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Sony NW-A1200 Walkman review: Sony NW-A1200 Walkman

It has finally arrived in the States. Futuristic looks and brains aside, the NW-A1200 is a one-dimensional player with subpar software integration.

James Kim
Account in memoriam for the editor.
James Kim
5 min read
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.


Sony NW-A1200 Walkman

The Good

The Sony NW-A1200 has a stylish and futuristic design; excellent sound quality; is compatible with MP3, unprotected AAC, unprotected WMA, and ATRAC3; includes useful, intelligent playlist and artist link features; replaceable battery; decent value.

The Bad

The Sony NW-A1200 uses a hard drive that's not as durable as flash; has no extra features such as FM, recording, and photo viewing; its monochrome screen is impossible to see in daylight and is easy to scratch; must use the imperfect SonicStage management software.

The Bottom Line

It has finally arrived in the States. The NW-A1200 is a one-dimensional player with subpar software integration, but the device looks good, sounds great, and includes innovative music search and playlist features.

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.

The A1200's proprietary dock connector (pink model shown).

The Artist Link button brings up a tree of songs or artists related to the currently playing song.

The all-important Option button pulls up a contextual menu. During playback, for example, hitting it brings up shortcuts to Main Menu, Play Mode, Rating, Sound, Album, Trash Bin, and pretty much everything else. You can even access a clock and basic calendar features from here. The main menu, which reminds us of a cell phone menu, consists of nine icons in a 3-by-3 grid, the center being Music Library. The other icons represent Play Mode, Initial Search (find artists, album or song by initial), Intelligent Shuffle, Play History, Top 100 songs, Now Playing, Settings, and Playlists. Other niceties: the current song appears on all views, and there are on-the-fly playlists and bookmarking.

Sony attempts to differentiate itself from other brands with features such as Intelligent Shuffle, which gets further broken down into My Favorite Shuffle, Artist Link Shuffle, and Time Machine Shuffle (which magically pulls together music from a random year). The idea is that the technology helps pinpoint music out of your immense library on the fly.

While these intelligent features certainly come in handy, they depend on SonicStage software, which has a reputation for being unintuitive and having sluggish transcode and transfer times. In other words, it's no iTunes. Our experience with the latest build (SonicStage CP 4.0) was marginally better with some new features designed for the A1200; our transfers of MP3, WMA, and AAC files to our A1200 were smooth. Still, SonicStage would not be our first choice for a jukebox. SonicStage CP collects your usage/ratings data, then populates lists such as your top 100 songs or favorite playlists. The Artist Link feature works fairly well and becomes more useful the more songs you have. While we played Boards of Canada, a push of the Artist Link brought up a list of similar ambient electronic songs as well as the artist Orbital. There is no algorithm or wave analysis involved--the links are based on genre tags.

While all this "intelligence" may come off as overkill, the A1200's sound quality rates near the top. The brightness and fullness of the sound (using Grado SRR80) reminds us of the late Sony NW-HD5, which we consider to be one of the all-time best-sounding players. Sound options include six EQ settings, with two custom six-band EQ; the device also employs Sony's AVLS sound limiter. Battery life is rated for 20 hours when playing back ATRAC files at 48Kbps. Our initial tests of MP3s showed a lower battery life of 14 hours--still not bad, but far from 20 hours. It's a good thing you can charge the A1200 via USB since the AC adapter, which uses the same USB cable, is unwieldy.

The A1200 is no doubt a looker, with feminine appeal. But it's also a solid playback device. Outside of the obvious, such as outdoor glare and a scratch-prone screen, the A1200's weakness lies with its dependence on SonicStage software. But if you're a Sony/ATRAC3 fan with a soft spot for pink or purple things and no need for multimedia or FM, this pretty player is for you.

Those looking for more features at the 8GB capacity should check out Creative's older but proven Zen Micro Photo. Also note that sleeker and more feature-filled 8GB flash-based players are just on the horizon.

Positively pink. The 8GB Sony NW-A1200 next to an 8GB Creative Zen Micro Photo.


Sony NW-A1200 Walkman

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 6Performance 8