One of the primary reasons the HD1 has been dogged by reviewers is the fact that it didn't natively play MP3, WMA, or WAV files. Instead, the HD1 "supported" playback of those files, meaning that they needed 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, you're creating a new file that will occupy space on your hard drive.
The HD3 (and the HD1 with a firmware update) partially eliminates the format headaches and can be rightfully considered along with other MP3 players. Even the Sony Web site now labels the Network Walkmans as "MP3 players." Sony adapting to MP3 wasn't a mission so much as a necessity. If you want to listen to your WMA files, you'll still have to go old school and convert them in SonicStage, which also transfers over the files. The other obvious feature is that the device works seamlessly with Sony's Connect music service. If you're a fan, you'll definitely want to check out the HD3, as it's the iPod of the Sony Connect universe. And through the middle of 2005, you get 50 free songs from Connect, plus the 5 that you typically get with other Sony players.
Given the lack of extra features, the HD3 is a breeze to use. Pressing the Mode button breaks down your music 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. 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, not a specific point within it. It's Sony's version of an on-the-go-playlist.
The player is set up by pressing Menu, but holding the button turns off the player, which wasn't clear at the outset. The menu includes repeat, various play modes (Shuffle, 1 Track, and Play Unit), sound, AVLS, beep, audio-out, contrast, backlight, reverse display, and format controls. Play Unit simply means that all tracks within a selected artist or album will be played. Sound includes the EQ settings (four presets and two custom) and V-Sur virtual environments such as Studio, Live, Club, or Arena. The HD3 will show up as a separate drive in Explorer without needing drivers, so it can be used as a universal data-storage device.When navigating the Sony Network Walkman NW-HD3, you'll experience smooth transitions from page to page, but more often than not, we noticed a 2-to-3-second access delay when the HD3 transitioned into various modes--a trait similar to the HD1.
The HD3 boasts bright and powerful sound quality in both ATRAC3 and MP3 modes. The various EQ and virtual-surround settings are also top-notch, and users can really crank up the volume.
One of the HD3's bona fide selling points is its rated battery life of 30 hours. CNET Labs was able to get only 24.2 hours on average with the same technique used for the HD1, which lasted 30.6 hours. This is still an impressive figure, pretty much doubling the iPod's battery life, and we believe that ATRAC3 playback will net you more playback time. Over USB 2.0, transfer times were impressive at 8.2MB per second.