that these buds might find a home in people’s lives beyond the Walkman: The S-series buds had a small lug on the plug portion that prevented them from being used with any other device but the Walkman. The X-Series has done away with that design and these new buds will fit any standard mini-jack device.
Also present on the X-Series is the ability to plug the Walkman into any other mini-jack device so that you take advantage of the noise-cancelling circuit – perfect for watching movies on an airplane – Sony even includes a double-jack headphone adapter for that very purpose.

Wi-Fi, Web Browsing and YouTube

The implemention of  Wi-Fi on media players hasn’t been consistent by any means. In the case of Microsoft’s Zune, it was touted as a way to make music ‘social’ by allowing fellow Zune users to discover each other and share musical tastes. You could also use the Wi-Fi to wirelessly sync your Zune to your PC if you happened to leave the USB cable somewhere else. The Social aspect never really caught on, partially because shared songs could only be played back three times before they expired but mainly because the odds of finding someone else near you with a Zune was almost zero. The wireless sync option was neat, but it was dead slow compared to using a cable, and for most people the need to sync was less than the need to recharge, so the feature was rendered a bit moot.

Apple on the other hand, uses Wi-Fi exclusively on the iPod Touch and its sole purpose is Internet access. It uses it for the browser, the App Store, iTunes and to enable any apps that depend on net access to function.

Sony’s use of Wi-Fi fits more with the Apple scheme than with Microsoft’s, but lacking a sophisticated mobile browser and not having any kind of app store or online music shop, we’re left wondering why exactly Sony included it. There are three things you can do with the X-Series Wi-Fi: Surf the web, access YouTube via a proprietary interface and download subscribed podcasts. It turns out that this seemingly limited feature set is a Canadian-only problem. In the U.S., the X-series comes equipped with the Slacker online radio service, and you can download songs from the Sony music service (in fact they give you 100 free downloads when you buy the X-Series) which means the iTunes missing part of the equation at least gets filled south of the border. Not so for us Canucks.

As I mentioned earlier, the built-in browser is horrible for traditional websites. Trying to navigate a full webpage, especially one that is designed for the width of computer screen is hard enough what with all the side-to-side scrolling required, but then you’ve got to patiently wait for the whole page to load, which can take quite a while. Expecting to see embedded videos? Sorry. Even though the custom YouTube interface works nicely, surfing the real YouTube doesn’t work at all since there’s no flash support. But, it does a good job with mobile-friendly ones. And quiet a few sites – Google included – do recognize Sony’s browser as a mobile device, which goes a long way to making it work.  But until the mobile web develops into a more robust experience that it is today, surfing on the Walkman will remain something you will probably want to avoid.

Strangely, one of the things that makes the browser so awful is something that I think could be easily fixed: there is no option to use a soft-QWERTY keyboard for text-entry. Instead, we’re reliant on alpha-numeric keypad like the kind you find on cellphones. It just doesn’t make sense – here we are with a responsive, vibrant touch screen and yet we’re forced into an awkward text-entry system that was designed to accommodate people who only had 10 keys at their disposal.  There are some nasty gotchas associated with this scheme. If say, while in the browser you go to the trouble of tapping your way through a site’s url like “www.sync-blog.com”  and you say ‘OK’, you get an error. The ‘http://’ must be there – otherwise the browser doesn’t know what to do. Worse still, the exact combination of taps required to generate that string of characters took me at least 15 seconds. Brutal. Sony, if you can give us a QWERTY keyboard via a firmware update, please do – it will enhance the usability of the browser immeasurably.

YouTube on the other hand, is beautifully integrated. From the home screen on the Walkman, you can access the YouTube option directly. Once in and connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot, you get the current list of featured videos. My experience playing back YouTube videos was flawless. No streaming issues, no buffering, just clean and smooth video.

You can search YouTube by Featured, Most Viewed, Keyword or Related. And, despite the aforementioned torturous text-entry method, the results are great – YouTube and the X-Series were made for each other.

