Sony launches hard-disk portable media player

Sony announced Thursday its first hard disk drive-based portable media player to support both audio and video.

It will go on sale in Japan in late June and could be Sony's best chance yet at taking a slice of the market for digital music players while also helping to create a new category of players that support both audio and video.

Unusually for a Sony product the HMP-A1 supports MP3 audio and doesn't require users to transcode their music into the company's ATRAC (Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding for MiniDisc) format. Transcoding involves converting from one format to another and usually results in some loss of quality. MP3 is the format used in most hardware digital music players and one of the most popular formats among PC users.

Support for popular standards is extended to the video player function, which is compatible with MPEG2 and MPEG4 format video.

A number of other formats, including video files recorded with Sony's GigaPocket software, AVI (DV), Windows Media Video and audio plus WAV files can be transcoded by supplied software. The device also has a still image display function with support for JPEG files. Images in BMP, GIF, TIFF, PNG and PGPF formats will be converted to JPEG by the software.

The hard disk inside the HMP-A1 has a capacity of 20G bytes and data can be transferred between this and a personal computer over a USB 2.0 connection. The screen, which dominates the front of the device, is a 3.5-inch liquid crystal display (LCD) with 320 pixel by 240 pixel (QVGA) resolution. Alongside its right-hand side are a small number of navigation buttons and there is also an in-line remote control in the headphone cable.

The HMP-A1 can be run on its internal rechargeable batteries or from an AC power adapter. Battery life is quoted as 4 hours for MPEG 2 playback, 6 hours for MPEG 4 playback and 8 hours for MP3 playback. The player's batteries can be recharged in around 2.5 hours from an AC supply and in around 7 hours from the power available on a USB line.

The player requires a PC running Windows 2000 Professional SP4, XP Home, XP Professional SP1 or XP Media Center Edition.

Its support for popular standards means that users of Sony's Connect download service, launched in the U.S. this month and in Europe next month, won't be able to play their purchased music on the HMP-A1 because of digital rights management restrictions. Music in non-protected ATRAC files, for example from other Sony digital or MiniDisc players, will need to be transcoded before it can be played on the new device.

For these users Sony last week announced a similar player, the VGF-AP1 Vaio Pocket, that supports ATRAC3 and ATRAC3 plus and also has a 20G-byte hard disk drive. It will go on sale in Japan on June 5 and doesn't support other formats such as MP3, Windows Media Audio or WAV. Those formats will need to be converted. It also doesn't support video.

In late 2003 the company launched a video-only player, the Vaio PCVA-HVP20. It features a 20G-byte hard-disk drive and 3.5-inch display like the player announced Thursday and allows playback of GigaPocket, MPEG 1 and MPEG 2 video formats but not music playback.

In January this year Sony also announced a music player, the Giga Pavit, that is has put on sale under its Aiwa brand name. The Giga Pavit has a 2G-byte hard-disk drive and supports MP3 format audio only.

Sony says the HMP-A1 will go on sale in Japan on June 22 and is expected to cost around ¥63,000 (US$570). That's more expensive than all three of the company's players to date. The Vaio video player costs around ¥50,000, the Vaio Pocket audio player is expected to cost around ¥53,000, and the Aiwa Pavit around ¥35,000.

The HMP-A1 measures 130 millimeters by 76 millimeters by 22 millimeters and weighs 250 grams.

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Martyn Williams

IDG News Service
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