Sony is moving on. It long ago conceded defeat in an unpopular war against Apple’s iPod, a war Sony lost because it adhered to a silly proprietary format (ATRAC), listened too hard to the needs of its music and movie stablemates instead of its customers, and served up lukewarm chow when it should have been changing the world. This much we know.
We got the impression at Sony’s invite-only trade show last week that the company was keen to put the past behind it. UK reps joked how some of its products are now compatible with others made ‘by a certain fruit-flavoured company’ and instead started talking about ‘sharing your music’.
Share your music
Not sharing your music between people particularly (no, that would be wrong, obviously) but sharing your music with other devices. Which is why the big deal with this year’s Walkman is that it includes Bluetooth A2DP, enabling you punt music wirelessly to any compatible device from headphones to hi-fi units. Unsurprisingly Sony is selling those too. We’ll come back to this in a minute.
The 2008 NW-A829 Walkman we have in our hands is an evolutionary step up from last year’s NW-A800. It pretty much boasts the same user interface, same wide compatibility with different music formats (from protected WMA to unprotected AAC) and plays back MPEG-4/H.264 video just like an iPod does. So far, so ho-hum.
What marks out the NW-A829 from its predecessor then is Bluetooth, of course, plus 16GB of storage, a QVGA screen and a £225 price tag that’s within shouting distance of Apple’s bigger - but arguably more feature-rich - iPod touch.
Using the Walkman
It’s no accident either that the NW-A829 also shares stylistic queues with Sony Ericsson mobile phones - a familiar combination of gloss black metal, plastic, glass and silver piping that echoes the Sony Ericsson K series, for example.
The user interface will certainly be familiar to Sony Ericsson users. The main screen features nine application icons arranged in a 3 x 3 grid, each of which can be selected by the square D-pad at the bottom of the player, which also has the play/pause button at its centre.
The icons give you access to applications like Intelligent Shuffle, Search and Bluetooth as well as system settings and your music, movie and photo libraries. Once you select an icon and you drill down a level, actions settle into more familiar lists - the Music Library serves up All Songs, Album, Genre, Release Year and Folder options, for example.
The on-screen options are supported by more physical keys - a Home/Back key on the left side of the D-Pad and a Power Off/Option key on the right. Also sitting along the NW-A829’s right edge - on the side of the player - are Vol +/- and Bluetooth and Hold buttons.
Accessing the side-mounted buttons is easy if you hold the device in your left hand as the buttons will fall easily under your fingers. Hold it in your right and you’ll need to have a very flexible thumb to reach the lower buttons - which means it’s failed the ergonomic test for me.
Having to press the tiny Option button with a thumb to pull up secondary features can also - quite literally - be a pain for fat-fingered types. The end result is that you can’t really use the device single handed... in which case you may as well have a touchscreen music player (fruit-flavoured? - ed) as anything else.
The UI also throws up a few other anomalies, the same anomalies we spotted in the NW-A800. Although you can display photos and movies in landscape mode on the NW-A829, you have to hit the Option button to pull up a menu that you then have to scroll though to get to Video Orientation. And then you have to choose whether you want to switch the video Horizontal Right or Horizontal Left.
Left is right
Horizontal Right would suggest that you need to flip the player from portrait to landscape mode by twisting it right. What you get is upside-down video. Ditto for Horizontal Left.
The only rationale we can think of for this is that Sony’s trying to suggest where you might like the playback controls to end up - on the left in landscape mode, or on the right. This is not only nonsense, it’s completely counter-intuitive - the device is forcing you to think which way around you'd like video to presented, and then serves up something else instead. The only way around this is to start playing the movie before you rotate the player so you can see which way it's going to play. Not good.
Oh, and to add insult to injury, which way do you think the play/pause icon on the D-pad button ending up pointing? It ends up pointing down when the player is positioned Horizontal Right; and pointing up when the player is positioned Horizontal Left. Not a big thing in itself, but it shows a lack of attention to detail when it comes to UI niceties - niceties that the iPod manages to get right.
More serious is that the D-pad controls end up out of whack - right becomes up, left becomes down, etc. Sloppy. It's the kind of thing you expect from a third-rate Chinese rip-off merchant, not the world's 'premier' consumer electronics maker.
What Sony really needs to do here is ape Apple and build accelerometers into the NW-A829, so it can tell whether it's being held in landscape or portrait mode. Sony then needs to come up with an interface that makes sense no matter which orientation the player is in.
Sure, Apple has the iPod touch patented up the wazoo - but it's not that big an ask for a company with Sony's resources or engineering talent. Actually, scrub that. It patently is - its been doing this game long enough to figure how out how to do stuff right. No wonder the iPod cleaned up.
The good stuff
Unfortunately for Sony, the disastrous UI casts a long shadow over the NW-A829’s good points, of which there are some.
The supplied in-ear headphones spank the lame efforts Apple still continues to punt with the iPod and iPhone. Sony’s versions feel substantial, deliver lashings of deep bass, crisp treble and highly realistic vocals. They also fit very comfortably into your ear, with the added benefit that the silicon cones the headphones use effectively block out much background noise so you can listen in peace, and without really disturbing your neighbours.
Naturally you also get kinds of EQ effects, plus a Dynamic Normaliser which automatically adjusts sound levels in real time, so you’re not forever poking the volume buttons - either because a song is too loud or too quiet (a result of the mastering process).
This really comes into its own when listening in Shuffle mode. Apple would be well advised to adopt something like this for next-gen iPods, rather than its relatively useless Sound Check, which seemingly only serves to lower the effective volume of all your music, then requires constant fiddling to deliver listenable results.
Of course, Apple wouldn’t need to resort to such tactics if it supplied decent headphones, or came up with something as useful as the Dynamic Normaliser. Another thumbs-up for Sony.
Bluetooth and you
The Share Your Music option is more of a mixed bag. To use it, you simply switch on Bluetooth, pair it with a compatible device and listen while the NW-A829 spews your music from one place to the next. In practice, this could be a set of Bluetooth AD2P speakers, wireless headphones or even a whole hi-fi. It works, it has to be said, very well, and makes perfect sense if you’re frustrated by the perpetually tangled cords of most ordinary headphones, or just want to listen to music from the device at home.
We feel Sony has missed a trick though by not bundling a pair of wireless ‘phones with the NW-A829 as standard, like it does with models further down the range. Doing so would really have marked a strong point of difference with the iPod touch. As it stands you’ll have to fork over an additional £55, making it more expensive than Apple’s infinitely more capable and innovative £269 iPod touch.