When info about Sony's NW-S200 Sports Walkman leaked onto the Web back in July, I was quick to lean on the company's PR team to get the inside scoop. It took many patient weeks of waiting to get my hands on an actual review unit of the fitness-minded MP3 player, hoping in the interim Sony might possible address its SonicStage jukebox software. Unfortunately, that was not to be, but the sleek little NW-S200 serves as a reminder that Sony can at least get the hardware right.
I can't get over how much the NW-S200 looks like a cigar in person (smoking it, however, is highly inadvisable). At 3.8 by 0.6 inches and formed in a cylinder, the player is nearly identical in both size and shape to the smaller cigars available on the market. It's also quite light, weighing in at just under an ounce. The player is available in 1GB (NW-S203, $120) and 2GB (NW-S205, $150) capacities. Both models are black and feature identical brushed-aluminum construction. Like the NW-E400, this player's main controller is a multifunction knob situated on the end of device. Next to this knob are the Play/Pause key, the volume rocker, and the mode button, then the single-line OEL display, which features brightly lit (and easy to read) light-colored text on a dark background. As with many current Sony MP3 players, including the NW-A1200, the screen is protected beneath the outer layer of the device.
Navigating the NW-S200 is pretty straightforward, and certainly more intuitive than with the NW-E000. The mode button takes you to the main menu, where you can select from several icon-based options. Twisting the aforementioned knob flips through the selections: search, sports mode, stopwatch, all songs, FM, playlist, and settings. If you push the knob all the way in toward the player, it activates the hold function; if you pull it all the way out, you can use it to navigate by album. (In the neutral position, it scrubs through tracks.)
One look at the NW-S200's extras immediately reveals its athletic intention. The player is packaged with an armband and sport-style earbuds. And it's water resistant, so it can withstand sweat and even rainfall. But the star of the show is the built-in G-Sensor, which allows you to use the NW-S200 as a pedometer. Of course, you can also input your height, weight, age, and stride so that the player will keep track of calories burned. And there's a built-in stopwatch with interval capability, which will automatically stop your music when a time-related goal has been reached. In sports mode, a short push of the mode button let's you shuttle between steps taken, calories burned, and time remaining. Unfortunately, while I found this data to be accurate in testing (using a treadmill), I'm not sure how useful it will be--Sony once again fails to note the importance of software. No program for tracking your fitness (à la the Nike + iPod) is included with the player, nor does Sony point the user in the direction of an appropriate third-party application. Sure, it's nice to have these features on paper, but in practice, it's a bit disappointing. (Still interested in this player? Check out our Tips section for ideas on how to track your progress.)
For gym rats, the NW-S200 includes an FM tuner, which is particularly handy for tuning in to your workout facility's TVs. And a couple of unique features--both dependent on the G-Sensor--round out the package. The first is a function that switches the player between standard and shuffle playback modes if you shake it three times with the LCD facing up. This is very cool in person--you feel like you're actually shaking the songs up. The second are the onboard "running" and "walking" playlists that you designate based on the playlists you have already created. If you're strolling along with your player, the "walking" playlist comes on, and when you speed up, the "running" one starts. This is a neat feature we'd love to see expanded upon in future fitness-friendly MP3 players.
Unsurprisingly, the NW-S200's audio quality is top-notch, though I found it difficult to enjoy through the uncomfortably hard plastic earbuds that came with the player. The ear-wrap design is a nice touch, but the ear loops aren't adjustable, so they won't fit all users (notably those with small ears). But when I swapped in my Shure E4c test 'phones, I was rewarded with rich, clear audio that offered plenty of bass and an ear-splitting max volume. Rated battery life is similarly impressive at 18 hours. Unfortunately, CNET Labs' tests proved that not all Sony MP3 players can outlast the Energizer Bunny; we got only about 14 hours of playback.
Finally, I must point out that Sony is taking a step in the right direction by adding AAC and WMA support to its latest MP3 players, and that includes the NW-E000. Of course, it also plays MP3 and both protected and unprotected ATRAC files (WMA and AAC must be unprotected). This is a surprisingly open attitude from the company that once didn't even directly support MP3 playback. However, SonicStage rather sullies the whole experience. And not to sound like a broken record, but I'm just going to quote my Sony NW-E000 review here: "Unfortunately, Sony rather takes the shine off [the player] by requiring that you use SonicStage to transfer tunes to the device. This software is simply awful--I found myself hating it all over again in the few minutes it took get some tunes on the NW-E000. It's poorly laid out and does not organize music in an intuitive fashion. For me, this is a deal breaker. But for those who are accustomed to the SonicStage/Connect universe, the NW-E000 should make the cut." The same applies the NW-S200; still, the handy fitness-friendly features and the innovative uses of the G-Sensor technology make it a tempting option.