Editors' note: although this review is of the NW-A806 it is, in the main, applicable to the NW-A805 and , which differ only in capacity and the colours on offer.
Sony has the iPod nano firmly in its sights with the A800 range of video Walkmans. They say first impressions count and on this front the Sony scores highly. With its combination of a large-for-its-size two-inch screen, a lightly rounded body and a generous splash of chrome highlights, it's hard not to fall in love with the A806's classy good looks.
The spell isn't broken when you pick it up because its all metal body, and the solid clicks from its buttons, lends it an aura of quality which is rare in affordable consumer electronics. It feels even more sensational than Apple's metallic fantastic second-gen nano because its body is far more scratch-proof; so, you'll never be filled with fear that your next touch will sully your new toy. Design-wise, our one complaint -- and it's a minor one -- is that when viewing the A806's 43.8mm by 88mm by 9.6mm rectangular body head-on, the gently curved edges endow the A806 with the slightly fat-looking waist.
It's a shame then that the Walkman's interface lacks the same level of polish as the exterior, and still has quite a way to go before it can come close to competing with the iPod's ease-of-use. The main menu screen resembles a grey version of the one used in Sony Ericsson phones, which is nice, but the white text on black background colour scheme really fails to do the A806's screen justice; if only Sony had given it a version of the interface seen on the PS3 or PSP.
That said, the menu system works well enough, although there are some frustrating quirks in the system. Pressing the Back button doesn't necessarily get you back to the previous menu; for instance, select the clock from the main menu, hit Back and voila you're, umm, looking at the Now Playing screen. The five-way controller features a multi-function centre button which is marked play-and-pause. Unfortunately, unless you're in either the Now Playing or track selection screens, it won't play or pause the presently selected track; instead it's used to select the current menu item.
There's a dedicated volume rocker switch on the side, which we think every MP3 player should have -- hint, hint Apple. And on the back there's a hold slider which is ideally located for when you have the A806 in your pocket. The Sony has a lanyard hook and a cover for its USB connector but follows Apple's lead with a bottom mounted 3.5mm headphone jack.
Taking pride of place in the A806's all metal body is the aforementioned two-inch screen. Flicking through photos or watching videos is an enjoyable experience because the 320x240 screen is sharp, bright and fast. We'd recommend against spending every bus ride home watching episodes of Top Gear though, because we got a bad case of neck and hand cramp holding the Walkman within its optimum viewing range.
Transferring photos onto the Walkman is a cinch: just connect the device to your computer and drop the photos into the appropriately titled Photos folder. Movies, though, are another matter entirely. Sony claims that baseline AVI and MPEG files can be viewed by a similar drag-and-drop method, however during our testing we couldn't find a movie file which conformed to Sony's drag-and-drop specifications. This meant we had to use the supplied Image Converter software, which worked okay but -- deep breath here -- doesn't convert DivX, requires an eternity to convert an hour long episode of anything, doesn't preserve the ratio of some MPEGs and is not terribly pleasant to use (both aesthetically and functionally). Loading the A806 full of MP3, WMP, AAC or ATRAC files with SonicStage CP is only slightly less fussy and painful.
Sony really needs to roll Image Converter and SonicStage into one program -- as it is, when you hook the A806 to your PC, a splash window appears allowing you to launch either of the two programs -- and make it easier to use, as well as giving it some of the PS3's design mojo. And while we're in the mood for making requests: gapless playback should be included in future high-end Walkmans.
The A800-series ships with a set of EX Monitor headphones, which retail separately for AU$149 and feature a large 13.5mm driver. They were aurally pretty good, without the usual tinniness of supplied buds but we found their unusual design, which requires a deeper than normal insertion into the ear, too uncomfortable. When we attached our favourite set of headphones, though, the Walkman hit the iPod for a six with bass that wasn't boomy and with clear, crisp sounds throughout the entire aural range. Listening to the A806 was such a joy that the absence of the near-standard -- unless you're listening to an iPod, of course -- FM tuner and voice recorder barely registered.
We have little reason to doubt the veracity of Sony's claimed 33 hours of music playback (128kbps MP3) or eight hours of video playback, as the A806 easily handled a week of intense use without a recharge.
Despite the niggles that we found -- like the interface kinks and mediocre software package -- we would've given the A806 a nine-plus score and affixed a shiny Editors' Choice badge on its metallic posterior, were it not for its high retail price. With the 4GB Samsung YP-K3 listing for AU$249 and the 4GB nano now going for AU$279, you will need to be completely besotted with the A806's look, feel and sound to shell out AU$399 for it. Or, if you're comfortable with the joys of eBay, purchase an A806 and then eBay the supplied EX Monitor headphones.