Note: Although, we reviewed an X-series with pre-release firmware, ultimately, this had little bearing on our conclusion.
At 97mm tall, 53mm wide and 11mm thick, the X-series Walkman sits somewhere between the S-series Walkmans and the much larger iPod Touch. The front and the back are finished in a deep, shiny black offset, strangely, by a sparkle effect. Around the edges, the X-series has a crackled granite-style finish which, although aesthetically dubious, certainly improves the hand grip several fold.
As with Granny's touchy feely iPod, a solitary home button adorns the front, just below the impossible to keep clean screen. The 3.5mm headphone sits on the top edge along with an array of buttons for play/pause, forward and reverse. A volume rocker, the noise-cancellation switch and a reset pin make their home along the right, while on the back there's a hold switch. Although we like the look of the X, it lacks the come hither sexiness of Apple's iPod Touch and polarises opinions thanks to the granite-you-like finish.
Fire up the 3-inch touchscreen though and these complaints are melted away by the amazing electronic brilliance of the OLED screen. When viewing the screen dead on, colours pop out with a vigour that would embarrass Snap and Crackle, contrast is brilliant and blacks were blacker than a black hole. On a bumpy bus or rickety train the OLED screen comes into its own, with colour, crispness and brightness remaining spot on even at the most obtuse angles.
This makes the X-series a great device for viewing movies — of the MPEG, AVC and WMV variety only — while in transit. It also makes the X a brilliant device for viewing photos or, more likely, your wallpapers on. Unfortunately, the Sony doesn't much like progressive JPEGs and, oddly, it can't zoom in on high resolution photos, although the scaling is impressive.
While the interface is merely a touchscreen evolution of the ones seen in Walkmans past, the screen is nicely responsive to human touch. Scrolling is smooth and, like the iPod Touch/iPhone, bounces and pings neatly when you reach the end of a list. Check out our review video to see the album scroller which, if you flick quickly enough, will send your album art flying into space like the preamble at the beginning of Star Wars.
Since the banishment of Sony's SonicStage software to the Abu Ghraib of hell, all of the company's Walkmans have been drag-and-drop affairs for music, video and images. Unfortunately, with the current firmware, this renders the X-series unplayable whenever it's tethered up via USB to a PC. Worse though is that once you unplug the X, it's forgotten the last song or video you were in, let alone your position in it — something even our two-year-old A-series Walkman could manage.
For those wanting a bit of musical variety or sport there's a built-in FM radio. The lovely iPhone-esque frequency scroller has non-adjustable 0.05MHz increments, which makes manual station finding in interference prone environments a trek to rival Scott of the Antarctic's.
In an effort to keep up with the Jobses, the X has a built-in Wi-Fi antenna. Unfortunately, connecting to a network is a bit more of a pain than it should be. Entering encryption keys via the mobile phone-style on-screen keypad is a chore and, unlike the iPod Touch, network reconnection is not automatic. So after, say, moving locations or a long period of inactivity, you'll have to trudge through the whole rigmarole of selecting a network and then waiting for anywhere between 30 seconds and a minute before you can get your fix of web, podcast or YouTube goodness.
The latter works perfectly well; downloading podcasts via Sony's supplied RSS links is easy, but a few too podcasts failed to play back due to incompatible file types. It's the web browser though that really lets the whole side down and is only suited to mobile-friendly websites. Point it at a full fat page and the screen's lack of width, even in landscape mode, and pixels — 432x240 — is readily apparent. Zoom out and even simple pages, like Wikipedia's, are poorly rendered. While long or complex pages, such as CNET Australia's, will invariably bring up the dreaded "Lack of resource" error. Oh, and URLs must have the "http://" prefix, not exactly the simplest thing to type on a 0-9 keypad, lest they be rejected out of hand. And forgot about chopping down long URLs to their root because holding down the delete key doesn't speed up the deletion process — so, be prepared to do a lot of googling.
At its core the X-series is a music player and its primary goal in life is to play music. Being a Walkman it almost goes without saying that the X-series sounds magnificent, with great clarity and richness throughout the aural range. Compared to previous Walkmans there's the slightest hint of extra bass, but that's about it. File types supported include MP3, WMA, ACC and Linear PCM, but not FLAC or Ogg Vorbis.
Noise cancellation is pretty much de rigueur in Sony's top-of-the-line Walkmans nowadays and — shock, horror! — it's on the X-series. This feature is geared to only work with the supplied EX ear buds as they have built-in microphones that feed back into the Walkman's digital noise-cancellation circuitry. There are settings to optimise noise cancellation for bus, office or plane; the latter of which we were unable to test. To our ears, much — our guesstimate is about 80 to 90 per cent — of the system's noise elimination is thanks to the isolating properties of the ear buds, which seal off the upper part of the ear canal. While great at blocking out external disturbances, the ear buds aren't exactly the last word in comfort, although, for us at least, a little bit of ear ache is preferable to the audio geek look, wearing a massive set of cans whilst on the bus.
As we stated at the top of this review, our X-series was loaded with a pre-release version of the firmware — 0.84 if you're curious. We're sure, or at least highly hopeful, that most of the major bugs will be exterminated by version 1.0. In the end though, the bugs, as well as the upsides and downsides we've already outlined, are rendered moot by one thing: the price.
At AU$649, the 16GB model (NWZ-X1050) is AU$230 more expensive than the 16GB iPod Touch, while the 32GB edition (NWZ-X1060) is AU$250 pricier than the equivalent Touch. Sony might point out that its player has an OLED screen, noise cancelling, a decent set of headphones and FM radio. On the flipside, the X-series' functionality can't be extended through third-party applications. More galling is that in the UK the X-series retails for four to five pounds less than the comparable iPod Touch.
Despite its multitude of faults, we loved the X-series because it excels at its core tasks of playing music and videos. It's a shame then that Sony's pricing department, again, makes it impossible for us to recommend the X-series, let alone slap an Editors' Choice award on it.