Without question, Sony's flagship Network Walkman NW-HD1 is a bona fide looker. From the sleek and refined techno design philosophy to the venerable Sony branding, the "21st-century Walkman" has a lot of people talking. But not all of the talk is positive. In fact, to date only 23 percent of CNET users approve of the HD1, a 20GB digital audio player that is even smaller than the iPod. It's neither the player's design nor its stiff $400 price tag that is generating the negativity, though--it's the fact that the HD1 does not natively play MP3 files. Sony's historically strict audio-format policy allows users to play only its proprietary ATRAC3 format on the HD1. You can still play your MP3s and other popular formats but only after you convert them to ATRAC3. There are several reasons to be turned off by this, the most obvious being that you will have to convert your existing music collection. Sony has hinted about adding native MP3 support to its players through a free firmware update, a move that will no doubt help the player's reputation. The way it stands now, the only users likely to care about this "MP3 player" are Sony loyalists who have either downloaded a slew of ATRAC3 tracks from Sony's Connect music store or have already converted their library for an earlier player. From its greenish backlighting and the familiar font labeling its tiny buttons to its sleek, metal-and-plastic casing, there is no doubt that the Network Walkman NW-HD1 is a Sony product. At 3.5 by 2.5 by 0.6 inches and 3.9 ounces, the 20GB HD1 is much smaller than the iPod and breaks the mold with a style and philosophy all its own. Unlike most hard drive players, the HD1 is wider than it is tall, which affects the way the device is held and used. A nickel-size, four-way pad with a play/stop button in its center serves as the device's main controller and sits to the upper right of the 1.5-inch green monochrome display. On the top of the HD1, you'll find a smart headphone jack (wired remote not included), dedicated volume controls, and tiny Menu and Mode buttons. The bottom features a Hold switch, an on/off switch for the built-in battery (setting this to Off protects the battery when the device is not in use for long periods), and a proprietary cradle connector port. The only other physical feature on the device itself is an anchor for a hand strap (not included).
While usable, the small Menu and Mode buttons aren't easy to access or to press. As is the case with other Sony digital audio portables, the HD1's buttons and switches are designed for people with tiny fingers. The seldom-used Built-In Battery switch is particularly difficult to operate. While equally minuscule, the main controller, with its tactile clicks, is comfortable and efficient.
In its default state, the LCD has a gray background with dark, delicate text. This screen setting can be reversed to display light text on a black background. Overall, the LCD is easy to read both indoors and out, although the fine typeface might be insufficient for those with poor vision. The player interface displays essential information including track, album, artist, and genre (with accompanying icons for each), as well as the time elapsed, a track-progress bar, the play mode, the number of songs in the playlist, the bit rate, and a battery-level indicator.
The HD1 ships with a stylish, black docking cradle. However, it's important to know that you'll need the cradle whenever you want to recharge the battery or transfer tracks to the device. In fact, the HD1 must be plugged in to a power outlet even if you simply want to transfer tracks. This is a bit of an outrage, in our eyes. For travelers, this means you'll have to pack the 4.5-by-1-by-1.2-inch cradle along with the supplied power adapter and the USB cable. It's a good thing the HD1 has a long-lasting battery. The HD1 also ships with a standard pair of earbuds (you'll definitely want to replace these with better ones), a soft carrying pouch, and the obligatory installation CD. The HD1 and its pouch are completely mismatched, so we recommend adding the carrying case accessory ($15), which is being given away with an HD1 purchase for a limited time.If you're considering the Sony Network Walkman NW-HD1 and you use Musicmatch, Windows Media Player, or any other jukebox software, you will have to get to know one more app: Sony's own SonicStage 2.2. A necessary (not to mention heavy and, in one instance, buggy) install, this all-encompassing jukebox imports and transfers audio files as well as directly accesses the Connect music download store.
One of the primary reasons the HD1 has been dogged by potential users is the fact that it doesn't natively play MP3, WMA, or WAV files. Instead, the HD1 "supports" playback of those files, meaning that they need to go through the SonicStage wringer and be converted into Sony's proprietary ATRAC3 or the more efficient ATRAC3plus format. Not only does this process take extra time (see the transcode performance), you're creating a new file that will occupy additional space on your hard drive. In addition, due to recompression, the new ATRAC3 file will not include the same data as the original file. This degrading compression process may or may not make a difference to some listener's ears, but ours can tell the difference between the original MP3, the converted file, and an ATRAC3 file that was ripped directly from a CD. ATRAC3 is not a bad format--in fact, it's extremely efficient and rich-sounding. The problem lies in the fact that almost all digital audio enthusiasts own a collection of MP3 files.
With that said, the HD1 doesn't have a long list of features. In fact, it plays back only digital audio, so if you're looking for a built-in FM tuner or line-in recording, try elsewhere. On a positive note, the lack of features makes the HD1 a breeze to use. Pressing the Mode button breaks your music down into categories such as Artist, Album, Genre, Group, or Others. If you select a particular artist, all of the tracks by that artist will be played. Right-click an artist's name and you'll be taken to their albums, then to an album's tracks. It's a slightly unusual method of selecting tracks, but it's effective nonetheless. The Group mode is Sony's version of playlists, which can only be compiled using SonicStage. The Others mode includes user-definable bookmarks and the tracks most recently added to the device. While you can assign as many as 100 bookmarks, you can bookmark only the beginning of a track but not to a specific point within it. It's Sony's version of an on-the-go-playlist.