Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sony X-Series Walkman Review: Why, Sony? Why?

The Sony Walkman X-series is Sony's premium flash-based portable media player, packing Wi-Fi, noise-cancellation, a redesigned UI and a gorgeous OLED touchscreen. But can it compete with the reigning champ, the iPod Touch? In a word, no.

That's not to say it isn't an impressive player in its own right. It handily beats the Samsung P3 and the Cowon S9, but I'm left wondering who would pick this up instead of a Touch. But if Sony were to stick this UI into one of their Sony Ericsson Walkman musicphones, they might have something powerful indeed.

The X-series is a very sleek player, similar in size to the Samsung P3 and significantly narrower and shorter than the iPod Touch, though ever so slightly thicker. It's designed with an unusual aesthetic: The sides of the player are this odd sort of rough, glittery metal, similar to unfinished granite, and the back and front bezel are black glass with little shiny sparkles in them, like a granite countertop. It's a nice-looking player, certainly, and it feels very solid in the hand. I just don't totally get the granite thing—it's not spectacularly eye-catching.

On the front of the X-series is the screen, an unbelievably responsive 3-inch OLED capacitive touchscreen, and a large "Home" button underneath the screen, much like the iPod Touch. The screen is crystal clear, the sharpest picture I've ever seen on a PMP—it lives up to the promise of OLED. Viewing angles are limitless, and touch response is great, without any lag at all. Unfortunately, that glass front and back are awful fingerprint magnets, though being glass, it does seem to resist scratching fairly well.

The right side hosts the noise cancellation switch and a surprisingly cheap-feeling volume rocker. The top has the headphone jack and the pleasantly firm play/pause, track forward and back buttons, while the bottom edge is home to the proprietary USB jack. Interestingly, the hold button is a giant semicircle switch on the back of the player—it seems weird, but I actually love how easy it is to reach and how solid it feels. The numerous hardware buttons make it a very nice player to control in the pocket, despite mostly being touch-based player.

The X-series is one of the only PMPs with built-in noise canceling, but it only works with the included earbuds. Fortunately, said earbuds are excellent for freebies, and the noise cancellation worked perfectly on my noisy Chinatown bus ride between Philly and New York City. Noise canceling does slaughter the battery life, though, draining it twice as fast as regular playback. When you're trying to drown out the kind of crazies who take the Chinatown bus, you'll be glad it's there.

Audio quality is a hallmark of Sony's PMP line, and the X-series does, in fact, sound great. It includes a customizable five-band equalizer for audio dorks and some nice sound enhancers like DSEE. On the other hand, you're limited to the lossy codecs Sony supports (MP3, WMA, WMA-DRM, AAC), so it may not be a good choice for serious audiophiles.

The home screen has a familiar grid of icons, including Music, Movies, Photos, Podcasts and some more intriguing Wi-Fi-based apps like Slacker, YouTube and Browser. Navigating through lists of artists, songs and albums is very similar to the iPod Touch style with a grab-and-flick interface, though a fast flick leads the list to cycle through a lot faster than the touch, almost like there's less virtual friction, and we'd say it feels just a hair less exact.

At the bottom of the Now Playing screen, there are four icons I've decided to term Back, Navigate, Web, and Options. The icons themselves aren't very literal: The Back icon is a bulleted list, and Navigate is a magnifying glass, so it's slightly confusing at first. But once you touch it, it becomes very clear what each button does, and I had no problems after that.

The "Navigate" button is great: It'll bring up a list containing Artist, Album, Songs, etc that'll let you jump right to that list without having to hit the Back button four times. The iPod Touch doesn't have anything like it, and now I wish it does. The Web button is also really cool: It brings up a screen that'll let you search the track name, artist, or album with Yahoo or YouTube. The Yahoo search brings up hits like Wikipedia and AllMusic, and the YouTube search immediately brings up a ton of music videos, live concert footage and more to watch on the player. Pretty cool stuff. Oddly, the X-series will prompt you to re-connect to a wireless signal every time you try to do one of these searches, and though it remembers your password, it's still annoying.

