We blogged about Sony's NW-S200 Sports Walkman MP3 player back in July, and we hoped, in the interim, that the company might have addressed its SonicStage jukebox software. Unfortunately, that was not to be, but the sleek little NW-S200 serves as a reminder that Sony can at least get the hardware right.
We can't get over how much the NW-S200 looks like a cigar (smoking it, however, is highly inadvisable). At 15mm by 97mm and formed in a cylinder, the player is nearly identical in both size and shape to the smaller cigars available on the market. It's also quite light, weighing in at just 25g. The player is available in 1GB (NW-S203F, £90) and 2GB (NW-S205F, £120) capacities. Both models are black and feature identical brushed-aluminum construction.
Like the NW-E400, this player's main controller is a multifunction knob situated on the end of device. Next to this knob are the Play/Pause key, the volume rocker and the mode button, then the single-line OEL display, which features brightly lit (and easy to read) light-coloured text on a dark background. As with many current Sony MP3 players, including the NW-A1200, the screen is protected beneath the outer layer of the device.
Navigating the NW-S200 is pretty straightforward, and certainly more intuitive than with the NW-E000. The mode button takes you to the main menu, where you can select from several icon-based options. Twisting the aforementioned knob flips through the selections: search, sports mode, stopwatch, all songs, FM, playlist and settings. If you push the knob all the way in towards the player, it activates the hold function; if you pull it all the way out, you can use it to navigate by album. (In the neutral position, it scrubs through tracks.)
One look at the NW-S200's extras immediately reveals its athletic intention. The player is packaged with an armband and sport-style earbuds, and it's water resistant, so it can withstand sweat and even rainfall. But the star of the show is the built-in G-Sensor, which allows you to use the NW-S200 as a pedometer. Of course, you can also input your height, weight, age and stride so that the player will keep track of calories burned. There's also a built-in stopwatch with interval capability, which will automatically stop your music when a time-related goal has been reached.
In sports mode, a short push of the mode button let's you shuttle between steps taken, calories burned and time remaining. Unfortunately, while we found this data to be accurate in testing (using a treadmill), we're not sure how useful it will be -- Sony once again fails to note the importance of software. No program for tracking your fitness (à la the Nike + iPod) is included with the player, nor does Sony point the user in the direction of an appropriate third-party application. It's nice to have these features on paper, but in practice, it's a bit disappointing.
For gym rats, the NW-S200 includes an FM tuner, which is particularly handy for tuning in to your workout facility's TVs. A couple of unique features -- both dependent on the G-Sensor -- round out the package. The first is a function that switches the player between standard and shuffle playback modes if you shake it three times with the LCD facing up. This is very cool -- you feel like you're actually shaking the songs up. The second are the onboard 'running' and 'walking' playlists that you designate based on the playlists you have already created. If you're strolling along with your player, the 'walking' playlist comes on, and when you speed up, the 'running' one starts. This is a great feature we'd love to see expanded upon in future fitness-friendly MP3 players.
Unsurprisingly, the NW-S200's audio quality is top-notch, though we found it difficult to enjoy through the uncomfortably hard plastic earbuds that came with the player. The ear-wrap design is a nice touch, but the ear loops aren't adjustable, so they won't fit all users (notably those with small ears). But when we swapped in our Shure E4c test headphones, we were rewarded with rich, clear audio that offered plenty of bass and an ear-splitting max volume. Rated battery life is similarly impressive at 18 hours (check back for Labs' tested results.)
Finally, we must point out that Sony is taking a step in the right direction by adding AAC and WMA support to its latest MP3 players, and that includes the NW-E000. Of course, it also plays MP3 and both protected and unprotected ATRAC files (WMA and AAC must be unprotected). This is a surprisingly open attitude from the company that once didn't even directly support MP3 playback.
SonicStage still sullies the whole experience, though. Like we said in the review of the Sony NW-E005, this software is simply awful -- it's poorly laid out and does not organise music in an intuitive fashion. The same applies the NW-S200; still, the handy fitness-friendly features and the innovative uses of the G-Sensor technology make it a tempting option.
Edited by James Kim
Additional editing by Kate Macefield