We have to admit, we folks at Pocket-lint like shiny things. As the old army phrase goes - if it’s shiny it must be worth having - and the same can be said for the Sony Network Walkman NW-HD1 that’s just landed in our office.
Shiny however isn’t all this small diminutive player has to offer its small as well. In fact Sony boasts (well in June it did) that this is the world’s smallest hard drive based MP3 player and we would have to agree with them, its certainly the smallest hard drive based player we’ve seen and compared to the iriver H300 that we also have in the office this thing is tiny. The measurements to be exact are 8.9cm wide x 6.2cm tall x 1.3cm thick, and it weighs just 112grams. To put that into context its about the size of five credit cards stacked on top of each other. Wow.
At that size you expect the player to be a competitor to the other 4 or 5Gb models on the market. Not so, the NW-HD1 amazingly houses a 20Gb hard drive capable of storing 13,000 songs in the ATRAC3plus format at 48Kbps in its memory banks. 48Kbps is a bit ropey for music really and even at 64Kbps tracks are prone to be flat, that said you should still get around 10,000 song on this, so for the extremely discerning, 5000 songs at the more average 128Kbps is better than a poke in the eye. Oh and did we forget to mention on a unit that is the size of five credit cards stacked on top of each other.
At that size you would also expect something that might not be able to take a beating. Again not so. The NW-HD1 is encased in brushed metal with the minimal of buttons to play with. The front offers the typical Sony smoked screen found so often on its handheld units, between which is a black and white LCD display to view all the relevant information. The main control is also situated on the front and this is a simple once button D-pad that allows you to scroll through the menu system as well as offering fast-forward, back, stop, pause and play. The top presents volume controls, a mode and menu button while the bottom offers nothing more than the on/off switch and a hold slider that locks all the controls.
The European version we tested came with a simple set of headphones with an exceptionally long cord, and while other territories seem to be getting a enhanced remote, this was not in the box or on the contents list. As yet we don’t know if it will be sold in larger Sony shops as a spare.
Power the unit up and the menu system and options are very basic. You can scroll through the usual options to find your tracks - Genre, Album, Artist etc and the display gives all the relevant track details such as song title, artist, time, quality etc. The system is very easy to use and Sony has made sure that everything says very basic. There is no built-in organiser, no FM radio and no file storage allocation. There is an Equalizer setting which makes a tiny bit of difference to the overall sound quality and a virtual setting that allows to you make the recording sound like you are live, or in an arena. We never quite understand why you would ever want to do this - if the recording is live then let it sound like that is our belief. That said even with live recordings setting it to the live setting made little difference.
Sound on the whole was very good if not a little quite on the recordings we tested it with. Understandably what did make a difference was the quality at which it had been recording at and there was a noticeable difference when playing back 64kbps tracks compared to 128kbps - being that as expected the 128Kbps tracks sounded a lot better. To give a wide variety of sounds we tested the player with some Dave Matthews Band - Live at Red Rock and NOFX’s definitive Punk in Dublic. The player coped well with the dulcet tones of Dave Matthews and the numerous sax solos that are on that album, while still coping with the guitar and angst on the NOFX album.
So what’s the catch? Well in true Sony style you have to transfer everything into ATRAC3plus to play it on the NW-HD1 and this means having to using the Sonic SonicStage version 2.1 software that comes in the box. Straight away that rules out Apple Mac owners, but then they are probably already in thrall to the iPod anyway.
The SonicStage Software isn’t the most user-friendly and it would have been a lot nicer if Sony had incorporated support for Windows Media Player, or even better made the player drag-and-drop. This has always been one of the problems with the Sony ATRAC players, however one we suppose is unavoidable if you want to use the unit.
On the whole the software isn’t that bad to use and you are of course given access to the Sony Connect music download store by default. Why Sony can’t join the fold and settle on a format that is universally acceptable on all player like MP3 is beyond us, but we suppose if you are new to the MP3 market then this is an evil that will probably make little difference in the grander scale of things.
Because you are restricted to transferring your songs via the SonicStage software having to connect the NW-HD1 via a docking station is by the by. It is USB2.0 compatible which means fast transfer of songs to the unit, but again using a docking station does mean you’re locked into either carrying the station and a power adapter around wherever you go or by only using it on the desktop at home.
Sony has tried to combat the need to dock the unit by promising a 30 hour battery life, and so far in our trials it’s living up to that claim.
As a player you can’t fault it. It’s sleek, sharp and stylish and the size makes a big difference. Not only that but it gets the wow factor, not only from us in the office, but also people that have seen us using it out and about - always a good sign. The catch is that the SonicStage software won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. While it works, there were a number of times we got frustrated. It’s a shame because it may well be the deciding factor in not opting for this player.
The big question of course - is it an iPod killer? For the PC users we think it is. Get past the software and you’ve got a player to be proud of. Yes the options are limited, but who do you know that owns an iPod uses the vcard side of it. To those people who will say what about the FM radio? You never complained when CD players lack a radio so why should you here. It also means there’s no mucking around using the headphone lead as an antenna.
Sony invented the Walkman over 20 years ago and while it failed to fully capitalise on MiniDisc in between, this is Sony returning to form.
Review: I brought the new Sony 20gb NW-HD1 last Sunday and returned back to Bennetts the next day. Quite simply: it's damn right awful. It doesn't come with a remote, the software is virtually un-useable and too fiddly by half. Not good enough.
Posted: 28 September 2004