The X-series also includes an FM radio, and it's worth mentioning because it's one of the stronger FM tuners we've seen in a PMP. It's not like it'll change the way you think about radio, but it does as good a job as you could ask.

Web Apps
The YouTube app is really great, quite similar to that of the iPod touch or iPhone except with a classy sheer black skin to match the X-series' aesthetic. Videos load quickly and are very clear and watchable, provided you've got a solid Wi-Fi connection.

Slacker is another hit for the X-series, giving access to either the free or paid versions of the Pandora-like service with the same skin as the rest of the UI. It's super fast to load and sound quality is excellent.

Unfortunately, Sony's only two for three on the web app front, and the most exciting of its new features is a major fail: Its internet browser—NetFront-based, like PSP and Sony Ericsson—is completely unusable garbage. All text entry is done via an infuriating T9 interface (why not just rotate to a landscape QWERTY? There's plenty of room!) that's inexact and totally unhelpful. Browsing full sites is an exercise in futility, as the two zoom buttons don't always work, you can't navigate before a site has fully loaded and tapping links is inexact and frustrating. Basically, it's worthless as a web browser, which is a huge disappointment. This image pretty much sums up the X-series web browsing experience.

Desktop Software
The X-series has both a MTP (Windows-only) and a UMS (shows up as a drive, compatible with Mac and Linux as well), though UMS must be switched on before each connection. That means it'll work with most any media player, save iTunes. Sony's "Media Manager" software is included, but it's pretty awful, very archaic and difficult to use, and won't convert video unless you pay for the "Pro" upgrade. That last part is a real killer for the X-series' video capabilities.

Speaking of video conversion, you'll be doing a lot of it, since the X-series only supports a few video codecs and none of the common pirate formats (Matroska, XviD) are included, unlike the pirate-friendly Samsung P3. I used Cucusoft and was able to get a few MPEG-4 videos onto the player, but your average user will definitely have trouble figuring it out. None of the WMVs I tried would work, and I never was able to get a great-quality video on to test out what the OLED screen can really do. iSquint for Mac does work, but the quality, while totally watchable, is disappointing: On an OLED screen like this, you want to be blown away by video quality, and I wasn't.

Audio codec support is disappointing too, considering the X-series' stellar audio performance: The only lossless format is WAV, which nobody will use due to its massive file size. Besides the preferred lossless formats, more niche codecs like OGG aren't supported either. The player has incredible capabilities, yet Sony cripples it by limiting its compatibility—they could have courted the audiophile market, but 320kbps mp3 files can only sound so good.

Price and Conclusion
The X-series, according to Sony, is a premium gadget and thus commands premium prices—coincidentally the same prices as the iPod Touch. The 16GB version costs $300, with the 32GB going for $400. The difference is that the iPod Touch comes with a massive App Store for boatloads of new features, not to mention an accelerometer, a web browser that won't make you long for the days of WAP, tons of accessories, and software that actually works. The X-series just can't compete with that.

The X-series is a really solid player: The form factor is nice, the screen is incredible, sound and video quality are as high as these things get, and it comes with built-in noise canceling. If it were $50 cheaper, I'd have no hesitation about recommending it over the Samsung P3 and Cowon S9, but if you're spending at that level, you'd be buying the wrong machine if you chose the Sony.

On the other hand, we do see a successful future if Sony put a phone version of this up against Nokia's XpressMusic. It could never be a smartphone, not in this shape, but it could be a great music-based dumphone.

Sony understands that PMPs can't just be PMPs anymore: basic iPods aren't selling like they used to, and the Touch is part of a mobile computing platform. But to just stuff in some Wi-Fi features without thinking about software expandability or even a usable browser—that's not going to cut it these days. Sadly, despite all the things the X-series does right, it's emblematic of Sony's current slide into muddled mediocrity.

All credits and information was found by gizmodo.


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