Sony's MP3 stock has shot up mercurially since introducing native MP3 playback to its Network Walkman franchise. Its latest hard drive-based player, the supercompact Network Walkman NW-HD5, has 'winner' written all over it. Although the 20GB player lacks extra features that make the iRiver H320s and the Cowon iAudio X5s of the world so popular, the HD5 delivers, with a wonderfully simple interface, a tiny form factor, sharp sound quality and prodigious battery life. Available in silver, black or red, the HD5 has a list price of £200.
Measuring a scant 89 by 56 by 15mm and weighing only 136g, the Sony Network Walkman NW-HD5 is much smaller than the 20GB iPod. In fact, the silky-smooth metallic device feels more like a Microdrive-based player -- and it's not easy to scratch the brushed-metal surface. Coupled with a revamped interface, which includes nine smooth, tactile buttons underneath the spacious, square 38mm (1.5-inch) monochrome LCD, the HD5 will certainly sway those looking for a high-capacity player that is truly pocketable and undeniably stylish.
The plastic and bubbly controller buttons are tactile and are placed intelligently enough that first-time users will have no problems navigating the device's simple menu system. To the left of the primary five-way controller with a nested play/pause/select button are the dedicated volume buttons. On the right, you'll find the search/menu and stop/power-off buttons. A few users have opined that the buttons give the HD5 a cheap look, but we disagree. The interface's effectiveness is actually a refreshing alternative to the iPod's Click Wheel.
The top of the device features a lightweight and attached plastic cover (which does look cheap) that houses a standard USB 2.0 port and power input. There is also a hold switch and a smart headphone/line-out jack (the HD5 ships with standard earbuds). You'll find a hand-strap loop on the top-right spine and a curious battery slot on the lower-left spine. The battery cover slides open after you stick a sharp point into a hole on the cover. You'll be amazed at the small size of the battery -- more so because it's rated to last 40 hours per charge. No iPod can last that long, nor do any possess the coveted swappable battery.
Sony has always done things a tad differently, and it shows in the main menu system, which includes Find, Options, Edit Bookmark and Playback Screen. Pressing Find takes you to the music library, which is broken down by artist, album, track, genre, new tracks, Initials Search and playlist. We do love the playback screen with its listing of track, album, artist, genre, format, bit rate, time elapsed, track number, battery life and other digital tidbits. However, we do wish the menu would automatically return to Playback Screen after a few seconds. The way it stands, you'll remain on a static menu screen until you select Playback Screen. It's also an extremely legible screen (even outdoors in sunlight) that can be inverted to make the background white instead of black. And the backlight doesn't have to be on in order to view the screen.
The Sony Network Walkman NW-HD5 ships with a standard USB cable, basic earbuds that get the job done (though you'll want to splash out on nicer headphones), an AC adaptor, a soft carrying pouch, and a software disc. Given the HD5's luxury feel, you'd think a protective carrying case would have been included. Also, unlike the iPod and other high-end MP3 players, the HD5 has no docking cradle option, but at least you get the standard mini-USB jack rather than a proprietary one.