Tagged: walkman

Sony Walkman NWZ-Z1000 Series hands-on review

Sony's Z1000 Walkman is an Android-based competitor to the iPod Touch

Sony's Z1000 Walkman is an Android-based competitor to the iPod Touch

Pros:

  • Superb audio performance
  • Snappy performance
  • Big, 4.3″ multi-touch screen
  • Micro-HDMI out
  • SenseMe Channels
  • FM Radio
Cons:
  • Huge/thick/heavy form factor
  • No cameras
  • Compass mode is quirky
  • External speakers only so-so
  • Expensive
Overall:
  • If you’re looking for a full-fledged Android device that can handle movies, music and photos and don’t mind the lack of on-board cameras, the Sony Walkman Z1000 Series is an attractive device with great sound, but you can find more features in a smaller package for less money elsewhere.

The Sony Walkman has been a presence on the personal audio scene ever since Sony invented the category back in the late 1970s. Since then, the line of portable music (and more recently media) players has evolved continuously to keep pace with an industry that has seen more convergence than any other in recent memory. And while Apple’s iPod line of devices changed the rules of the game just over a decade ago, Sony has never given up – reinventing the Walkman at each stage to offer buyers an alternative to Apple’s juggernaut with all the hallmarks of the Sony brand: solid industrial design and audio performance.

But Apple is a tough competitor, and when they launched the iPod Touch hot on the heels of their runaway success iPhone, it became clear that the notion of a digital music player being a one-trick pony was antiquated to say the least. A new paradigm had been created – one where music, photos and video were but three elements in a vast sea of portable-computing options.

And yet, seemingly caught unprepared, Sony stuck to the basics and continued to pump out respectable, if somewhat uninspired media players. Not that they had much choice. In fact, until Google released Android, there was little any manufacturer could do to keep up with the iOS tsunami.

But there were a few bright spots for Sony’s Walkman. 2008’s NWZ-S Series introduced one of the best noise-cancelling systems available without needing to spend $350 on a set of Bose headphones. It also marked the addition of “SensMe” Channels – a proprietary way of organizing your music into mood-based categories – an innovation which has yet to be improved upon. Nearly 4 years later, the NWZ-S Series is still my music player of choice.

There were some “what were they thinking?” moments too: They ditched the SensMe system on future models of the Walkman and the ill-conceived and over-priced X Series proved that just because you add Wi-Fi, a touchscreen and a browser to a media player does not mean it will be appealing or successful.

Learning from both of these lessons, Sony is back for another kick at the portable media player can.

This time out, they’ve kept the good: Brought back SensMe, solid sound performance; and dropped the bad: the tiny screen, awful browser of the X Series have now been replaced by a full if not perfect implementation of Google’s Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) mobile operating system.

The result is a device that launches the Walkman brand into portable-computing territory without giving up the audio credentials that have been the Walkman’s hallmarks since the beginning.

Unfortunately for Walkman fans, this evolution isn’t without its trade-offs.

In creating the NWZ-Z1000, Sony has directly targeted Apple’s iPod Touch. The comparison is unavoidable given the capabilities of each device.

Design

In every dimension, the NWZ-Z series dwarfs the iPod Touch. It’s wider, taller, thicker and heavier. Take a look:

Sony Walkman NWZ-Z1050 Apple iPod Touch
W/H/D 70.9 x 134.4 x 11.1 mm  58.9 x 111 x 7.2 mm
Weight 156g  101g

Despite its heavy-set measurements or perhaps because of them, the Walkman feels solid and well built. Sony has never suffered from poor build quality or awkward design and the Z series is no exception. From the player’s cool-to-the touch metal frame to its nearly flush front surface and quirky but comfortable sway back, the Walkman has an instantly familiar feel to it. And there’s no question, you simply can’t get a 4.3″ screen without accepting a device with an overall larger footprint. Still, it’s only 22g lighter than the Samsung Galaxy Note which offers a larger screen and full 4G/LTE connectivity.

