When it comes to portable audio, Apple may have stolen Sony's thunder a long time ago, but that hasn't stopped the Japanese firm from slowly clawing back a lot of lost ground over the last few years. Its latest B series range of MP3 Walkmans includes the small but versatile NWZ-B142F. It may only have 2GB of storage space but, at around £30 online, it's much cheaper than an iPod Shuffle and has a few useful tricks up its sleeve too.
Where portable music players are concerned, small is usually good. The trouble is that the smaller you go, the less likely you are to get any kind of display. And without a screen its hard to select the songs you want to listen to. So, instead of going the random play route, like the iPod Shuffle, Sony has made the decision to make its NWZ-B142F Walkman as small as possible whilst retaining a screen. We're not talking about something you can comfortably watch videos on, or even display album art, but the Walkman’s 3-line monochrome screen is just enough to allow you to browse your music library, select songs or playlists and tweak a few preferences without impacting too much on the overall size of the unit, which isn't much bigger than a standard USB memory key.
In addition, the device finds room for a few interesting features, some of which are notably absent from rival products. There’s an FM radio, for a start. It's not the most thrilling or innovative selling point in the world, but it offers the possibility of some much-needed listening variety, given that there's only space for 2GB-worth of your own tunes. Not only that, but a handy record function also lets you record both your own voice and radio broadcasts directly to memory.
The NWZ-B142F works with Windows Media Player, so you don’t need to download or install anything new to sync and transfer albums and playlists. Plug it straight into a USB port to both sync and charge. A full charge doesn't take too long -- just over an hour, in fact -- and will lasts for a claimed 18 hours of playback. Testing the player, we only needed a single charge for several days-worth of normal day-to-day usage. If you do ever happen to find yourself low on juice, however, a useful 'quick charge' feature can give you up to three hours worth of playback time from just three minutes of charging.
Most importantly of all, the Walkman sounds great. Audio quality is about as good as it gets for MP3 players, although a built-in customisable equalizer and quick bass button are on offer to help you get your music sounding just right. The supplied earbuds are a bit basic, but aren't half as bad as some of the bundled headsets we’ve encountered elsewhere.
Although it's small, the NWZ-B142F isn't a particularly attractive-looking product. 'Functional' would probably be a polite way of putting it and, if we were to labour our Shuffle comparison a little more, then it's at this point that Sony’s product starts to look a little unfavourable next to its rival. It's not just a cosmetic weakness, either. The NWZ-B142F's thumb drive-like design extends to a removable cap that covers the USB connector. The cap slides on and off far too easily and it's surely just a matter of time before most NWZ-B142F owners mislay their player’s loose-fitting lid.
The control system looks, at first glance, to involve some kind of scroll wheel or four-way directional pad. In fact, it's neither; the main circular button is actually just a basic three-way forward/ back/ play/ pause system that also works as up/ down/ select when navigating the menus. It's not bad, but it can be a touch fiddly and takes a while to get used to, particularly if you're accustomed to more sophisticated control schemes.
These points aside, there's not a huge amount to complain about here. The 'Zappin' feature is largely irrelevant, but hardly a deal breaker. It supposedly allows you to preview songs in short, four-second bursts and we failed to find much use for it ourselves. The only other issue you may find problematic is capacity. Depending on how big your music library is, you may find that 2GB just isn’t really enough. If so, there's a 4GB version (the NWZ-B143B) available for just £5 more.
For those with huge hard disks brimming full of digital music tracks, the NWZ-B142F Walkman might not be the best choice. Its 2GB capacity is better suited to casual use; it might make an ideal gym partner, for example. Design-wise it's a bit of a disappointment but its useful screen, radio and recording functions, combined with good-quality audio and a keen price make this miniature MP3 player hard to hate.