Sony's $300 Network Walkman NW-HD3 represents more than just the next version of the beautiful but hyperscrutinized . This sleek 20GB digital audio player is leading Sony and its Walkman franchise into the 21st century, as it's one of the first players from the electronics juggernaut to support native MP3 playback (the first digital audio player from Sony that actually played MP3s, the , was introduced late 2004). Following this flagship model is an army of newly announced and aggressively priced Network Walkmans that aspire to recapture some of the market share commandeered by the Apple iPod. The HD3 maintains the heart and soul of the HD1, but there are some key differences, including minor cosmetic updates, shorter battery life, and of course, native MP3 support. Sony has always been at the forefront of design, and the Network Walkman NW-HD3, like the HD1 before it, oozes technoglam appeal. Measuring 3.5 by 2.4 by 0.6 inches and weighing 4.6 ounces, the HD3 is notably smaller and lighter than the and a tad heavier than the HD1. It breaks the mold of the typical hard drive player with its compact size, sheer simplicity, and a style of its own. For example, the player is meant to be used in a horizontal Landscape orientation.
At first glance, the only physical difference from its predecessor seems to be the addition of four new color schemes. Joining the traditional silver model are black, blue, pink, and a particularly striking red. Add to that some remarkable backlight hues (a white light for silver; blue for the red, black, and blue models; and, yes, pink for the pink version), and you have an aesthetically appealing array of players. Discerning MP3 fans will note quite a few updates from the HD1. In place of the original's gorgeous silver metal casing, the current models are instead encased in supertough plastic--a look and feel that grows on you. Also, the circular five-way directional pad is a hint larger, made of a light and slightly cheap-feeling plastic, and centered with the 1.5-inch LCD. Simple, tactile, and effective, this is the primary play and menu controller.
On the top of the HD3, 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, a proprietary cradle connector port, and an on/off battery switch, which you can use to protect the battery when the device is not in use for long periods. The only other physical feature on the device is an anchor for a hand strap (not included).
While usable, the small Menu and Mode buttons aren't easy to access or press. As is the case with other Sony digital audio portables, the HD3's buttons and switches are designed for people with tiny fingers. The seldom-used Built-In Battery switch is particularly difficult to operate.
In its default state, the LCD has a gray background with dark, delicate text, though this 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 difficult 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.
Unlike its predecessor, the HD3 does not ship with a docking cradle. This may be a blessing in disguise as the HD1's battery could only be recharged using the cradle--really bad for people who like to travel light. Now you have the same proprietary port on the HD3 but also a tiny adapter that clips on like a parasite and includes both power and USB ports; it's kind of like a miniature dock, and it even has a charge LED. This setup is convenient, but don't lose the adapter.
The HD3 also ships with a standard pair of earbuds that you'll definitely want to replace with better ones, as well as a soft carrying pouch, a power adapter, a USB cable, and the obligatory installation CD. The HD3 and its fabric pouch are completely mismatched, so we recommend adding a carrying case ($15), which offers more protection for this "luxury" gadget.