Sony tries its hand at touchscreen players and mostly succeeds. (July 19th, 2009)
Product Manufacturer: Sony
Price: $299 (16GB), $399 (32GB)
- Smart ergonomics; good hardware controls.
- Beautiful OLED display.
- Good interfaces for music, photos and video.
- On-device podcast subscriptions.
- Long battery life.
- Slacker and FM radio built-in.
- Terrible web browser; so-so YouTube client.
- Limited Internet apps and no 3rd-party apps.
- Slow sync process.
- SenseMe, audiobooks and other features absent.
Sony has spent much of the past few years regaining ground it lost from its one-time dominance of portable audio. The latest wave of this involves touchscreen players: nearly a year and a half after the iPod touch, the first touchscreen Walkman has arrived. In the X1000 series, Sony is not only looking to compete with the best touchscreen players but to overcome these competitors' mistakes. We hope to find out not only whether or not it's a worthwhile contender but whether it's necessarily taking the same path as its most obvious rivals.
design and the control scheme
It's clear from the start that the X1000 isn't trying to be all things to all people just through its size. It's noticeably smaller than an iPod touch and closer in stature to a Samsung YP-P3 or other player focused solely on media playback. The player feels great in the hand as a whole.
A number of thoughtful touches show that Sony has been listening, however. In an example of perhaps the most unusual choice of materials we've ever seen in an MP3 player, the new Walkman's sides are covered in a hard, rock-like surface; it's very nearly like holding granite in your hands. As odd as the texture may be, though, it's exceptional for maintaining grip -- a chronic problem of these increasingly thin devices. We can't quite say the same for the front and back, though. The glossy, smooth faces of the player pick up a large number of fingerprints and smudges quite quickly and need frequent cleaning to stay reasonably clean.
It's in the controls that the X1000 shows Sony's determination to solve the control problems of touchscreen players, and the company manages this surprisingly well. Where Apple and others deliberately leave most controls off of the outside for aesthetic or design reasons, the Walkman has its most essential controls (including noise canceling) accessible without touch. We particular enjoyed the play/pause and skip buttons on the top of the player; you now no longer have to fish the player out of a pocket or invest in an in-line headphone remote to move on to a more interesting song. More companies should consider following this approach, although confusingly the hold switch defaults to disabling even these controls as well; you can tell it to only disable the touch display, but you shouldn't have to.
Naturally, the touchscreen itself is important, and it's a slightly mixed bag. The screen appears to be capacitive, or to react simply to contact with fingers, and is much easier to use than the pressure-based screens that have been used on many of these devices in the past. Understandably, the screen doesn't support multi-touch gestures but is sensitive enough to react to swiping through music lists or photos.
It could stand to be more sensitive, however, as contact needs to be more definitive than the gentle input the iPod can get away with in most instances. And the smaller 3-inch display area also comes with a smaller resolution: the 432x240 image is a noticeable step down from the 480x320 that has shown up on a number of devices and renders the Walkman decidedly less useful for web browsing or other tasks where screen real estate is especially important.
Ever since it committed to producing modern media players, Sony has typically had a knack for at least producing a solid music navigation interface, and in the X1000 that skill has successfully made the leap to the world of touch. The menu system is relatively unintrusive and makes use of natural, acceleration-based flicks to pick individual items. All of the advanced navigation features, such as picking by album or by playlist, are tucked into a single menu rather than occupy large amounts of permanent screen area. It's quick to find what you want, and it even allows navigation that's usually off limits on some of the easier browsers, such as by folder or the album's release year. iPod owners would be pleasantly surprised at how easily they could transition to the interface.
That extends to podcasts. While Sony is no longer new to the table with downloading podcasts directly to the player, it's still fairly unique in its support for subscribing to podcasts over RSS and letting owners download new episodes without having to connect to a computer. In fact, it's intelligent enough to recognize podcasts in RSS feeds on the web and so could be a powerful tool for regular podcast listeners. We'd advise against using Sony's official link to podcast.com nonetheless; it's good for an introduction to podcasts, but the number of titles is threadbare compared to iTunes or other aggregators.
