The flash MP3 player landscape may be covered in a carpet of iPod Nanos and Touches, but Sony's Walkman brand is still kicking around, and its latest crop of players continues the recent run of decent devices.
The NWZ-A728 is the 8GB model in the A720 range, and is joined by 4GB (NWZ-A724) and 16GB (NWZ-A726) versions. Sony has also thrown a Bluetooth-enabled model into the mix; the 4GBis identical to the A720 line-up but for its A2DP Bluetooth streaming. The player comes with two sets of headphones that are a notch above your standard flash-player ear buds: the DR-BT21G Bluetoothers and a pair of decent, bass-friendly EX Monitor earphones.
The NWZ-A720 players have a streamlined and elegant look. Available in black, white, gold and bubblegum pink, they are dominated by a 240x320-pixel display. Beneath the screen is a square four-way navigation key with a big Play/Pause button in the centre. It's refreshing to see a button layout that doesn't ape the iPod scrollwheel — though it's been done to death, no-one pulls it off as well as Apple.
The only other buttons on the front face of the player are a small Back key to the left and an identically shaped Option key on the right. Dedicated volume keys and a hold switch sit surreptitiously on the silver lining of the player's right edge, while the bottom of the A728 houses the headphone socket and a proprietary port for the USB cable.
While it's a decent player with all the essentials, the A728 is missing out on all the extras. There's no FM radio, no voice recorder and no expansion slot to boost the memory — all pretty standard features from companies like Creative and Sansa. Gigabyte-for-gigabyte, the A720 is more expensive than the iRiver E100 despite offering fewer features. Sure, Apple's overwhelmingly dominant iPod range doesn't have any of these things either, but Sony doesn't quite have the fanboy following to pull it off.
As for the numbers and letters, the player supports MP3, AAC, WMA and WMA (DRM) audio, as well as the rather more obscure Linear PCM. JPEG images and MPEG-4 videos get a look-in, as does high-quality AVC (H.264/AVC).
The first positive point is one we've, but it bears repeating: the A720 series is mercifully free from Sony's SonicStage music management app. This software, with its illogical interface and propensity to crash, was one of the main reasons that the Walkman range has been given a bad rap in recent years. Sony finally ditched the troublesome app in 2007 with the welcome promise that we'd never have to see it again. With the A728 you can either use software like Windows Media Player to sync your media, or you can simply drag and drop your files from folder to player.
Get set to chuck the user manual straight in the bin, because menu navigation is dead easy. The icon-driven grid interface is similar to the home menu screen of a mobile phone, and you need not delve too far into the sub-layers to change settings or find your files.
One downside is that it can be tricky to transfer videos. If your file ends in the letters AVI or WMV, then forget it. You need to stick to MPEG-4 and H.264, and it's 320x240 or nothing. If you've got a heap of clips in a non-compatible format, get ready to spend some time converting.
The supplied EX monitor headphones are much better than the slightly dodgy ear buds Apple gives you when you buy an iPod Nano. Some may baulk at their design — each bud has an extra bubble that weasels its way into your ear canal. Good for sound isolation, but bad if you're not a fan of inserting silicon-rubber compounds deep into your cranial orifices. Still, they provide really decent bass, and you won't get any of that aurally offensive distortion at higher volumes.
All up, the A720 series is well-designed, easy to use and suits users of Windows Media Player as well as the more traditional drag-and-drop crowd. It doesn't have anything amazing that will knock your socks off, but it's a solid buy and a good Nano alternative.