CNET first got a glimpse of the A1000/A3000-series MP3 player last fall at Sony HQ before its eventual launch in Europe and Asia. We expected a U.S. launch at CES (as well as a made-over Connect music store) and were disappointed to learn that the stylish hard drive-based player wouldn't hit the States until later this year. Well, it's July '06, and Sony has finally launched the 8GB NW-A1200 series, which is more or less identical to the 6GB NW-A1000 (it's already available in Japan). With an attractive design, good sound quality, and some innovative firmware features, the A1200 should please those looking for music playback only. Just be aware that you'll be entering the Sony universe, which includes the notoriously counterintuitive SonicStage software.
The A1200 measures 2.25 by 3.5 by 0.76 inches, weighs 3.9 ounces, and has a strikingly sexy design with a glossy plastic front and a scratch-proof metallic backside. It's a visual gem. Though the international versions include a rainbow of colors, the A1200 comes only in pink and violet.
Inspired by the flash-based E505 series, the A1200's 1.5-inch display hides below the surface of the reflective plastic exterior; it shines through when powered on and creates a cool effect. The monochrome screen is bright and generally easy to read, though text is pixelated, and it's nearly impossible to read the display in daylight, where the A1200 makes a better mirror than a display. Dazzling start-up graphics and rhythmically pulsating lights add to the A1200's appeal. However, the plastic scratches easily and is a veritable smudge magnet. Find a case for it, since Sony doesn't bundle one (Sony does bundle an AC adapter, a proprietary USB cable, headphones, and the SonicStage CP software).
Keep in mind that this is a hard drive device, so you'll get more capacity for your buck ($200 vs. the $250 4GB iPod Nano) in exchange for a larger form factor and potential hard drive-related problems (though Sony does employ its G-Sensor protection, which disengages the hard drive when the unit is dropped). Also keep in mind that $100 or less will get you a slightly larger 30GB iPod or 30GB Toshiba Gigabeat S. Value is relative.
The player is comfortable to handle and operate, more so because the A1200 doesn't have extra features such as FM, recording, or photo/video support. It is purely a playback device and can handle a variety of formats natively, including MP3, ATRAC3 (plus), and unprotected AAC and WMA files. If you're looking to purchase music, you can do this only by using the relatively unused Connect music store or any MP3 store, such as eMusic. And forget about subscriptions.
While the primary, tactile five-way controller is located slightly lower than we'd like, it's no chore to navigate through menus. However, the controller is no match for the iPod Click Wheel when browsing through thousands of tracks, despite some fancy shortcuts such as initial-based search (Creative's Zen Vision:M does this much better). Option and Back buttons lie to the right of the controller. A proprietary dock connector is located on the bottom. A somewhat difficult to use volume slider is located on the upper-right spine, while the clear plastic Artist Link button is situated on the opposite side. Sony gets innovative with Artist Link, which finds songs or artists related to the current song.