It can't be avoided: any new MP3 player is in direct competition with the Apple iPod, and device manufacturers are well aware of this fact. Some pack their players with boatloads of extras, while others create unique and purportedly useful design elements. Some simply make a product that's just as easy to use, offers a similar array of features, and delivers great sound quality--but then charge less for it. Such is the case with the Sony E-Series Wallkman, a flash player positioned to square off against the iPod Nano. Unfortunately, the E-Series doesn't come in a 16GB model, but the 4GB and 8GB versions are priced to sell at $89.95 and $119.95, respectively.
The Sony E-Series has a fairly standard design, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it makes the player very straightforward to operate. Below the 2-inch screen are the main playback controls: a five-way control pad, a back/home button, and an option key that brings up various contextual menus. Sony includes a dedicated volume rocker on the right spine--always a nice touch--as well as a hold switch. The bottom of the unit houses the standard 3.5mm headphone jack and a proprietary USB port. The E-Series measures a compact 3.2 inches tall by 1.7 inches wide by 0.3 inch deep, so it's definitely pocket-friendly and would not be an unreasonable thing to strap to your arm or waistband at the gym. It comes in a variety of colors to suit most tastes: black, red, pink, or blue (4GB only).
The menus on the E-Series are typical of most recent Walkman lines. The main menu features a grid of icons that indicate the player's principle functions. Sadly, there's no option to change the wallpaper or theme for this Walkman: white font on a black background is what you get. In the music submenu, items are sorted by ID3 tag into playlists, artists, albums, and so on, or you may navigate by folder (as it is arranged on your desktop). Tracks are split into sections of letters (A-B, C-E, and so forth) for speedy navigation, and you may browse albums by album art for a more visual experience. Album art can also be magnified on the playback screen, though not to full screen. Getting music and other content onto the player is an easy process; it works with a variety of jukeboxes (such as Windows Media Player or Rhapsody), or you can use the fabulously light Sony Content Transfer app, which allows for drag and drop from your hard drive or from the iTunes interface.
The E-Series Walkman includes a decent smattering of features, which are slightly different than those offered by the Nano--it's a matter of personal preference which you find more suitable. The E-Series supports MP3, WMA, unprotected AAC, and LPCM (lossless) audio, and has Rhapsody DNA, so you can transfer Rhapsody Channels and other subscription content. The device also plays photos (JPEG) and video (MPEG-4, H.264/AVC, and WMV), though the latter often requires conversion for the screen, a 262K color TFT number with a 240x320 resolution (QVGA). The player supports videos purchased and rented from Amazon Video On Demand, as well. When you get sick of digital, you can tune into the integrated FM radio, which offers an autoscan function and 30 preset slots. Notably absent from this Walkman is any support for podcasts.
Performance of the E-Series Walkman is nearly excellent across the board. Music sounds exceptionally clean, clear, and balanced, with a nice presence on the low-end, warm, rich mids, and detailed highs. Sony includes a variety of sound-enhancement options, including four presets and two, five-band custom EQs, so if the flat setting doesn't do it for you, you should have no problem tweaking the sound to your liking. We recommend swapping in your favorite pair of headphones, as the stock earbuds sound just decent and may not be comfortable for everyone. Videos and photos look bright and crisp on the small screen, and viewing angles are good, though the screen is susceptible to glare. Of course, the show-stealer for some is the stellar rated battery life of 45 hours for audio and 8 hours for video (CNET Labs will put these numbers to the test in the near future). The one issue we had during testing concerned some transfer hang-ups while syncing Rhapsody To Go content; drag and drop was much speedier.