Sony's 8GB NW-A1200 series is more or less identical to the 6GB NW-A1000. With an attractive design, good sound quality and some innovative firmware features, the A1200 should please those looking for music playback only. Just be aware that you'll be entering the Sony universe, which includes the notoriously counterintuitive SonicStage software.
The A1200 measures 57 by 89 by 19mm, weighs 110g, and has a strikingly sexy design with a glossy plastic front and a scratch-proof metallic backside. It's a visual gem, coming in a rainbow of colours.
Inspired by the flash-based E505 series, the A1200's 35mm display hides below the surface of the reflective plastic exterior -- it shines through when powered on and creates a cool effect. The monochrome screen is bright and generally easy to read, though text is pixellated, and it's nearly impossible to read the display in daylight, where it makes a better mirror. Dazzling start-up graphics and rhythmically pulsating lights add to the A1200's appeal. The plastic scratches easily though, and is a veritable smudge magnet. Find a case for it, since Sony doesn't bundle one (Sony does bundle an AC adaptor, a proprietary USB cable, headphones and the SonicStage CP software).
Keep in mind that this is a hard drive device, so you'll get more capacity for your buck (£159 vs. the £169 4GB iPod nano) in exchange for a larger form factor and potential hard drive-related problems (though Sony does employ its G-Sensor protection, which disengages the hard drive when the unit is dropped).
The player is comfortable to handle and operate, more so because the A1200 doesn't have extra features such as FM, recording or photo/video support. It is purely a playback device and can handle a variety of formats natively, including MP3, ATRAC3 (plus) and unprotected AAC and WMA files. If you're looking to purchase music, you can do this only by using the relatively unused Connect music store or any MP3 store, such as eMusic. And forget about subscriptions.
While the primary, tactile five-way controller is located slightly lower than we'd like, it's no chore to navigate through menus. The controller, however, is no match for the iPod Click Wheel when browsing through thousands of tracks, despite some fancy shortcuts such as initial-based search (Creative's Zen Vision:M does this much better). Option and Back buttons lie to the right of the controller. A proprietary dock connector is located on the bottom. A somewhat difficult to use volume slider is located on the upper-right spine, while the clear plastic Artist Link button is situated on the opposite side. Sony gets innovative with Artist Link, which finds songs or artists related to the current song.
The all-important Option button pulls up a contextual menu. During playback, for example, hitting it brings up shortcuts to Main Menu, Play Mode, Rating, Sound, Album, Trash Bin and pretty much everything else. You can even access a clock and basic calendar features from here. The main menu, which reminds us of a mobile phone menu, consists of nine icons in a 3-by-3 grid, the centre being Music Library. The other icons represent Play Mode, Initial Search (find artists, album or song by initial), Intelligent Shuffle, Play History, Top 100 songs, Now Playing, Settings and Playlists. We also like the fact that the current song appears on all views, and there are on-the-fly playlists and bookmarking.