The button layout will be familiar to anyone who has used an all-touchscreen smartphone or the iPod Touch. The top power/stand-by button, side-mounted volume rocker and bottom-positioned headphone jack have become fairly standard on all devices of this size. The one departure is the dedicated Walkman logo button (Sony calls it the “W.” button) which sits just above the micro-HDMI port. The inclusion of this button is the one nod Sony has made to the device’s media-centric lineage. Hitting hit brings up the media playback controls on-screen regardless which app or home screen you’re on at the moment, and wakes the Walkman if it’s in stand-by. While I like the idea of a dedicated media button, it doesn’t address the common weakness in all touchscreen media players: you can’t operate them blind. There’s simply no way to leave the NWZ-Z1000 in your pocket and have control over play/pause track skip forward/backward or any other aspect of the media player except for volume.

It’s hard to accept that Sony, who so happily followed Apple down the design path of the iPod Touch, overlooked one of the few areas where they could have improved on Cupertino’s design. In fact, the NWZ-Z1000 could have borrowed from Sony’s own design legacy in the form of dedicated playback buttons from the X-Series, or from Apple’s playbook in the form of an inline-remote on the cord of the included earphones. Sadly, it received neither.

The curved plastic back is intriguing. It certainly sets the Walkman apart from the rest of the media player landscape, but it isn’t so much of stylistic choice as it is a functional requirement. Because Sony’s engineers placed the internal speaker on the Walkman’s back panel instead of the edges, placing the unit face-up on a flat surface would mute the sound almost completely. The curve gives the speaker a millimetre or two’s breathing room and that’s just enough to let the sound emerge.

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Screen

The NWZ-Z1000’s screen is a beauty. The white LED-backlit LCD TFT screen runs at WQVGA (800×480) and while that doesn’t yield the same kind of pixel density as the iPod Touch, which packs 960×640 into a smaller screen, you don’t notice the difference. As you might expect, browsing the web on a bigger screen is better, all things considered.

I’m a little surprised Sony didn’t opt for OLED on the Walkman as it would have been superior for battery if not for overall contrast, but I guess that at 4.3″ the cost was prohibitive.

Still, when it comes to viewing photos or movies, the Walkman performs well even without the higher-end display technology. It generates a bright, crisp image with blacks that are black enough to handle space scenes even if they aren’t perfectly pitch-black. In my experience, no LCD-based screen can deliver truly deep blacks.

One minor complaint is that the capacitive-touch doesn’t seem to be as sensitive as other screens I’ve tried. Taps didn’t always register and had to be repeated. Another niggle is the surface of the screen itself – more than other surfaces, it seems to be a real finger-print magnet. Without any evidence to support this, my guess is that oleo-phobic coatings adhere better to glass that plastic.

Performance

Other than the occasional missed-tap mentioned above, the NWZ-z1000 is a snappy performer which seems to handle the various demands placed on it by the Gingerbread version of the Android OS effortlessly. That’s probably because the Walkman is packing a Dual Core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU running at 1Ghz. That’s a lot of horsepower when you consider the latest version of the iPod Touch is running a single-core ARM Coretx-A8 at 1Ghz (underclocked to 800 Mhz).

I loaded Frontline Commando, a free first-person shooter, from the Android market and it ran seamlessly – as did Raging Thunder, another free but not very good racing game.

All of the native movie formats I tested ran perfectly, however playing back an .mkv file using the free movie player “MX Video Player” resulted is some dropped frames and occasionally out-of-sync audio.

One notable area of weakness is the compass. One of the coolest things in Android is the ability to turn on Compass Mode while in Google Maps’ Street View. This lets you hold the device in front of you and move it around (up/down, side-to-side) and have the Street View screen respond as though you were actually standing at the location on the map, looking around at the buildings and streets. But I found that the Walkman’s digital compass behaves erratically when in this mode, jumping jerkily around and not giving a smooth rotation of the street view surroundings.