But perhaps the best part of having YouTube so tightly integrated on the Walkman is using your own music collection to explore videos. While playing any song on the Walkman, tap the web icon on the bottom of the screen and choose the YouTube option. Up comes a list of every video that matches the combination of Artist and/or Song Title. I tried a few songs at random and in each case I was able to find a video that went with them. One in particular, AC/DC’s Thunderstruck, yielded a live performance of the song which I had never seen before (how the heck does Angus maintain that blistering guitar riff for so long?). It’s a great way to explore music and an even better way to explore YouTube.

Other Features

The X-Series has the kind of full feature set that we’ve come to expect from nearly every portable music player:
– FM Radio (but still no FM Radio Data Service… why??)
– Photo Gallery (images look incredible on that OLED screen)
– Movies
– Podcasts

These are all well executed and so I’m not going to go in-depth on any of them.

Two things I will point out though are:

Battery Life – Sony rates it at about 33 hours for regular music playback which is a little less than the iPod Touch and 9 hours for video playback which is significantly better than the Touch. Attribute this to the X-Series OLED screen which sucks much less power that the backlit LCD screen on the iPod.

Missing SensMe Feature – On the S-Series Walkman, one of my favourite features is the SensMe Channels. This cool feature analyzes all of your songs as they get loaded onto the Walkman and then categorizes them into 9 different genres based on 12 different musical elements like beat, rhythm, tonality, tempo etc. The result is 9 playlists that are based on your mood, and not on a pre-defined set of songs that you or someone else assembled. Better still, those channels update themselves automatically anytime tracks are added or removed from the Walkman. I thought it was a brilliant idea so I’m completely dumbfounded by Sony’s decision to remove it from the X-Series. Sony, if you’re listening, PLEASE bring back the SensMe channels with a firmware revision – it’s a killer app and I miss it a lot!

Software

Unchanged with the X-Series is the availability of the Sony Content Transfer software. This little utility which shows up as small window on XP and as desktop Widget under Vista, gives you complete drag & drop functionality over the Walkman’s contents. You can move files from within Windows Explorer or you can do so from within iTunes or Windows Media – the choice is yours.

Or if you prefer, you can install the provided Sony Media Manager software. This gives you a simple yet effective interface for managing and moving your files around; though don’t expect any sophisticated extras. One big gripe: The Media Manager software has the ability to automatically convert any video file you have on your PC to a format that is compatible with the X-Series. An essential feature if you want to watch videos on your Walkman. The catch is that this feature isn’t enabled by default – you have to go online and pay $12 for the upgrade. $12! Seriously Sony? You’re selling a device that was built from the ground up to be a video playing machine: 9 hours of battery life, awesome sound, 32GB of memory and stunning screen. You are also charging people $499 for the privilege. But now, in a move that boggles the mind, you want people to pay an extra $12 to be able to transfer their videos effortlessly to their Walkman. That is just not cool. Take the $12 hit and make it a standard feature. It’s the right thing to do.

Summary

This was a challenging review to write. There’s a lot to love about the X-Series: Great sound, awesome screen, fun features, generous internal memory and very strong battery performance.

On the other hand, things like a rotten browser and cumbersome text-entry really drag an otherwise compelling package down.

Lastly there’s the whole question of X-Series vs. iPod Touch. They beg to be compared to one another even if the differences are significant.  And at $429, the 32GB iPod Touch is $70 cheaper than the $499 X-Series.

It comes down to this: If listening to music really matters to you – i.e. you want the best sound possible from your portable – and you want a vibrant screen that lets you play movies anywhere, I say get the X-series. You won’t be disappointed with the sound, the visuals are breath-taking and there’s a lot of fun to be had with the Wi-Fi features, especially YouTube.
If however, you’re looking for an alternative to the iPod Touch, keep looking.  The Touch is quickly evolving into a full-fledge portable computer capable of way more than simple media playback. The X-Series can’t compete with the vast array of features found on that device. But it can and does outshine the Apple unit in the sound and vision departments which are arguably the two most important features of a portable player anyway. If the $70 price difference is bothering you, look at it this way: You won’t find an add-on noise-cancelling option for your iPod that works as well as Sony’s – at least not for $70.

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