May 18, 2007 Consumer electronics giant Sony once ruled the world of portable audio - their Walkman and Discman brands became synonymous for hand held cassette and CD players around the world. Yet somehow, despite a solid reputation in personal audio, Sony missed the boat when portable entertainment went digital, letting Apple's iPod and a host of other devices snatch a massive market share that it has never been able to eat back into. Yesterday, the company announced the launch of its latest Walkman - the NW-A800 series - a digital personal audio/video player that Sony hopes will bring the company back into the contest. Will it stack up against the wildly popular iPod?
With a high contrast, high resolution screen that dominates the face of the unit, Sony's NW-A800 series finally allows the company to move back into the market dominated by Apple's iPod. The 2" screen can display movies, pictures and audio file information in 320x240 pixel resolution. Video and images can be rotated to be shown sideways in both directions - which is how it will be used a lot of the time, because the screen is taller than it is wide.
This decision has been made to help Sony make the new Walkman extra-small and convenient to carry - and it is. Its dimensions of 8.8 x 4.4cm and just 9mm thick, combined with a weight of just 53g, put it squarely in iPod Nano territory, and it's smaller and lighter than most mobile phones. Like the Nano, the NW-A800 has its headphone plug at the bottom, so it sits upside-down in your pocket.
The unit's audio performance should be exceptional - Sony has chosen to bundle the A800 series with high quality, noise-canceling headphones to prove itself as a solid contender. Three different ear sizes are catered for with interchangeable plastic sleeves. They've thrown the kitchen sink at signal quality too, using a newly developed Digital Sound Enhancement Engine that "restores the nuances and frequencies usually lost in music like MP3 files due to the compression process," and the Clear Stereo and Clear Bass systems they've been using in the S700 series Walkman range. There's also a graphic equalizer to play with, including 4 presets and a user-set custom EQ mode.
The Walkman will support a good range of file formats, including MP3, WMA, Apple's AAC, MPEG-4 and AVC Baseline files. It won't play iTunes or Napster files with their various DRM technologies, but then that's kind of the point. A desktop application as part of the included software converts DivX and Xvid-encoded files for use on the A800. This is the same system as used to convert video and images for Sony's PlayStation Portable (PSP).
Sony claims a strong battery life from the A800 - 30 hours of continuous music playback or 8 hours of continuous video, which are excellent figures and should make the device fairly practical to own. It's available in 2GB, 4GB and 8GB storage sizes and four colour options: violet, black, white and pink.
It seems a solid package - but Sony knew exactly what they were taking on when they designed this product, so how does the Walkman stack up with the rampaging iPod? Here's a few important factors:
Storage capacity While the Walkman's maximum capacity of 8GB might realistically be enough for most users, the standard iPod now boasts 30GB, and there's a larger 80GB version available. This is an important metric for shoppers, so a big win for Apple there.
Battery Life The iPod claims 20 hours of audio, or 6 1/2 of video. The Walkman wins here with 30 hours audio, 8 hours video playback.
Size The Walkman is significantly smaller and lighter than the iPod, thus Sony get a point for convenience.
Screen size Bad news for the Walkman; the iPod's screen is half an inch bigger, which makes a considerable difference when you put them side by side. A point to Apple.
Audio quality Purely based on the excellent headphones Sony are including, the Walkman should have the edge here. Sony have a magical way of extracting huge bass and great sound from tiny portable speakers.
Price The 30GB iPod retails for AU$349, the 8GB NW-A808 will be AU$499. Ouch.
Conclusions On specification alone, it's hard to see how the A800 series will stand up against Apple's well-established iPod. Compact size and a good battery life teamed with superior audio make it a strong package - but it's hard to see the average consumer looking past 3 and a half times the storage, with a 25% larger screen, for only 70% the price - particularly when the cheaper alternative is an iconic brand with such consumer resonance as the iPod.
The new Walkman would be a very worthy iPod Nano competitor if the price was more realistic, but at AU$150 more expensive than the big daddy iPod, it's not going to trouble Apple one bit.
Sony's return to the personal entertainment market is very welcome - we hope the A800 series can start rebuilding the Walkman brand, as its well-respected name once held the cachet that the iPod brand now enjoys. A return of Sony as a major player in this market can only mean good things for consumers - but they look undergunned with this first effort.