Speaking of maps and directions, I’m still not sure I understand the point of navigation and mapping apps on devices without persistent data connections. With the Walkman (or the iPod Touch or any device that relies on just WiFi), if you want to get directions while in your car or anywhere else WiFi access is going to be problematic, you’re out of luck.

As I mentioned earlier, sound quality is one area where the NWZ-Z1000 really shines. The included earbuds are excellent and though I found their design a little odd, they were very comfortable and did a decent job with sound isolation. I miss the active noise reduction system from earlier Walkman models, but it’s not a deal-breaker. Sony included their proprietary EQ settings such as Clear Base, Clear Stereo, VPT Surround and a 5-band graphic EQ. I’ve always appreciated these settings on digital players and I’m glad to see Sony found a way to include them in an Android device. Sony has also included 2 settings that are meant to enhance the performance of the internal speaker: Clear Phase and xLOUD, but don’t bother with them – there is simply nothing that can make the internal speaker sound like anything other than what it is: tiny, weak and sad. That’s ok though – very few media players in any price range do a good job with this.

Featured Apps

Some of you will remember that Sony launched their first Android tablet last year – the Sony Tablet S. Reviews were mixed, but among the highlights were some of the exclusive apps that Sony included on the device: Infrared Remote Control, Sony Reader and PlayStation Games.

For reasons known only to Sony, none of these have made their way onto to the NWZ-Z1000. I’m willing to overlook the remote app’s absence – I wasn’t all that impressed with the implementation on the Tablet S, and since the Walkman doesn’t have an infrared sender or receiver it would have been pointless.

But the lack of the Reader and PlayStation games is a big mistake. Given that the Walkman’s main competitor has a built-in ebook solution (iBooks) and is already the most popular mobile gaming platform thanks to the enormous collection of free and paid games in the App Store, you would think these two areas would be on the top of Sony’s must-have list.

But no. Even though the built-in HDMI output could have enabled PlayStation games on the big screen, something which Sony appears to be philosophically opposed to (their Sony Ericsson Experia Play can do PlayStation games, but can’t output to HDMI whereas their Experia Arc can output HDMI, but can’t do PS games), the Walkman can’t run these exclusive games. Likewise, even though the NWZ-Z1000 sports a bigger screen than the iPod Touch, which would naturally make it a better e-reader, no reading apps are loaded by default.

What you do get are Sony’s “Original Apps” collection: Music Player, Video Player, Photo Viewer, FM Radio, DLNA, Wi-Fi Checker, W.Control and Music Unlimited.

At first I couldn’t figure out why one would need Sony versions of apps that are standard on every Android device. The reason they’ve been included is their clever use of DLNA. Just like on the Tablet S, you can use these apps to “Send To” compatible displays on your network. Watching a video on the Walkman and want to see it on your DLNA-equipped HDTV? Two taps and you’re done. Same thing for photos and music.

This DLNA technology works in reverse too, such that if you have a compatible DLNA media server (home PC, PS3, etc) you can access that content and view it/listen to it on the Walkman.

While buggy at times, this DLNA implementation is a strong argument that Apple’s AirPlay isn’t the only game in town for those who want to flex their wireless network’s muscles.

Wi-Fi Checker is an app that, well, checks your Wi-Fi connection by connecting to your chosen access point and then giving you some rudimentary feedback such as your assigned IP address and a confirmation that you are in fact, connected. Not quite sure why Sony felt the need to include it given that Android’s existing wireless stats are pretty good.

W. Control is merely a preference setting for how you want to interact with the maximized view of the Walkman or “W.” media playback controls. You can choose to single or double-tap the screen for play/pause and whether you want left or right swipes to skip you forward or backward one track. This should have been baked into the existing Settings app in Android.

Finally, Music Unlimited is Sony’s answer to iTunes – an online store where you can preview and buy then download music tracks directly to the Walkman.

Closest Competitors

Thanks to its size, the NWZ-Z1000 has few true competitors. This can make direct comparisons a bit tricky. Other than the iPod Touch, there are only two other devices in the Canadian market that come close, without looking at smartphones since they really do represent a different category. These are the Archos 5 32GB and the Dell Streak 5.  The Archos is the same price as the Walkman but lacks access to the Android Marketplace and doesn’t support DLNA. The Dell Streak includes cameras but because it is built as a mobile data device, you can only buy it on contract with Rogers Wireless, or no contract for $399. In my opinion the Archos, while a very capable media player, is a less-than-ideal Android device and requires optional accessories to support HDMI out. The Streak looks attractive, but if the price of the Walkman strikes you as high, the Streak won’t appeal either.

Conclusion

The Walkman NWZ-Z1000 enters the market with a peculiar set of features that makes it both unique and unexceptional at the same time. While it is a capable media player that offers a bigger screen than its closest competitor, the lack of any on-board cameras limits the ways in which you can use the device for anything other than media consumption.

Even though it’s more expensive that the iPod Touch for the same memory size, the Walkman delivers two strong arguments for the additional dollars: screen size and CPU. If you find the iPod Touch’s screen a little on the small side – as many people do – the NWZ-Z1000’s 4.3″ window is a much more comfortable viewing experience.

The Walkman’s dual-core CPU barely breaks a sweat as you put the device through its paces – there is virtually no lag or delays when moving from app to app or within the various menus. The iPod Touch isn’t as speedy and there are times when it feels like it’s running to catch up. If you value snappy performance over bells and whistles like on-board cameras, the Walkman is the clear winner.

You’ll be able to find the Sony NWZ-Z1000 Walkman at major electronics retailers later this spring for $299 for the 16GB size and $349 for the 32GB model.

 

 

 

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Apple's 5th generation iPod Nano: the perfect gift

iPod Nano photo courtesy of Lubyanka

iPod Nano photo courtesy of Lubyanka

It’s all too easy, quite frankly, to hop on the Apple bandwagon – especially these days. For the last 5 years or so, it seems the company can do no wrong. The ongoing success of its iPod family, which now includes the iPod Touch and iPhone, has done more for the Apple brand than any of its desktops or laptops ever have. Which is not to say those machines aren’t doing well – they are. Quite well in fact, with Apple enjoying one of the largest market shares in its history.

And perhaps it’s this run away success and the corresponding reviewer enthusiasm for Apple’s products that makes me want to take a much more critical look when I try out their latest offerings.

Naturally when I got my hands on the latest iPod Nano, I immediately began looking for the flaws. Trouble is, I found myself having a ridiculous amount of fun while I looked, so what began as skeptical review of just another portable media player, has now evolved into a hearty recommendation.

Here’s why.

Everything you know is the same

If you own the 4thgeneration of Nano, the 5thwill barely look like a new device when you’re holding it in your hand. In fact, there are only two physical changes to the device, which I’ll get to later. Absolutely every feature that was present in the previous model appears in this unit. That is one of the great hallmarks of Apple’s approach to the iPod: evolution instead of revolution.

But this is nothing like previous Nanos

Brand new in this generation is:

–          An FM Radio with pause and rewind functionality

–          Integrated pedometer with iPod Nike + compatibility

–          A voice recorder

–          An internal speaker

–          A larger display

–          A VGA camcorder

It’s these extras that put the new Nano in a class of its own. Media players that can handle audio, video and photo playback litter the landscape – it’s practically table stakes these days. Most of these devices also pack and FM radio and there are even a few that do voice recording or recording from the FM tuner.  But you won’t find a device at any price that merges these functions into one unit and then throws in video clip recording, games and a pedometer function as well.

