A top media player from Sony but not necessarily its best value. (October 5th, 2008)
Product Manufacturer: Sony
Price: $150 (4GB), $180 (8GB)
- Attractive, well-built design.
- Simple but powerful interface in most areas.
- Outstanding battery life for music and video.
- Relatively good earbuds.
- Platform-independent; many apps, OSes work in some form.
- Podcast and SensMe are valuable new features.
- FM radio with more features than competitors.
- Still no fast scroll; same old Walkman interface.
- Noise canceling produces audible hiss and not always effective.
- Too expensive for the features versus the S630. - SensMe takes awhile to sync and is sometimes inaccurate.
the user interface and SensMe Channels
Very little has changed in the core software for the Walkman, which is at once a curse and a blessing. Sony's interface presents options in an uncomplicated way and makes jumping back to the current song easier than on most devices, which often insist on navigating back up and then down the menu system. While the "option" menu potentially buries useful features away from view, it also lets Sony fit many more features than would be possible if it had to push all information into one screen's visible space. The build-in FM radio is particularly well-suited to this and gets more options than the Zune's fairly basic tuner. The most annoyance is that Sony asks users to manually rotate videos, which at least gives users more control than some of its rivals.
A new addition is podcast support, which works more effectively than on most non-Apple players. Any tracks properly tagged as podcasts are isolated from the main library and are also bookmarkable regardless of the format, letting a listener pick up where the podcast last left off.
What drags the S730 down is precisely that lack of change. Apple and Microsoft both found ways to display large album art without losing track information; Sony's player currently insists on showing relatively unimportant information such as the genre and release year for music in large, plain text while leaving the album cover a postage stamp.
As mentioned earlier, the company also does little to help browsing a large catalog of music. Instead of changing the sensitivity of the directional pad, Sony simply sorts albums and songs into alphabetical groups. That works for album browsing but falls flat for picking an individual song in a playlist. It only works so well and is really a stopgap solution rather than a permanent fix.
One step towards this is the addition of SensMe Channels. In what's certainly an unintended coincidence, Sony has developed its own auto-recommendation system for music in the same vein as Apple's Genius playlists and (to a lesser extent) Microsoft's Channels: the addition groups songs with similar pacing or style together to create similarly-themed playlists. In Sony's case, SensMe hangs its criteria on moods. An energetic playlist is often fast-paced; a playlist to relax is slow and quiet.
It's quick to use and is arguably easier in some respects than either Genius or Channels. They behave more like radio stations and are automatically selectable and switchable from a central SensMe menu. By contrast, the iPod nano's system requires finding an interesting song and basing a new playlist around it; the Zune system only truly works with a monthly Zune Pass subscription and is dependent on a weekly rotation chosen by DJs rather than the user.
Sony's implementation is still rough around the edges, however. Since it bases its choices on the actual sound qualities of the tracks themselves, any content loaded on to the player first needs to be scanned before it can be used -- a process that takes several minutes the first time a substantial collection appears on the player and must be repeated every time new songs are added to the mix. Moreover, SensMe periodically adds clearly inappropriate tracks and fills out certain channels regardless of whether some or any of the content actually fits the description. It wasn't uncommon to have a dance track land in the classical channel or to have a high-energy channel carry tracks that only have a fast beat in short segments.