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It would seem that both Sony and Samsung are engaging in some kind of historical re-enactment of the great iPod Wars of 2007. That's the only way I have to explain the rash of portable media players I've been seeing recently.
Just like Samsung's Galaxy Player devices, the Sony Walkman Z ($249) aims to compete against Apple's popular iPod Touch with a mixture of Android 2.3, a larger screen, and a handful of brag-worthy features.
Has Sony finally unlocked the secret to making a worthy alternative to Apple's $199 media player juggernaut, or is the Walkman Z a historical and alphabetical final attempt from Sony to wrestle back a product category it once dominated? Let's break it down.
Design and features
Sony knows how to make beautiful technology, and the Walkman Z has clearly received plenty of Sony polish and refinement. This isn't the flimsy, plastic-clad afterthought we saw in the Samsung Galaxy Player 4 and 5. The Walkman Z feels solid in your hand, and the matte finish and sculpted look all bear the marks of a designer's touch.
That said, there are plenty of indications here that Sony's and Samsung's designers must have been cohabiting in the same windowless bunker for the last four years. For example, at 0.44 inch thick, the Walkman Z is nearly twice as thick as an iPod Touch from two years ago.
Taking the iPod out of the equation, the Walkman Z is still as thick as or thicker than many Android smartphones with similar specs. If Sony is filling up that extra space with battery, you wouldn't know it from the battery life ratings, which peak at 20 hours of music playback or 5 hours of video.
Another head-scratcher is Sony's reintroduction of a proprietary (WM-Port) USB charging cable. Just when you thought Micro-USB was becoming a connection and charging standard for mobile devices, Sony had to throw WM-Port into the mix. Don't get me wrong, I curse aloud every time a depleted iOS gadget sends me scouring the office for one of Apple's so-called "universal" cables, but at least I can count on finding one. In short: don't misplace your Sony WM-Port cable.
One final feature gripe I have about the Walkman Z is the complete lack of cameras. Now, we know that Sony can make a fine camera, and the cameras it placed in the Sony Tablet S (a product I loved, by the way) raised the standard for Honeycomb tablets. Without cameras, Sony has neutered much of what's fun about Android. There will be no gratuitous uploading of self-portraits to Facebook, no uploading HD videos to YouTube, and no possibility of cutting-edge augmented reality games.
Still, there's plenty to love about Sony's enduring Walkman. As you might expect, there's a definite emphasis on audio quality, helped in no small part by the inclusion of high-quality in-ear headphones. Skip down to the Performance section of this review for more details on the Walkman Z's audio experience.
Another bit of evidence showing Sony's commitment to a quality music experience is the inclusion of a dedicated Walkman button on the side of the device. By pressing this button, you can instantly access onscreen music controls for pausing, skipping, or identifying songs--even from the lock screen. It's a useful feature, and one that would be great to see on more Android gadgets.
The Walkman Z's 4.3-inch screen is a mixed bag. To Sony's credit, the screen is considerably more spacious than the 3.5-inch display found on the iPod Touch. It's also using the same no-gap screen technology used on the Sony Tablet S and many Sony Bravia televisions, which helps to minimize internal screen glare and provides deeper, more consistent blacks. With the right media, the Walkman Z's screen can be stunning.
The bad news is that the screen is running at a somewhat disappointing 800x480-pixel resolution; the smaller screen of the iPod Touch makes use of a 960x640-pixel display, making for a noticeably smoother pixel density. It's the same dilemma faced by Samsung's Galaxy Player devices--but at least Samsung made it easier to put content on the screen, supporting formats such as AVI, DivX, and Xvid. With the Walkman Z, users can load up MP4 (including H.264) and WMV video files, and that's about it.
Sony does include a Micro-HDMI output, though, so at least your videos (and video games, too) can be pushed out to an HDTV with a simple cable. DLNA support comes baked in, as well, allowing you to wirelessly throw your music, photos, and videos to other DLNA-compatible devices in your home. Good ol' Bluetooth is there as a wireless audio fallback, just in case.
