Sony's latest high capacity minidisc player is for recalcitrants who don't want a solid state MP3 player. The MD Walkman plays a 1GB disc that holds up to 45 hours of music. Sony has dubbed its new disc format Hi-MD. Since the recorder plays discs rather than storing data on flash memory or a hard drive, its capacity is limited only by the number of discs you own and can carry. At around £5.50 each, adding three extra Hi-MDs gives you similar storage to iPod's mini at a lower price.
Sony's player is not as small as the iPod mini however. It is pocketable, rather than wearable. Square in shape, at its widest the Walkman is much fatter than the iPod: 29.2mm compared to 12.7mm. This fatness is largely down to the battery - a regular, rechargeable AA battery that is widely available and which Sony claims gives 27 hours playing time. In our tests, we used the Walkman for between two and three hours a day and at the end of the week had not had to recharge it once. And if our battery had played up, there was no need to find the nearest Apple service centre for a replacement.
Uploading music to the player is straightforward. We recorded music from lots of different sources. Using old fashioned recording CDs in real time from our hi-fi, we proved that you can have the benefit of carrying lots of tracks around with you without owning a computer. It takes forever (if you've become used to ripping) but recording live in Linear PCM (Pulse Code Modulation) gives uncompressed music of 100% CD quality. Artist, album and track names have to be entered manually. The Walkman automatically sets up a new group for each recording so our albums were listed on the 3-line LCD display as Group 1, Group 2, etc. A jog wheel lets you spin quickly through everything recorded and select tracks to play and there is a well built, stick insect remote control. We used the jog wheel to find and delete some tracks and then we tagged the tracks we loved across all our albums as 'fav'. We could listen to albums or a medley of favourites. Adding artists' names would have let us play everything by that artist but by this stage we were starting to miss our computer.
Using your computer and Sony's SonicStage 2 software speeds up recording by 100 times. Ripping tracks from a CD and recording onto the player took a few minutes per album. The software assumes you are online and prompts you to register with Gracenotes CDDB. This provides information for your recording. As well as album, artist and track names, it dates and times everything. Sony's player uses its proprietary ATRAC3 or ATRAC3plus format: it does not play MP3 or WMA files but instead converts them to its own format giving you a choice of bit-rate. We tried recording a CD we had burnt with tracks bought from iTunes. It transferred seamlessly. It may be a bug bear that Sony converts everything but we could not fault the resulting sound quality of compressed, recorded files whatever the source.
The player records from live sources through its microphone or from other audio sources including your TV, DVD or digital radio through the line input. The Hi-MD discs store data and picture files. This gives the option of adding extra discs dedicated to storing documents from work or pictures from your camera.
When it comes to design, the player is unlikely to win any prizes. If Apple's iPod is Brad Pitt then Sony's Hi-MD WALKMAN is Dudley Moore. The case is grey plastic on the back. On top, it has a strange combination of silver effects and the jog wheel struck us as especially ugly. The Hi-MD discs are the same size as regular MD discs and look bulky alongside the neatest, keyring storage devices. As a portable recorder for compressed music, it works brilliantly: as a fashion device it fails, which could be just the combination you want considering most people will only ever see the headphone cord.
Sony's new high capacity Hi-MD discs make a very covetable storage device for portable music. We had this device on loan from Sony for two weeks and we lost count of the number of people who, having played with it, decided they wanted one. Sound quality was good with none of the screeching interference we have had with MP3 players. The option to record from different sources combined with plenty of storage and a very long battery life, make this a gadget that will not be forgotten at the bottom of your handbag.