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Editors' note, October 23, 2008: The NWZ-638 version of the Sony S-Series does not include the noise-canceling capability featured in the other models in this series. It offers a lower price point of $149 for the 8GB version, and currently is only available in red. For more information specific to the NWZ-638F, read the completely subjective take here.
Editors' note, October 14, 2008: The rating for this review has been raised from 8.5 to 8.7 because of the player's excellent performance during battery life testing.
Sony has come a long way since the release of the NW-MS11 Network Walkman. One of the company's first flash-based MP3 players, the NW-MS11 didn't even play MP3s and was crippled by copy-protection woes and painfully slow transcoding, but even back then, Walkmans were a model of sleek design and excellent sound quality. The S-Series Walkman is a prime example of the reason Sony was the original king of portable music devices. The flash player, which comes in 4GB ($149.99) and 8GB ($179.99) models, is sleek, compact, easy to use, and packed with features. Plus, it sounds great and has an impressive battery life--we just wish we could get more than the 8GB of memory.
Design and interface
The Sony S-Series Walkman's design is anything but flashy. The player comes in one color: black. That's not to say the device doesn't have any style, but it's definitely more understated than that of the iPod Nano. The brushed-metal face and backside are joined together by a glossy black border that wraps all the way around the edges of the player, which is compact enough to fit in pretty much any pocket. At 3.4 inches by 1.6 inches by 0.3 inch, it's fractionally shorter and thicker than the Nano. A bright, 2-inch GVCA TFT (with 240x320 resolution) takes up more than half the front, while a circular five-way control pad and two function buttons--back/home and option/off--fill out the remainder. The right edge of the player houses our two favorite controls: a dedicated volume rocker and a hold switch (the latter in particular is useful for Walkmans, which start up quickly with a touch of any button). A proprietary USB port, a noise-cancellation switch, and a semi-standard 3.5mm headphone jack line the bottom of the player.
The physical controls of the S-Series are responsive and intuitive, and thanks to their varied shape and texture, lend well to blind navigation with minimal practice. But the onscreen interface is worth looking at. The main menu is organized into an attractive three-by-three icon grid, and you can choose from a variety of wallpapers and themes that affect the viewing backdrop as well as the selection highlight colors. Music is organized by ID3 tags (sorted by artist, album, playlist, and so on), or you can choose to use folder navigation. The Walkman supports MP3, WMA (including subscription), and unprotected AAC files for music, JPEG photos (and slide shows), and MPEG 4 and M4V video. Purchased and rented videos from Amazon's Video On Demand service may also be transferred to and played on the device.
Features and extras
In addition to the usual array of multimedia support, the Sony S-Series Walkman offers many other desirable features. There's an excellent-sounding FM radio with an autoscan mode and up to 30 preset slots. It's also the first Walkman to integrate podcast support with a separate menu item dedicated to the function, and it will remember where you last left off in a file. A light piece of software that comes in the package (called simply Content Transfer) allows users to drag-and-drop podcasts and other media directly from the iTunes interface. It will also transfer content from anyplace else on your hard drive, though podcasts transferred in this way get placed in the general music menu under the podcast genre, rather than in the specialized podcast menu. Alternatively, you can use a jukebox such as Windows Media Player to manage content.
The S-Series packs in quite a few useful music-oriented extras as well. First is the Intelligent Shuffle function, which creates specialized listening experiences based on the year a song was released. Then you have a veritable smorgasbord of sound enhancement options, including two user-customizable EQs. Next, of course, is the noise-cancellation feature, which works in kind with the packaged headphones--hence the aforementioned semi-standard headphone jack. There's an extra chink for those earbuds' special plug, though the S-Series will work with standard sets also. Sony even includes an accessories cable that allows you to run an airplane's audio system through the player in order to enjoy the built-in noise canceling--quite the thoughtful addition.
Sony has also introduced a brand-new extra on the S-Series: a smart playlist function called SensMe Channels. Somewhat similar to the Nano's Genius feature, SensMe analyzes the songs in your library to create playlists. But unlike Genius, SensMe doesn't create lists on a song-by-song basis. Rather, it analyzes the entire library on the device and creates a selection of Channels ranging from Morning to Lounge to Extreme. You can then access them from a dedicated icon on the main menu. It's certainly an interesting feature and should appeal to those who balk at the time-consuming process of creating custom playlists. However, the cohesiveness of the Channels is questionable at times, although we did really enjoy the Morning playlist on the way to the office.
Performance and such
It may be a bit pricier than the competition, but one of the great things about the S-Series Walkman is that it sounds great right out of the box--meaning you don't have to go through the extra step of tossing out the packaged earbuds and purchasing some decent ones. Still, while the included earphones offer good sound quality, they may not be comfortable for all users, and a proper fit is necessary to enjoy the bass the player is capable of producing. Even at the flat setting, the S-Series offers impressive audio response. Music sounds deep, warm, and enveloping with a nice amount of sparkle at the high end. Bass is reasonably present at flat, but to our ears, is much better with the player's Clear Bass settings jacked up. Tweaking the custom EQ can also help open the sound when listening through canalbuds.
In fact, the S-Series Walkman shines across the board when it comes to performance. Photos look crisp, clear, and bright with great color saturation. The screen is too small for extended video viewing and there's some pixelation during quick motion, but short clips look decent and viewing angles are very good. Truly stellar is the rated battery life of 40 hours for audio and 10 for video. CNET Labs didn't quite match those numbers, getting 38 hours for music and 8.7 for video, but we're still impressed by these slightly diminished results.