Sony has suffered hardest of all in the MP3 player wars. Though the company's Walkman ruled the 80s when it almost single-handedly established a market for portable music players, it has lagged in recent years. Conflicts of interest between Sony's music publishing and consumer electronics businesses have meant that while Sony's product designers may long for a more open approach to portable music, Sony Music is still utterly paranoid that online music will bring about its death.
So, what is Sony to do when it glowers at the success of the iPod but doesn't want to make copying music too easy? Its initial reaction was to bundle SonicStage with all its Network Walkmans. This was a crude, irredeemably clunky bit of software that made transferring software to Sony MP3 players extremely frustrating. This gave Apple plenty of time to develop iTunes and its relatively straightforward approach to managing MP3s.
With the launch of the Walkman NW-A1000, Sony has revamped the SonicStage software -- or perhaps more accurately, replaced it with the Connect Player. This bears more than a passing resemblance to Apple's iTunes, sharing its wirebrushed finish, panel layouts and... well, everything really. Save for the omission of the Apple logo, Sony has co-opted the iTunes interface wholesale. It clearly works, so why not? Initially this appears to be a vast improvement over SonicStage.
The NW-A1000 itself is gorgeous-looking and makes a very definite fashion statement. Where the iPod's impact has been eroded slightly because of the ubiquity of those little white ear buds, the NW-A1000 feels fresh and unique. So, with the new connection software, are the reasons not to buy Sony slowly evaporating?
Sony has been surprisingly inventive with its choice of design for the NW-A1000. While its Connect software now mimics iTunes, the design of the player couldn't be more unique. The player has a lozenge-like appearance and is reminiscent of tightly wrapped, glistening sweets.
The front panel is of the semi-translucent type used most memorably in the NW-E507. This is designed to give the impression that the text displayed on the NW-A1000's LCD is magically appearing on the player's outer plastic shell. Unfortunately, the outer plastic shell on the NW-A1000 is too translucent and you can actually see the LCD beneath the surface. This spoils the trick slightly -- the NW-E507 pulled it off much more effectively, presumably by using a different paint technique.
The rear of the player also appears to be plastic, but between the two halves of the chassis there's a strong metal collar which wraps around all edges to protect it on impact. We didn't drop the NW-A1000, but it looks like it could probably take a fairly severe knock, so long as this is delivered to the edge of the unit.
The front of the player includes simple navigation controls which allow you to skip through songs, change basic options and retreat through menus using the Back button. Sony has made a mistake including so many different buttons on the front of the player, some features could have been amalgamated into the main transport control. None the less, the interface is instantly intuitive and no one we handed the player to was unable to get music playing.
On the right-hand side of the player, a slider increases and decreases volume, and on the left there's a button to invoke 'Artist Link', which is a rarely used feature probably undeserving of a whole button to itself. The lower side of the player houses a proprietary USB cable connector and the top side includes a headphone socket and Hold button.
Basic playback functions on the NW-A1000 are fairly self-explanatory. The navigation controls work exactly as you would expect them to, with navigation through playlists controlled by the outer ring on the main control and play/pause controlled by the central ring.
The Connect Player software installed easily on our Windows XP machine, but reportedly will not install on any other version of Windows apart from Windows 2000. This is not overly obvious from the packaging. The one alternative is to downgrade to SonicStage, but many users would gladly die rather than suffer this software.