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Sony Walkman NW-HD3 review: Sony Walkman NW-HD3

Sony Walkman NW-HD3

James Kim

James Kim

Account in memoriam for the editor.

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7 min read

At first glance, the only physical difference from its predecessor seems to be the addition of four new color schemes. Joining the traditional silver model are black, blue, pink, and a particularly striking red. Add to that some remarkable backlight hues (a white light for silver; blue for the red, black, and blue models; and, yes, pink for the pink version), and you have an aesthetically appealing array of players. Discerning MP3 fans will note quite a few updates from the HD1. In place of the original's gorgeous silver metal casing, the current models are instead encased in supertough plastic--a look and feel that grows on you. Also, the circular five-way directional pad is a hint larger, made of a light and slightly cheap-feeling plastic, and centered with the 1.5-inch LCD. Simple, tactile, and effective, this is the primary play and menu controller.


Sony Walkman NW-HD3

The Good

Supercompact and stylish, though not as much as the HD1; awesome battery life; basic operation; improved interface; natively supports MP3 files; clean, bright sound quality.

The Bad

No extra features; works with only bundled SonicStage jukebox software.

The Bottom Line

Sony's 20GB HD3 may not have the HD1's looks and battery life, but its native MP3 support and flashy new colors make it a better choice overall.
Sony's $300 Network Walkman NW-HD3 represents more than just the next version of the beautiful but hyperscrutinized HD1. This sleek 20GB digital audio player is leading Sony and its Walkman franchise into the 21st century, as it's one of the first players from the electronics juggernaut to support native MP3 playback (the first digital audio player from Sony that actually played MP3s, the S23, was introduced late 2004). Following this flagship model is an army of newly announced and aggressively priced Network Walkmans that aspire to recapture some of the market share commandeered by the Apple iPod. The HD3 maintains the heart and soul of the HD1, but there are some key differences, including minor cosmetic updates, shorter battery life, and of course, native MP3 support. Sony has always been at the forefront of design, and the Network Walkman NW-HD3, like the HD1 before it, oozes technoglam appeal. Measuring 3.5 by 2.4 by 0.6 inches and weighing 4.6 ounces, the HD3 is notably smaller and lighter than the 20GB iPod and a tad heavier than the HD1. It breaks the mold of the typical hard drive player with its compact size, sheer simplicity, and a style of its own. For example, the player is meant to be used in a horizontal Landscape orientation.

On the top of the HD3, you'll find a smart headphone jack (wired remote not included), dedicated volume controls, and tiny Menu and Mode buttons. The bottom features a hold switch, a proprietary cradle connector port, and an on/off battery switch, which you can use to protect the battery when the device is not in use for long periods. The only other physical feature on the device is an anchor for a hand strap (not included).

While usable, the small Menu and Mode buttons aren't easy to access or press. As is the case with other Sony digital audio portables, the HD3's buttons and switches are designed for people with tiny fingers. The seldom-used Built-In Battery switch is particularly difficult to operate.

In its default state, the LCD has a gray background with dark, delicate text, though this setting can be reversed to display light text on a black background. Overall, the LCD is easy to read both indoors and out, although the fine typeface might be difficult for those with poor vision. The player interface displays essential information, including track, album, artist, and genre (with accompanying icons for each), as well as the time elapsed, a track-progress bar, the play mode, the number of songs in the playlist, the bit rate, and a battery-level indicator.

Unlike its predecessor, the HD3 does not ship with a docking cradle. This may be a blessing in disguise as the HD1's battery could only be recharged using the cradle--really bad for people who like to travel light. Now you have the same proprietary port on the HD3 but also a tiny adapter that clips on like a parasite and includes both power and USB ports; it's kind of like a miniature dock, and it even has a charge LED. This setup is convenient, but don't lose the adapter.

The HD3 also ships with a standard pair of earbuds that you'll definitely want to replace with better ones, as well as a soft carrying pouch, a power adapter, a USB cable, and the obligatory installation CD. The HD3 and its fabric pouch are completely mismatched, so we recommend adding a carrying case ($15), which offers more protection for this "luxury" gadget.

