Sony has suffered hardest of all in the MP3 player wars. Though the company's Walkman ruled the 80s when it almost single-handedly established a market for portable music players, it has lagged in recent years. Conflicts of interest between Sony's music publishing and consumer electronics businesses have meant that while Sony's product designers may long for a more open approach to portable music, Sony Music is still utterly paranoid that online music will bring about its death.
So, what is Sony to do when it glowers at the success of the iPod but doesn't want to make copying music too easy? Its initial reaction was to bundle SonicStage with all its Network Walkmans. This was a crude, irredeemably clunky bit of software that made transferring software to Sony MP3 players extremely frustrating. This gave Apple plenty of time to develop iTunes and its relatively straightforward approach to managing MP3s.
With the launch of the Walkman NW-A1000, Sony has revamped the SonicStage software -- or perhaps more accurately, replaced it with the Connect Player. This bears more than a passing resemblance to Apple's iTunes, sharing its wirebrushed finish, panel layouts and... well, everything really. Save for the omission of the Apple logo, Sony has co-opted the iTunes interface wholesale. It clearly works, so why not? Initially this appears to be a vast improvement over SonicStage.
The NW-A1000 itself is gorgeous-looking and makes a very definite fashion statement. Where the iPod's impact has been eroded slightly because of the ubiquity of those little white ear buds, the NW-A1000 feels fresh and unique. So, with the new connection software, are the reasons not to buy Sony slowly evaporating?
Sony has been surprisingly inventive with its choice of design for the NW-A1000. While its Connect software now mimics iTunes, the design of the player couldn't be more unique. The player has a lozenge-like appearance and is reminiscent of tightly wrapped, glistening sweets.
The front panel is of the semi-translucent type used most memorably in the NW-E507. This is designed to give the impression that the text displayed on the NW-A1000's LCD is magically appearing on the player's outer plastic shell. Unfortunately, the outer plastic shell on the NW-A1000 is too translucent and you can actually see the LCD beneath the surface. This spoils the trick slightly -- the NW-E507 pulled it off much more effectively, presumably by using a different paint technique.
The rear of the player also appears to be plastic, but between the two halves of the chassis there's a strong metal collar which wraps around all edges to protect it on impact. We didn't drop the NW-A1000, but it looks like it could probably take a fairly severe knock, so long as this is delivered to the edge of the unit.
The front of the player includes simple navigation controls which allow you to skip through songs, change basic options and retreat through menus using the Back button. Sony has made a mistake including so many different buttons on the front of the player, some features could have been amalgamated into the main transport control. None the less, the interface is instantly intuitive and no one we handed the player to was unable to get music playing.
On the right-hand side of the player, a slider increases and decreases volume, and on the left there's a button to invoke 'Artist Link', which is a rarely used feature probably undeserving of a whole button to itself. The lower side of the player houses a proprietary USB cable connector and the top side includes a headphone socket and Hold button.
Basic playback functions on the NW-A1000 are fairly self-explanatory. The navigation controls work exactly as you would expect them to, with navigation through playlists controlled by the outer ring on the main control and play/pause controlled by the central ring.
The Connect Player software installed easily on our Windows XP machine, but reportedly will not install on any other version of Windows apart from Windows 2000. This is not overly obvious from the packaging. The one alternative is to downgrade to SonicStage, but many users would gladly die rather than suffer this software.
You can organise tracks and playlists using the Connect Player software, but its main function is to transfer songs to the player. It's not entirely clear what Connect Player is doing to your music as it transfers it -- judging by the speed it may not be a straight transfer. SonicStage would convert music to Sony's proprietary ATRAC format and then transfer it onto the player but, as we understand it, the Connect Player converts anything that is not MP3 format to ATRAC, but leaves MP3s in their original codec.
The Connect Player also deals with DRM (Digital Rights Management). Sony has had a lot of bad press recently over its copyright protection methods, but Connect Player seems to be fairly liberal in what it will let you transfer. We were able to fill the player with regular MP3s with no problem whatsoever. Though the Connect Player is still not as polished or usable as Apple's iTunes, in comparison to SonicStage it's a revelation.
Two things struck us instantly about the NW-A1000. The first is that the maximum playback volume is much lower than what we've heard from other MP3 players. This is no bad thing and we suspect the player has been intentionally limited to prevent hearing damage. There is likely to be a patch available at some point to remove this restriction -- but do so at your own risk. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that listening to headphones at high volume causes loss of hearing.
This may pose a problem for commuters who travel on noisy trains. If you're determined to hear your music loud and clear and don't mind running the risk of damaging your ears, most other MP3 players can generate a much louder volume.
Sound quality on the player is very good. Listening to I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor by Arctic Monkeys revealed excellent definition and control to the sound. Although we're not volume junkies, we couldn't help but feel that the NW-A1000 wasn't delivering the punch of other players. Within the bounds of the volume available to it, the sound was well balanced and unstrained, but some listeners may find it frustrating that ambient noise begins to drown out some of the detail in songs quite quickly.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield