Another day, another contender for the iPod's crown. Once again it's Sony lining up to wage war against Apple, and with their Network Walkman NW-E003F they have the iPod shuffle squarely in their sights. After spending some time with Sony's new player we have to say we think they've achieved their goal. The package as a whole may lack the finesse of Apple's offerings, with Sony's truly awful SonicStage software being the primary let down, but the extra features and convenience of the NW-E003F puts it streets ahead of the shuffle.
- Wide number of supported formats, small, sleek, doubles as a USB drive, reasonably priced, radio
- No recording abilities, Have to use SonicStage software
Good value MP3 player only let down by Sony's SonicStage software.
Price$ 159.00 (AUD)
What the iPod shuffle lacked in functionality, such as a screen, it more than made up for in style. Small, lightweight and cheap the shuffle was a fine example of minimalist design. Sony has finally managed to trump Apple by providing a player that not only looks as good and costs roughly the same, but actually provides most of the additional functionality that Apple was missing. In particular, the addition of a screen is welcoming. The NW-E003F has a display that is cunningly concealed beneath the translucent outer casing, giving the impression that song titles are floating in the midst of a dark void. It all looks very suave until you take the player into sunlight where the display instantly vanishes into glare. Nevertheless, it still has a screen, which is more than can be said for the Shuffle. Another nice touch from Sony is the option of five different colours for the player: blue, violet, green, pink and black.
Using the NW-E003F is a mixed experience. Attempting to load songs is made far more difficult than necessary thanks to Sony's awful SonicStage software. The NW-E003F is reminiscent of a standard USB key, in that you can drag and drop files using Windows Explorer. Usually when MP3 players offer this ability the same can be done with music, but not so here. Sony would like you to use their software. While this is much the same as with the iPod, at least iTunes has the benefit of being easy to use. The same cannot be said for Sonic Stage which is clunky, slow and somewhat confusing. It does however grant the NW-E0003F the ability to play AAC and WMA files in addition to MP3s, which is a nice touch.
Once you've managed to load music on to the NW-E003F things become a lot easier. Sony has implemented a very simple menu that's easy to navigate and entirely intuitive. Virtually everything is customisable, including the display orientation, equaliser options and even a timer which can turn the player off. Finding songs is made easy by the ability to browse by artist, album and name. This is handy, as with a capacity of one gigabyte (or two if you buy the more expensive version), you could be searching through several hundred songs. Finally, the radio is simple to use with the option to save station presets a useful inclusion. The one omission which we would have liked to see is voice recording, or recording from the radio, although the other components are all of a high standard so we can probably live without this. Battery life is also pretty good; Sony claims it lasts for 22 hours and we got quite close to this although it depends which file format you play. Charging is done through the USB connection so every time it's plugged in to transfer files the battery is topped up.
Sound quality is obviously fairly important for an MP3 player and thankfully the NW-E003F doesn't disappoint. Both with and without the useful built in equalisers music sounds great, with a well balanced tonal range and punchy bass. This is definitely helped by the fact that Sony has included a decent pair of headphones, though it sounds even better with a more expensive pair.
Overall we found very little to fault with Sony's newest Walkman. It looks good, it sounds good, it's small and it's cheap. If only Sony would ditch SonicStage and allow drag and drop file transfer this would be a near perfect player. As it is, the NW-E003F is still an excellent little device and we would have no problem recommending it to anyone seeking a cheap MP3 player.
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