A deeper look

FM Radio

It’s been a complaint of iPod owners for years: why isn’t there an FM radio on this thing? It’s a question that Apple has seemed intent on dodging for nearly a decade. Instead of addressing it head-on they’ve left it up to 3rdparty accessory companies such as Griffin, Belkin and others to satisfy the market demand for radio. Trouble is, as good as these add-ons may have been, they were still add-ons and as such they were at best a consolation prize – a way to get FM on an iPod, but not a very satisfying way to do it.

So finally the iPod has an FM tuner and in true Apple fashion, they’ve included a few tricks that make it much more than just a way to listen to FM. Firstly, they’ve tied the radio to the Nano’s internal memory which means you get a one-hour15 minute buffer of recording time while listening. You can use the Nano’sforward and reverse controls on the click-wheel to go back in time and re-listen to earlier portions of the broadcast. Similarly, you can pause the radio for up to an hour 15 minutes and resume “playback” whenever you wish. Anyone with a PVR will be familiar with this feature and are probably wondering why no one thought of this for radio before.

Here’s a tip for people who like to tune-in to their gym’s TV broadcasts: you need to turn the record function off when listening to the radio, because it adds a 1-2 second delay as it buffers the audio, throwing off the sync between what you’re seeing on the TV and what you’re hearing on the iPod.

Secondly, the FM radio is compatible with a feature known as iTunes tagging. Some radio stations – though unfortunately none in Canada at the moment – support this function which broadcasts the meta-data associated with each song that they play. The Nano can interpret this data and offer the listener the option of adding the current song a “buy later” list. When you next sync your iPod with your PC, this list of tagged songs will appear in a separate list, so that you can instantly order them from the iTunes store. It’s a nifty little feature that the Microsoft Zune has had for some time, though its version of this feature has also been handicapped in Canada due to the lack of a Zune Marketplace in this country. Ever get the feeling we live in a 3rd world country, technologically speaking?

Voice Recorder

There’s not much to say about this feature other than to acknowledge how handy it is to haveit on board a device that can go anywhere. Recording quality is good, but not great, however the mic is more than sensitive enough that if you placed the Nano on a table while you had a conversation with someone (say for an interview), you could easily listen to the recording later on and understand every word – though beware noisy environments!

Internal Speaker

One look at the incredibly thin profile of the Nano and you are stunned that Apple was able to fit a speaker of any kind inside. But somehow they managed it. But before you get your hopes up about being able to share your eclectic taste in music with friends without handing them the headphones, it’s only natural that a speaker wedged into a device this small isn’t going to be delivering much punch. Think of it more as a monitor – a way to check that your recorded what you thought you recorded – either with the voice recorder or the video camera, without needing to jam an earbud in your ear. The sound quality is predictably tinny.

VGA Camcorder

The addition of the ability to record video to the Nano was the big surprise when Apple announced the 5th generation earlier this year. Long a standard feature on cellphones, it has not found its way into many other portable devices. If you want to credit one company with demonstrating the value of having a small, basic camcorder that you can take anywhere that credit goes to the folks at Flip Video. Their introduction of the Flip camera a few years ago proved that people are okay with giving up some of the standard features associated with a video camera if they can have one that fits in their pockets and syncs seamlessly to their PC for easy editing and sharing.

This was clearly Apple’s inspiration for adding a video camera to the Nano. In doing so, they created a video camera that is even smaller and more pocketable than Flip’s standard definition cam.

Apple’s Flip-ization of the Nano is both brilliant and flawed. On the one hand, Apple had the vision to see that the inclusion of 15 video effect filters would dramatically increase the creative possibilities. Budding directors can play with Sepia, Black and White, X-Ray, Film Grain, Thermal, Security Cam, Cyborg, Bulge, Kaleido, Motion Blur, Mirror, Light Tunnel, Dent, Stretch, and Twirl filters. My favourites are Security Cam and Cyborg, the latter of which includes a picture-in-picture, voice-analysis graph and a type of targeting array that makes for a convincing Terminator-style look to the footage you shoot.

This ability to tweak the video you’re shooting definitely one-ups Flip Video in the fun department. However, things get decidedly worse when you go to transfer your footage from the Nano to your PC.