The HD3 hiding in its fabric case.

The Sony Network Walkman NW-HD3 isn't going to win any "stuffed with the most features" awards. Like the iPod, the HD3's raison d'être is to play back digital audio files, in this case, the company's own ATRAC3 (like Apple's AAC but even more proprietary) and MP3. Sony's list of secondary features is bare; while the iPod is a platform with PIM, calendar, and impressive third-party-app support, the HD3 doesn't even have a clock. That said, adding native MP3 support--however late in the game--was key to the Network Walkman's viability. So, in a way, since the player itself is rare and beautiful, this addition opens up a new option for gadget hounds. However, the $350 price tag remains at a premium level, and that's after a $50 reduction from the HD1.

If you're considering the HD3 and you use Musicmatch, Windows Media Player, or any other jukebox software, you'll have to get to know one more app: Sony's own SonicStage 2.3. A necessary and heavy program, this all-encompassing jukebox imports and transfers audio files as well as directly accesses the Connect music download store.

One of the primary reasons the HD1 has been dogged by reviewers is the fact that it didn't natively play MP3, WMA, or WAV files. Instead, the HD1 "supported" playback of those files, meaning that they needed to go through the SonicStage wringer and be converted into Sony's proprietary ATRAC3 or the more efficient ATRAC3plus format. Not only does this process take extra time, you're creating a new file that will occupy space on your hard drive.

The HD3 (and the HD1 with a firmware update) partially eliminates the format headaches and can be rightfully considered along with other MP3 players. Even the Sony Web site now labels the Network Walkmans as "MP3 players." Sony adapting to MP3 wasn't a mission so much as a necessity. If you want to listen to your WMA files, you'll still have to go old school and convert them in SonicStage, which also transfers over the files. The other obvious feature is that the device works seamlessly with Sony's Connect music service. If you're a fan, you'll definitely want to check out the HD3, as it's the iPod of the Sony Connect universe. And through the middle of 2005, you get 50 free songs from Connect, plus the 5 that you typically get with other Sony players.

Given the lack of extra features, the HD3 is a breeze to use. Pressing the Mode button breaks down your music into categories such as Artist, Album, Genre, Group, or Others. If you select a particular artist, all of the tracks by that artist will be played. Right-click an artist's name, and you'll be taken to their albums, then to an album's tracks. It's a slightly unusual method of selecting tracks, but it's effective. The Group mode is Sony's version of playlists, which can only be compiled using SonicStage. The Others mode includes user-definable bookmarks and the tracks most recently added to the device. While you can assign as many as 100 bookmarks, you can bookmark only the beginning of a track, not a specific point within it. It's Sony's version of an on-the-go-playlist.

The player is set up by pressing Menu, but holding the button turns off the player, which wasn't clear at the outset. The menu includes repeat, various play modes (Shuffle, 1 Track, and Play Unit), sound, AVLS, beep, audio-out, contrast, backlight, reverse display, and format controls. Play Unit simply means that all tracks within a selected artist or album will be played. Sound includes the EQ settings (four presets and two custom) and V-Sur virtual environments such as Studio, Live, Club, or Arena. The HD3 will show up as a separate drive in Explorer without needing drivers, so it can be used as a universal data-storage device.

When navigating the Sony Network Walkman NW-HD3, you'll experience smooth transitions from page to page, but more often than not, we noticed a 2-to-3-second access delay when the HD3 transitioned into various modes--a trait similar to the HD1.

The HD3 boasts bright and powerful sound quality in both ATRAC3 and MP3 modes. The various EQ and virtual-surround settings are also top-notch, and users can really crank up the volume.

One of the HD3's bona fide selling points is its rated battery life of 30 hours. CNET Labs was able to get only 24.2 hours on average with the same technique used for the HD1, which lasted 30.6 hours. This is still an impressive figure, pretty much doubling the iPod's battery life, and we believe that ATRAC3 playback will net you more playback time. Over USB 2.0, transfer times were impressive at 8.2MB per second.


Sony Walkman NW-HD3

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 6Performance 9
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