Sony X-Series Walkman

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Ginny Mies, PC World
PC World
Wednesday, August 12, 2009; 12:19 AM

When I first saw the Sony Walkman X-Series, I almost couldn't believe it was a Walkman. Sure, other Walkman models we've tested have scored highly for audio quality, but none have really stood out for me as a candidate for the ultimate portable media player--until the X-Series. Sony's latest Walkman impresses with its OLED touch display, its integration with the Slacker radio-station app, and its built-in noise-cancellation technology, as well as its excellent audio quality.

Sony's 16GB and 32GB models cost $300 and $400, respectively--the same prices as Apple's corresponding iPod Touch models. Unlike Apple, though, Sony does not offer an 8GB version.

Some previous Walkman players felt a bit cheap in build, so I was initially disappointed when I saw press photos of the X-Series. However, the actual unit proved I had nothing to fear: The creative geode encasing (which looks a bit like those stone Legos I had as a child) is limited to only the edges, while the rest of the body is sparkly, yet subtle (yes, there is such a thing). I found the build quality sturdy, and the unit feels good in the hand. Its design makes it slim and pocketable at 3.8 by 2.1 by 0.4 inches.

The X-Series Walkman has a lot of surprising design choices, such as the tactile hardware playback buttons on the top edge of the player. It is uncommon for touchscreen players to have physical volume rockers (iPod Touch, I'm looking at you), much less actual hardware playback buttons. But I found them handy, especially when I was digging around in my bag, searching for the player so I could skip to the next song. The X-Series also has a large hold switch on its back--a refreshing change from the tiny, inconveniently-placed switches I've seen on other players.

The headlining feature, of course, is the X-Series Walkman's 3-inch touch OLED display. Unsurprisingly, the quality is fantastic. Motions and animations rendered smoothly, while colors looked brilliant and accurate. The touchscreen is quite responsive, as well. I didn't experience any lag while scrolling through my music collection or while opening up various applications.

Video playback looks great on the Walkman's OLED display. Details were sharp, colors looked vivid, and I saw no signs of ghosting or pixilation--even in quick-moving action scenes. While some might gripe that 3 inches is too small for watching a full-length movie, I had no issues with the display size. Really, the quality makes up for the size; you have to experience it to believe it.

One of the many advantages of OLED technology is that it draws less power from a battery than an LCD screen. Sony says the X-Series has 9 hours of video battery life, 3 hours more than the iPod Touch.

The X-Series Walkman has one of the best touch interfaces I've seen--it's right up there with the iPod Touch. The Home screen (which can be customized with the wallpaper of your choice) has sharp, easy-to-identify icons for everything you'll need on the player: Slacker, FM Radio, YouTube, Pictures, Music, Video, Noise Cancelling controls, Podcasts, Browser, and Settings.

Transferring content to the Walkman is a snap thanks to the included Content Transfer software. You can simply drag and drop files from your computer or iTunes onto the Walkman. You can also use Windows Media Player or Rhapsody to transfer your media library.

In my hands-on testing, I found the Walkman's audio quality to be excellent. With a hip-hop song, bass had just the right amount of heaviness without being too overpowering. A complex metal song sounded rich with piercing guitars, crisp vocals, and pulsing drumming. (Note: We'll update this review soon when the PC World Test Center's official audio test results become available.)

I found the included earbuds a bit uncomfortable to use for extended periods of time--they were a little big for me. But they still sounded noticeably better than other included earbuds we've tested--especially the iPod Touch's ubiquitous white buds.

One particular convenience: Inside the unit, the X-Series Walkman has integrated noise-cancellation technology that works in conjunction with the bundled headphones. The headphones have a small microphone that picks up, measures, and eliminates intrusive background noise.

My favorite feature on the Walkman is its integration with Slacker, a free app that lets you create customized radio stations. You can select up to three stations, and hundreds of songs are pushed to your device free of charge. And the device's built-in Wi-Fi will refresh your content automatically, so your music selections are never stagnant. But you don't need a hotspot to enjoy Slacker (unlike with the iPod): The Walkman's Slacker app needs a connection only when it's refreshing your content (which it then caches in your player). Other available apps include YouTube and Amazon Video-on-Demand.

Connecting to Wi-Fi is very simple: From the Settings menu, you can scan available networks and connect to the one you prefer. The Walkman's browser is okay, though it seems a bit of an afterthought compared with the device's other features. The iPod Touch's Safari browser definitely has the upper hand here. For one thing, the X-Series has no horizontal full QWERTY keyboard; you must use a cramped alphanumeric keypad. Also, the browser is pretty basic and a bit clunky to navigate. Scrolling through pages was jumpy, and content could sometimes be slow to load.

I wish Sony had priced the Walkman a bit more aggressively against the iPod. While it is certainly on a par with the Touch in terms of audio and video quality, the Walkman just doesn't have the Touch's readily available plethora of apps and accessories. A lower price would have given the Walkman the edge of being a less expensive, but still high-quality alternative to the iPod Touch.

--Ginny Mies


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