Having mostly praised the Walkman so far, the music features aren't as in depth in other aspects. For reasons unknown, the X1000 doesn't have the SenseMe feature of lesser Walkman players, so automatic playlists of similarly themed songs (a la Genius playlists) aren't an option. A capable FM radio tuner is onboard, but there's still no support for audiobooks through Audible or other formats. Sony's device is still focused almost exclusively on regular music, and it suffers from its limits even as much as it thrives.
In keeping with the company's usual habits with high-end players, the X1000 comes bundled with a pair of high-end earbuds. The in-ear (but not in-canal) set that comes with this player lives up to expectations, though in an unusual way: while the sound is good with fairly detailed highs and sufficiently deep bass, their size and shape creates an odd sensation that they're about to fall out of one's ear, but never do. The fit can of course vary from ear to ear, but we suspect that if anyone will buy a replacement set of earbuds, it will be for comfort's sake more than quality.
Noise canceling also makes its way into the jukebox and appears to be significantly improved over what we saw in the S730. Where that previous device's noise reduction was somewhat ineffective, here it's more noticeable. Flicking the "NC" switch eerily renders the outside world almost completely silent. There's still a background hiss, but only when audio is paused or the music is particularly quiet. In-canal earbuds that physically block out sound are still the best solution, but we'll take this approach without much reservation.
photos, video and the OLED display
Touch is a big help to Sony as it forces the company to drop the somewhat awkward controls it used for photos and video in the past. Again, iPod touch owners will find it somewhat familiar, but not quite: flick-based lists and overlay play/scrub controls persist, but the same minimalist attitude to music that hides the more complex options away in menus exists in both areas. It's not more difficult than on an iPod, a YP-P3, or a similar device; it's just a different metaphor that takes time to master.
Image quality is unambiguously in Sony's favor through one key factor: its OLED (organic light-emitting diode) display. The technology builds its illumination into the pixels themselves instead of using a backlight; combined with better overall color, usually produces a much better picture than an LCD with true blacks and very good contrast. At times, the effect can be dramatic: dark scenes become especially vivid, and even well-lit footage has bold colors, especially in dimmer lighting. If you can create or find video suited to the Walkman -- Amazon Video on Demand's protected WMV, for example, or a conversion of a video you own -- you could well have one of the best possible handheld video experiences on Sony's hardware.
The one catch we've seen is outdoor viewability. We haven't encountered many troubles ourselves, but OLEDs are known to suffer from legibility in bright sunlight. If you're regularly checking your music in the sun, you may want to pass on the X1000 for an LCD-equipped rival.
The only area where Sony truly flounders is in Internet features, and unfortunately it does so in spectacular fashion. Your first clue something's amiss is in how it connects to Wi-Fi, which is needlessly redundant. Although it's fairly straightforward to add a Wi-Fi connection, Sony's interface bafflingly asks you which network to connect to every time you use an Internet feature after waking the player, even when you've already set a preferred network. There's no automatic detection or prompting as you roam to different areas. These by themselves aren't fatal but are ultimately harbingers of the problems to come once you're online.
By far the most troublesome part of the player is its web access: simply put, it's near-unusable. Instead of choosing a full HTML browser to take advantage of the more advanced display, Sony has chosen to borrow the same Access NetFront browser it uses on even its lower-end Sony Ericsson smartphones. It doesn't work. Nearly every regular website either doesn't render properly or produces errors that prevent it from loading at all. Electronista's home page is one (but not the only) example of this last flaw. There's also no recognition of double-taps or dynamic zoom, so on many pages your choice is either to see a too-small site overview or to scroll left to right as well as up and down.
A poor text input system only compounds the situation. Likely the result of the smaller display, Sony has passed on a QWERTY keyboard in favor of a phone-style number pad. Not only does this slow things down, forcing you to tap a key multiple times to get the intended character, but it has quirks that aren't even seen on other devices that share this control method. You can't simply enter a character and wait to enter another one if you're going to hit the same key; you have to move the cursor ahead yourself.
