For an MP3 player to even begin to make a dent in the iPod's lead, it has to look good. Sony's latest stab at the heart of Apple's MP3 player dominance, the NW-A1000 Walkman, certainly deserves a thumbs up in the design stakes, rivalling the iPod Nano in simplicity and style. It's not as thin as a Nano, but Sony's little device looks good, and you won't be ashamed to show it off in front of friends.
Available in purple, pink, blue or silver (we trialled a silver unit), the new Walkman features a highly reflective front with three buttons - one for navigation/play, one for options and a dedicated back button. It's probably one or two more than really needed (perhaps some functions could have been integrated into the navigation button), but the overall feel is still one of minimalist style.
The main feature of the front of the unit is its organic electro-luminescent (OEL) panel, which gives the illusion that the front panel of the Walkman is actually the screen itself. Unfortunately, the effect isn't successful most times, as the front panel is translucent enough to make out the OEL screen sitting behind it. It's a nice try, but it doesn't quite convince. Despite this, the overall tactile experience of the Walkman is a positive one - it's curved, small shape means it can slip easily into jeans or pockets, while its 109g weight gives it a solid feel without being too heavy.
The top right side of the new Walkman features a volume slider (hold up or down for volume), while a dedicated hold button sits at the top next to the headphones slot. The left side of the unit features an Artist Link button (more on this later), while the bottom houses the Walkman's proprietary connector to either a power source or to a PC via USB. The NW-A1000 comes with black and silver earbud headphones, a nice change from ubiquitous white headphones.
The Sony NW-A1000 Walkman trumps the Nano when it comes to capacity, featuring 6GB worth of space which Sony claims can store up to 4000 songs. The Nano, on the other hand, maxes out at 4GB. Whilst previous Sony MP3 player offerings have tended to be fairly closed affairs when it came to file compatibility (only accepting Sony's proprietary ATRAC music format), this new Walkman is practically open standards in comparison. Not only can the A1000 read ATRAC, it can also read MP3 and Windows Media files - a big plus for those with a large pre-existing digital music collection.
The NW-A1000 is purely a music player - there's no added picture or video capabilities here (which suits the unit's mono screen just fine). As well as basic playback, Sony is heavily touting this new Walkman's built-in intelligent shuffle capabilities. My Favourite Shuffle (plays the unit's 100 most popular tracks), Time Machine Shuffle (chooses songs from one particular year) and Shuffle All are built into the player's menu system, while Artist Link (which randomly choose artists in the same genre of music) has a dedicated button on the Walkman's left side.
Speaking of menus, the A1000's menu is laid out in a similar fashion to a mobile phones'. The main screen is made up of a grid with nine possible sub-menus, with the four way navigation button used to select and dig deeper into the system. Navigating through the Walkman's menus isn't as quick or intuitive as the iPod's famous scroll wheel, but it is more than serviceable. In fact, those tired of the overtly sensitive nature of the iPod scroll wheel may welcome the greater control afforded by the Sony A1000's four way navigation button.
To streamline the searching process, Sony has incorporated several "shortcuts". Nearly all categories (artist, song title, albums, etc) are searchable via their first letter - for example, if you're searching for Franz Ferdinand, you simply have to go to F under artists, instead of having to scroll through every other band before it. It's a neat system that drastically cuts down searching times, and it's certainly gives the Sony Walkman an edge over its competitors.
Before we cover the issue of sound quality (here's a preview - it sounds great), mention must be made of Connect, Sony's new music software which acts as the A1000's conduit to a PC (like iTunes is to an iPod). Many a decent MP3 player have been bought undone by clunky, unwieldy music software which made it a chore to archive and transfer songs. Connect, however, is for the most part easy to use and highly accessible. The software will automatically source track names and details from any music inserted (as long as you're connected to the Internet), and ripping music is an easy one-click process. Transferring music to the Walkman is equally easy - users can either drag and drop files, or they can set the player to automatically sync with Connect's music library. Ripping and transferring are also fairly quick procedures. As an overall package, Connect scores highly, although we still find iTunes easier and more intuitive.
As for sound, Sony's players have a reputation for quality, and the A1000 Walkman does not disappoint. Music from the A1000 sounds dynamic and full bodied - it's a good, even listen all around and should please most. As an added plus, not only does the A1000 have preset music settings (such as heavy, pop and jazz), but it also allows you customise the equaliser settings and save them into two custom selections. It's a big plus over the iPod, which only has its presets available.
Great sound quality, stylish design and an easy-to-use interface make this Sony NW-A1000 Walkman the best MP3 player the Japanese giant has released to date. It may only have a mono-screen and no picture or video capabilities, but for those just interested in music (and who want to dance to a non-iPod beat) then the A1000 Walkman is a solid choice.