With the fall of the Walkman empire, Sony assumed a rather dejected approach to the MP3 player market. The post-apocalyptic vision that was its MP3 software SonicStage saw to it that all but the most masochistic of users turned away from Sony players. Things were a little bleak for a while. First there was the embarrassing rootkit fiasco, then the Aibo was cancelled, then the Sony Bean. For a moment there it looked like it was time to pull out Sony's feeding tube.
Perseverance and enormous cash reserves won out though, and the Sony NW-E003 is a shining example of what the company is capable of when it gets its act together. The E003 is a 1GB flash-based player with a delightful monochrome display and the kind of battery life that can be measured in geological eras. It has a few similar siblings: the E002 (512MB), E003F (1GB with FM radio) and the E005 (2GB). So, is Sony back on top form, or should we all get back to hating this corporate behemoth?
The NW-E003 looks extraordinarily like a Stabilo Boss highlighter pen. It's the same size, shape and it's not too far off the weight at 24g. As with a highlighter, the lid of the E003 pops off, but instead of concealing a felt tip, it conceals a standard USB connector. This means you can plug the player straight into a PC to charge or transfer songs. No pesky leads required.
The only drawback to the highlighter-pen design is the detachable cap. This kind of thing is easily mislaid and, depending on your particular brand of carelessness, could be lost as soon as ten minutes after first touching the player.
Sony has created an extremely intuitive interface on the NW-E003. The front of the player has a simple play/stop button. The side edge has a skip track button, and the back a simple volume and hold control. The OLED display is clear and ingenious. It's hard to see where the screen ends, which gives the display a sci-fi organic look.
The only other thing worth noting is that the friction from the headphone socket can easily support the player's weight. Unlike heavier players, you won't find it drops to the floor when you inevitably lose your grip during a scuffle -- provided, of course, you're holding onto the headphones. It's a credit to Sony that little more can be said about the design: it's simple, elegant and it works.
Although it's easy to plug the NW-E003 into your USB port, transferring music is as needlessly obfuscated as ever. Sony continues to insist that you succumb to its proprietary ATRAC format rather than use standard MP3, AAC or WMA files. So, like it or not, using Sony's SonicStage v3.4 software is the only option here. Although it's not a deal-breaker, it's a desperately sad situation, especially when you consider that everyone who has ever used a Sony MP3 player complains about the software. Earth to Sony: make your player drag-and-drop, for the love of generic deity unaffiliated to any religion (especially the violent ones).
Apple gets away with iTunes because it's very, very good. Sony just about scrapes acceptability with SonicStage, but songs transfer very slowly because they're re-encoded into ATRAC before transfer. On the upside, the E003 offers 28 hours of battery life -- possibly the use of ATRAC is of some benefit here (it helps to assume it's good for something while you're staring desperately at the screen waiting for songs to transfer).
This elegant player is otherwise relatively featureless, and this is massively to its advantage. Sony has cleverly avoided any gimmicky extras. The priority here seems to have been style and utility -- the way it should always be.
Battery life is amazing at a proven 28 hours, navigation is pretty simple and the software is fine (though you might want a stiff drink to take the edge off). Overall the player is deliciously small, arguably cooler than even the iPod nano. It's certainly smaller and better looking than Apple's now ageing effort, especially when you take into account how distressed the average nano looks after jangling around in a pocket with your keys and change. The £80 price is very competitive and the embedded seamless screen utterly 21st century -- this is definitely better value than the screenless 1GB iPod Shuffle (£69).
On the negative side, we weren't convinced by the sound of the E003 versus the nano after we'd connected it an amp. High frequencies were slightly over-emphasised and the low end wasn't as well represented. This might either be a result of the DAC (digital to analogue conversion) circuitry at the headphone output stage, or it could equally be down to the ATRAC conversion algorithm, which is probably more lossy than AAC. However, these are small niggles and before we did a side-by-side comparison with the nano we didn't notice any deficiencies in playback through headphones.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide