Sony Network Walkman NW-HD5 Inverness

With a monochrome screen, the NW-HD5 obviously doesn't boast the kind of digital photography options that the Gigabeat and new iPod Colour offer, but its focus on playing music makes it a very good portable jukebox.

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Sony Network Walkman NW-HD5

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It's said that fortune favours the brave, but if that's the case, then Sony's researchers must be wondering why the company is, in terms of market- and mind-share for MP3 players, as poor as they come. In the face of the overwhelming popularity of solid-state and hard disk players such as the iPod, Sony's strategy of tiny flash-memory Walkmans that can play only proprietary ATRAC3 files, and not MP3s, could certainly be called brave. Or bizarre. Or ludicrous. Or mad.

We could go on; fortunately, Sony didn't, and the end of last year saw a much-needed change in strategy. The latest Sony players natively support MP3 files, and the company's hard disk-based MP3 players have quickly undergone several major revisions. The NW-HD5 is the latest example of these.

Despite being a digital audio player with a 20GB hard disk, the NW-HD5 design philosophy is noticeably different from that of the iPod. The bright white case and the trickle of white earphone cords from someone's ears are obvious, extrovert style statements, played up by Apple's own advertising. In contrast, the NW-HD5 is a subtle, even anonymous, piece of kit. Not that this is a bad thing; carrying the NW-HD5, you hardly notice it's there, thanks to its tiny dimensions and light weight. It's less than 10cm high and 5cm wide, and weighs 30g less than the 20GB iPod. This doesn't sound like much, but it makes a big difference to a device that lives or dies on its ability to invisibly inveigle its way into your life.

The NW-HD5's outer design is conventional and sober, dominated by a grid of self-explanatory buttons. The screen is a monochrome seven-line LCD that's initially unimpressive; song titles sometimes blur as they scroll and, compared with the amazingly sharp screen of the Toshiba Gigabeat, it's very disappointing. However, the lack of a colour screen means there's a big pay-off in the form of battery life. Sony makes all kinds of claims for the NW-HD5's longevity when playing ATRAC3 files - 40 hours apparently - but, as they're only used by three people worldwide, we tested it using high bit-rate MP3s. Even so, the results were amazing: the NW-HD5 played continuously for over 23 hours. Considering that it also charges quickly via the USB cable, and has an easily removable and replaceable battery, in terms of power, the NW-HD5 is pretty much perfect.

With a monochrome screen, the NW-HD5 obviously doesn't boast the kind of digital photography options that the Gigabeat and new iPod Colour offer, but its focus on playing music makes it a very good portable jukebox. The four navigational buttons are reminiscent of the D-pad on a console joypad and, while they're not as funky as the Gigabeat's cross-shaped touchpad, they do work extremely well. Even with a lot of music on the player, you can easily scroll through lists of songs quickly and accurately. All of the songs stored on the NW-HD5 are neatly indexed, so you can search by initial letters, artist, album and genre.

The bundled earphones are pretty good, but they don't do justice to the NW-HD5's underlying sound quality. Swap them for some good headphones, and the NW-HD5 sounds phenomenal, although it could do with a little more volume. Or maybe the CPC office just needs to be a bit quieter.

Apple's success with the iPod hasn't only been down to the design of the hardware; iTunes is excellent software, and the iTunes Music Store was the first service to offer decently priced and reasonably unrestricted legal music downloads. Sony uses its own Sonic Stage software and, like Genghis Khan, past iterations of this have been feared and loathed in equal measure. The NW-HD5 comes with Sonic Stage 3.1, which is a massive improvement on its predecessors. However, it can thrash your hard drive, due to the way it indexes and refreshes its list of albums. Sonic Stage 3.1 isn't quite as intuitive as iTunes, but it's the equal of Media Player 10, and for everyday tasks, such as making playlists and transferring music to the NW-HD5, it's easy to use.

Sonic Stage 3.1 also integrates the Connect music store, and this, sadly, is the NW-HD5's main weakness. The Connect interface doesn't scale with your screen resolution, its selection of music is more limited than that of many other legal download sites, and there's less extra content such as playlists and artist info. Single tracks at Connect cost up to 99p, compared to 79p from iTunes and 69p from Windows Media Player's MSN Music store. True, it's only 20p more expensive, but you could buy two packs of Space Raiders for that.

CONCLUSION

The reason that the Connect music store is the NW-HD5's biggest weakness is due to Sony's old, high-handed, proprietary approach to digital audio, but in other respects, the NW-HD5 is an excellent and focused MP3 player. It's keenly priced (£30 less than the 20GB iPod), battery life and sound quality are excellent, and it's tiny and easy to use. As another saying goes, all this is music to our ears.

Author: Alex Watson

Sony Network Walkman NW-HD5