Moreover, while word prediction is built-in, the browser isn't smart enough to include "http://" when typing a web address and has no accelerometer to auto-rotate the display to landscape mode. Unless your web only involves basic WAP-oriented pages or logging in at coffee shops to use YouTube, the browser feels like a superflous feature in its current form.
The YouTube client itself is more functional and is for all intents and purposes an online version of the X1000's video browser. However, it's now trailing slightly behind. Featured, top-rated and searchable videos are present, but without a sign-in there's no way to check subscriptions or your own videos. While generally well-executed, YouTube here isn't so compelling that we'd use it regularly, especially given that the same text entry interface from the web is also used here.
In the US, the Walkman has a Slacker radio client for streaming Internet music. Anyone who has tried Slacker on another platform will be at home with the interface and features, and unlike services like Last.fm or Pandora, caches well in advance so stations can be used beyond the range of a Wi-Fi hotspot. It's a rarity among most media players, though we'd add that the iPod touch has not only a Slacker app but its choice of several different competitors. Also, Canadians, Europeans and those outside of the US won't have Slacker at all.
Sony redeems its weaknesses online somewhat through impressive battery life. Officially, it lasts for 33 hours of continuous music or 9 hours of non-stop video. We didn't have time to test the video claim, but in audio we came only half an hour short. The runtime was such that running the battery dry in one day was nearly impossible in real-world use. It would very likely take 3 to 4 days of very frequent use to bring the X1000 to its breaking point. We can't say that for most other players of any kind, let alone a touchscreen device with Wi-Fi.
As is common now that Sony has dropped its insistence on proprietary software, loading the X1000 with content is relatively easy and has more than its fair share of choices. At a basic level, it works as a drag-and-drop device on any Mac, Windows PC or even Linux PC; just copy files into the appropriate folders and the Walkman finds them the next time you enter the appropriate menu. Windows users do get more than one option, though, and can either use a companion app that will grab music from iTunes to load into the device or else of using a player that can recognize generic media devices, like Windows Media Player or WinAmp.
One caution: with a large amount of music, the sync process is slow. Despite using a fully powered USB 2.0 port, it took us about 4 hours to fill two thirds of the 32GB model's capacity. We know that the iPod touch and iPhone are faster, and there doesn't seem to be a good excuse.
When it comes to its core functions, the Walkman X1000 is a stellar product. It's designed for music in the real world and makes a great way of watching a video on the subway or showing photos to friends. Exercise enthusiasts should put this on their short lists as one of the only touchscreen players really suited to the gym or a long run thanks to its ergonomics and useful FM and Slacker radio sources.
At the same time, that vision of a perfect device quickly falls apart when trying to use the hardware for something else. Internet access on the X1000 is ultimately an afterthought that has its uses but comes across as a selling point, not a real advantage. Some of this stems from the absence of things to do online: other than the web, Slacker and YouTube, users are stuck offline. There are no e-mail clients, information widgets or map utilities to justify using the player outside of its primary role.
That wouldn't necessarily be an issue if it weren't for the inescapable presence of Apple in the same space. Its iPod touch players are priced at the same $299 and $399 for their respective 16GB and 32GB capacities as of this writing; but at these costs, the iPods have more Internet apps, better web and YouTube clients, and a smartphone-grade platform that easily extends the feature set in different directions. An iPod can be a PDA, a game console, or even a voice-over-IP phone. What can the X1000 series be? Unless Sony puts the framework in place for developers to add their own software, its top-end Walkman will forever be confined to the feature set it shipped with.
There will undoubtedly be a segment of users that will find the Walkman perfect for their needs, and if the design, FM radio, noise canceling and OLED are worth the price, it's hard to disagree. In absolute terms, though, the X1000 is only really recommended over an iPod for those who either want to avoid Apple's at times too-strict ecosystem or have a checklist of hardware features a device must have that Apple can't match.