Sony debuts Android-based Walkman prototype

At the IFA show, Sony gave CNET the First Look at its Android-powered music player. With several music-specific features and the product family's best sound quality, it's geared for audiophiles.

Sony's Android-powered Walkman brings many music-specific features. One of them is this W.Music app, shown here with a scattering of albums that will play when tapped. Swipe gestures bring new albums into view.
Sony's Android-powered Walkman brings many music-specific features. One of them is this W.Music app, shown here with a scattering of albums that will play when tapped. Swipe gestures bring new albums into view. Stephen Shankland/CNET

BERLIN--Sony Electronics, trying to advance its music players into the modern age of digital devices, showed a prototype today of a new Walkman based on Google's Android operating system--and CNET got the first public look.

The Walkman prototype is designed "for music lovers by music lovers," said engineer Shinichiro Torii in an interview here at the IFA electronics show. But unlike the company's other Walkman products, it can go well beyond that by running the thousands of Android applications available today, making it a better match for Apple's iPod Touch as well as many competitors' smartphones.

Additional Sony IFA announcements
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• Hands-on with Sony's new Vaio SE 15-inch laptop
• Sony debuts 3D OLED head-mounted display

The prototype, called the Walkman Mobile Entertainment Player in its present form, comes with a variety of music-specific features ranging from special controls to will become the flagship of Sony's digital music family. For a tour, check CNET's photo gallery of the Anrdoid-powered Walkman .

"This is our first try to make convergence between Android products and our own technology," said Toshimichi Nagashima, general manager of digital music player product planning, but more appear likely in the future. "After reviewing the customers' acceptance, we'll decide how to expand this kind of product. We have some confidence for this product. We may expand this kind of product in the future after getting some feedback."

The audiophile focus doubtless will be key to the success of the product. For people with less discriminating tastes, modern smartphones already handle most music and video chores--and a mobile phone is an essential device for many people.

The device has the best sound quality of the Walkman line, Sony said. Among other music-specific features:

  • A dedicated W.Button on the side of the device that gives immediate access to music controls, even if the phone is locked.

  • A W.Music app to manage music on the device. It lets people select music from their catalogs by looking at the library, tapping on album-cover icons, or picking a mood such as energetic, emotional, dance, relaxed, or extreme. Sony's SenseMe technology scans songs and classifies them. The app also can show lyrics if people upload text files, and tapping on the lyrics will skip to that section of a song.

  • The Android-powered Sony Walkman prototype has a dedicated W.Button to provide quick access to music controls.
    The Android-powered Sony Walkman prototype has a dedicated W.Button to provide quick access to music controls. Stephen Shankland/CNET
  • The device has the S-Master MX suite of technology for improving audio quality. It can reduce noise, clarify bass and stereo, restore high-frequency sound that was lost during compression, and improve audio quality when using the device's external speakers.

  • It can tap into Music Unlimited, Sony's cloud-based music service that has more than 10 million tracks. Subscriptions for the service cost $4 per month for basic and $10 per month for premium.

  • Unique among Walkman devices, the Android-powered model can show graphical visualizations that accompany the music.

Sony didn't detail pricing or availability, but Nagashima said, "We are working hard for early introduction of this product."

He wouldn't say whether early meant in time for the holiday shopping season, but that would be good timing--especially given the present customer enthusiasm for Android and the fact that rumors of an Android-powered Walkman have been around since 2009.

The Walkman became an iconic brand representing portable music after its introduction in 1979. But when MP3 files replaced cassettes and CDs in portable players, Apple seized market dominance with its iPod line. Apple widened its lead by drawing from the iPhone line, getting big touch screens and access to thousands of apps.

The Android-powered Walkman is a natural direct competitor. Not only can it play music, but like the iPod Touch, it can play games and surf the Web. It doesn't have a camera, though.

Sony wouldn't detail the processor or battery life, but the company did share some specifications. The prototype has a large 4.3-inch screen with a resolution of 800x640 pixels and non-reflective LCD technology that improves image quality by removing the air gap between the LCD and the outer screen. And the company didn't skimp on processing horsepower, though it wouldn't detail what chip is within.

And it'll connect to other devices, including Bluetooth headphones and TVs equipped with DLNA wireless network technology or an HDMI port. Videos can be "thrown" onto DLNA devices by pointing the Walkman at it then flicking the video's icon toward the TV.

A brief hands-on with the prototype showed its screen to be responsive and endowed with pleasantly rich blacks. The W.Music app was fluid to use. It would be foolish to pass judgment on the sound quality with only a short time listening to a hand-picked song even for a product not designed for audiophiles--but during that time the music did indeed sound clear and deep.

The back of the Android-powered Walkman prototype sports the "W." Walkman logo against deep purple background.
The back of the Android-powered Walkman prototype sports the "W." Walkman logo against deep purple background. Stephen Shankland/CNET
 

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