Like Apple, Sony knows how to build stylish products, and the electronics giant's tiny NW-MS70D flash-based digital-music player certainly qualifies as a head turner (and given the $299 list price, we expect no less). Unlike Apple, however, Sony hasn't quite mastered the concept of user-friendliness, as is evinced by the company's insistence on using its proprietary format for digital-music playback on its portables. Small and sleek is the best way to describe the NW-MS70D. Measuring 1.44 by 1.94 by 0.72 inches and weighing just 1.9 ounces, this 256MB titanium sliver of a digital-music player is much more diminutive than most of the competition. But its tiny size doesn't cause big usability problems, thanks to solid construction and a clever design.
For example, you slide the long bar running across the unit to lock the controls. Pulling out the Shuttle switch on the right side enables you to move between groups of songs, which comes in handy when you're wading through long lists. Even the tiny, spring-loaded door covering the memory-expansion slot on the bottom feels durable.
The headphone cord is a little short for our taste, but Sony was wise enough to provide an extension so that you can listen while carrying the player in a pocket or a bag. Most likely, you'll use the short cable at the gym and the extension everywhere else.
A cradle makes USB connection quicker and simpler; it also charges the battery. The NW-MS70D comes with all the standards you expect from a portable audio player, but don't expect any extras. You get repeat and shuffle, bass boost, and an equalizer. A playlist-style function for grouping songs in folders helps you organize music into sets, and a four-mode LCD makes all the features easy to use.
Like Sony's earlier Network Walkmans, the NW-MS70D requires you to convert your MP3 and WMA files to Sony's proprietary ATRAC3 format. The included SonicStage OpenMG jukebox software checks out a non-ATRAC3 song to the NW-MS70D by converting it and storing the converted file on the player--and on your computer, cluttering your hard drive. The program can also rip CDs directly to ATRAC3; that approach bypasses the conversion process and results in better sound since the music gets encoded by only one codec.
SonicStage allows you to check out a song up to three times before you have to check it back in from the player, after which the song will again be available for transfer. And when you're selecting files to transfer from your hard drive, SonicStage doesn't tell you how much space they will occupy on the device, only the total size of the current playlist.
These annoyances are somewhat mitigated by the fact that the unit also works with . During checkout, RealOne Player can delete the ATRAC3 files from your hard drive immediately after song transfer, and it offers one-click deletion of all archived ATRAC3 files so that you can free up disk space. The MP3 or WMA versions will remain, but if you want to check out those songs again, you'll have to reconvert them. RealOne Player also provides more information about the NW-MS70D's available space. So even though SonicStage checked out songs faster (see the section) and--unlike RealOne Player--can rip CDs directly to ATRAC3, we preferred RealOne Player for song transfer.
The device's 256MB of internal flash memory is ample, especially for such a small player, and you can expand the memory with a Memory Stick Duo. The NW-MS70D's two bass-boosting levels are wonderful, and the earbuds are surprisingly responsive to low- and high-frequency acoustics, although their midrange is somewhat muted. As you'd expect, the unit sounded even better through our over-the-ear test headphones.
We were also impressed with the battery life, which came in at 40 continuous hours, easily beating the rated 33 hours--a possible first. It takes about 90 minutes to charge the battery via the USB cradle.
The only real downside, as we mentioned in the section, is that ATRAC3 conversion significantly slows file transfer and slightly degrades sound quality. With RealOne Player, MP3-file transfer (including conversion) occurred at 0.1MB per second. SonicStage improved that rate to an almost respectable 0.27MB per second; that's much faster than the NW-MS11's transfer speed but still slower than that of most other flash players. The speed increases, of course, when you check out files already in ATRAC3 format; both SonicStage and RealOne Player achieved a decent rate of 0.5MB per second.
If you don't mind slow song transfer, or if you're planning to create a new digital-music collection from CDs, the NW-MS70D has a lot going for it. But if you already have a lot of MP3 and WMA files, you're probably better off with a player that doesn't require you to convert them to a new format.