Finally, I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't mention that the Walkman Z includes an FM radio. You'll need to plug in your headphones to use it (since the headphone cable is used as an antenna), but once you're connected you can scan through the old-fashioned airwaves with ease.
For the Walkman Z, Sony uses a customized version of Android 2.3.3 (aka Gingerbread). Just like any top-tier Android phone, the Walkman Z's Android experience includes all-important apps such as Android Market, Gmail, Maps, Google Books, Latitude, Navigation (powered by the built-in GPS), Google Places, Google Talk, and You Tube. More specifically, the Android Market offers all of Google's digital wares, including apps, music, books, and videos.
Sony also includes a handful of its own high-quality apps. For example, Sony's own Music Player app exists alongside Android's less-evolved Music app (not to be confused with the excellent Google Music app, which is optional to install). Sony also has its own spin on a Video Player app, Photo Viewer, and Wi-Fi scanner. Completely unique apps, such as programmable gesture control, FM radio, DLNA setup, and Music Unlimited subscription music service, also come installed.
The timing, unfortunately, is horrible. As we tread into 2012, consumer expectations are already turning to Android 4.0 (aka Ice Cream Sandwich). There are successful Gingerbread-based products like the Amazon Kindle Fire that rise above the clamor of Android 4.0--the Fire being helped along by its low price, dramatically customized interface, and unique ecosystem. But for the price you're paying here for a premium Android media player, and on the cusp of Android 4.0's arrival, the investment feels poorly timed.
The Sony Walkman Z sounds amazing. I would go so far as to say that it's the best-sounding portable music player money can buy, in terms of the out-of-the-box experience. I won't argue that any decent MP3 player dressed up with an external headphone amp and some high-grade cans can't sound as good or better, but let's not fall down the bottomless pit of audiophile arguments.
The foundation of the Walkman's audio prowess is the pair of high-performance in-ear headphones that comes included, along with three differently sized fittings. Like most Sony headphones, these offer beefy lows without overwhelming the mix, along with ample clarity at the high end.
Unfortunately, another quality these share with many Sony earphones is that they're about as delicate as butterfly wings. The precious connection where the headphone cable meets the earpiece begs for abuse like a turkey wishbone. That said, after a week's worth of listening and daily backpack storage, these headphones look no worse for wear (though the thin cable does tend to tangle more than most). Still, I would hold onto that warranty. If your headphones were to suffer an untimely demise it would severely diminish the amount of smugness you'd be capable of feeling around iPod owners.
There's more to the Walkman's audio superiority than just great headphones. The settings menu on Sony's Music Player app reads like a futuristic arsenal of sonic weaponry. Options for VPT, DSEE, xLOUD, Clear Phase, and more will have audio nerds joyously whiling away the afternoon dialing in the perfect sound. The included graphic EQ alone is enough to put the Walkman Z ahead of the pack.
Video performance, as I mentioned earlier, has some highs and lows. The no-gap screen technology offers deep blacks and vivid colors, but the overall resolution could be better. Video format support is downright anemic, but at least there's the Android Video store there to offer an easy way to purchase or rent content.
In terms of battery life, Sony rates the Walkman Z at 20 hours of audio playback (Bluetooth off) or 5 hours of video playback. Not to beat a dead horse, but the iPod Touch, at nearly half the thickness, clocks in at over 40 hours of music playback and 7 hours of video.
Here are our official CNET Labs-tested battery life results.
|Video battery life (in hours)||Audio battery life (in hours)|
|Sony Walkman Z||6.3||23.9|
The Sony Walkman Z offers a premium portable audio experience at a time when most have willingly sacrificed audio quality for the convenience of using their smartphone as their primary music device.
But in spite of Sony's poor timing, the audio-nerd romantic in me would gladly champion a product like this, if it weren't for all its shortcomings. Its design, features, battery life, and price are all out of step with where the competition is, and where things are headed.
Editor's note: This review was updated with CNET Labs' battery test results.