One of the strengths of the Flip is that it carries its syncing and editing software on-board so that you can use it on any PC to which you connect the camera. It includes basic editing features, and the option to upload your videos to YouTube or Flip’s own video-sharing service.

Apple on the other hand, leaves you out in the cold when it comes to doing anything with your clips. Though this may differ depending on whether you use a PC or a Mac.  On Apple’s website, they say:

Connect iPod nano to your Mac, and iPhoto opens and syncs all the video you shot on iPod nano to your computer. It’s just as easy on a PC when you use your favourite photo software. On a Mac, you can browse and edit your videos in iPhoto, too. The video file sizes are perfect for sharing on YouTube or emailing to friends.

Though Apple claims it’s just as easy on a PC, my experience was that absolutely nothing happened when I connected the iPod. If I wanted to do anything with the video clips, I had to open the iPod as a drive letter on my PC and go through the file structure to find the clips, copy them manually to my hard drive and then, well, frankly I got stuck. The Nano shoots H.264 video and saves them as .mov files.  These can be opened easily in QuickTime, which installs when you put iTunes on your PC, but as for editing or converting them to a format that is friendly to YouTube (FLV, MPEG-2, and MPEG-4) you’re out of luck.

I was a bit surprised by this lack of support on the PC side of the equation as Apple has always gone to great lengths to make the iPod a dual-platform device. But for now, it seems, the new Nano is better on a Mac.

Video quality is surprisingly good given the tiny size of the lens. It’s only VGA resolution which means standard-definition as opposed to high-definition, but given that it’s not intended as a full-blown camcorder, the trade-off is worth it.  Audio is quite good too, and is even recorded in stereo which is odd given the single microphone opening on the case beside the lens. By comparison, Flip Video’s Mino HD’s audio is recorded in mono.

Conclusion

The new Apple iPod Nano starts at $169 for the 8GB model and goes up to $199 for the 16GB edition. This is more expensive than the closest model from Sony – the S Series Walkman, which at $159 for the 16GB model offers nearly everything that the Nano does except for video recording, games and pedometer functions. The Walkman also sounds much better than any of the iPod family, in my opinion. But Apple has evolved the Nano into so much more than a media player, it becomes nearly impossible to compare to any other portable media player, at any price.

If you’re looking for the biggest entertainment bang for your buck this holiday season, look no further than the latest Nano. It’s a blast.

Sony, you're breaking my heart

The Japan-only A Series Walkman. Image courtesy of Sonyinsider.com

The Japan-only A Series Walkman. Image courtesy of Sonyinsider.com

Forget the new iPod Nano with its fancy built-in camcorder. Forget the ZuneHD that we can’t even get here in Canada. I want the super-sleek, media-playing piece of sheer awesomeness pictured to the left. Go ahead, click on the thumbnail for a better look – I’ll wait.

According to SonyInsider.com, what we’re looking at is the brand-new, Japan-only A-Series Walkman.

What’s so great about it? I mean other than its obvious killer looks? Try these specs on for size:

  • Digital Noise Cancellation
  • Up to 64GB
  • 2.8 inch WQVGA OLED screen
  • TV-out function at 720×480 (Wide-Screen SD) quality
  • autoconverting video transfer
  • a startling 7.2mm thin. How thin is that? 1mm thicker than an iPod Nano.

If I’m sounding a little over-enthusiastic, it’s merely because I’m already a huge fan of the previous S-Series Walkman. Moreover, I was fairly disappointed by Sony’s current top -of-the-line Walkman: the X-Series – a beautiful but ultimately deeply flawed device. It would seem – at least from the information available – that the A-Series takes the best of each of these other devices and mashes them into one superbly sexy media player.

Now make no mistake, I’m going to reserve final judgment until Sony provides me with a review unit (Hint, hint Sony!) but I’m already inclined to think I’m going to like it. A lot.

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.