Sony may have given up the portable audio crown to Apple years ago, but the Walkman pioneer has never given up the ghost. Although the tech giant made some questionable decisions during the past several years, such as placing a large amount of energy and focus into the niche-y MiniDisc market and, for a while, requiring that all music played on its devices be encoded in its proprietary ATRAC3 format, Sony seems to embody the motto "live and learn".
Over the past year or so, the company has produced a handful of stylish, great-sounding MP3 players with excellent battery life. The NW-E00 series is no exception. Now, if only Sony would apply that same perseverance to its lackluster SonicStage software.
Some of the NW-E003's controls, including the Hold switch and volume buttons, are found on the back of the player.
Overseas the Sony NW-E00 series comes in three capacities, each with a different model number: there's the 512MB NW-E002, the 1GB NW-E003 (available in Australia in black, green and pink), and the 2GB NW-E005 (no longer available down under). For this review, we got our hands on a green NW-E005 but our comments are applicable to the NW-E003. It's quite a stunner; the NW-E00 series takes its design cues from the NW-E500 series and the larger NW-A1200 with a metallic (and colourful) plastic casing that wraps around the front and sides of the player, protecting a single-line OLED display which, unfortunately, is next to impossible to read in bright sunlight.
Brushed-silver buttons for Play/Pause/Power and Folder/Home reside to the right of the screen and complement the brightly coloured device. Left of the screen is the built-in USB adapter, which is covered by a matching brushed-silver cap. We expected this silver accenting to extend to the rear of the device, but instead, when you flip it over, you discover that it's enshrouded in bright, matte plastic in the same colour as the device -- not unattractive at all, but we'd have preferred the brushed silver.
On the back of the NW-E003, you get dedicated (albeit tiny) volume buttons and a Hold switch. And on the top edge is a shuttle rocker, which serves different purposes depending on which mode you are in. You can press the Folder/Home button to toggle between folder (album) and song modes. The shuttle button will then either scrub through albums (in the former) or tracks (in the latter). If you hold down the Folder/Home button, it takes you to the top menu, where you can select from All Songs (takes you to the folder/song view), FM, Playlist (takes you to a playlist/songs view), Search, and Menu, which has different selections depending on whether you are in digital music or FM mode.
The NW-E003 isn't as simple to use as the first-gen iPod Shuffle (or even the feature-filled Samsung YP-U2), nor is it as intuitive as larger flash players, such as the Creative Zen V -- in fact, we had to refer to the manual many times to figure out all its uses. However, it is small (13.6 by 79 by 24.8mm), and it comes in an array of shiny colours and includes some decent features, so if you don't mind the learning curve, it might be worth it.
Like the iPod Shuffle, the Sony NW-E000 has a built-in USB interface and can be used as a thumbdrive.
The NW-E00 series includes an FM tuner with strong reception, an auto tuning feature, and 30 preset slots. You can shuttle the sound between four EQ settings --Heavy, Pop, Jazz, Flat -- or there's a five-band custom selection. There's also a clock on-board and a sport timer, which is essentially a single-setting stopwatch that counts down the minutes for you and chimes at zero. You can even rotate the display for left-handed use, and the shuttle rocker responds accordingly. Some of the more unique highlights are the display animations and Sony's fabulous quick charge function, which gives you hours of battery life after just a few minutes of charging.
As usual, this Sony MP3 player is a great performer. Tunes sound rich and clear, and volume really cranks. The standard advice applies here: replace the included earbuds. They make things sound hollow, and they're not terribly comfortable (they're also the only other thing in the package aside from the software disc). Battery life is rated at 28 hours, but CNET Labs was able to squeeze out only 18.8 hours. This number is still commendable, but we've come to expect better from Sony's players.
Finally, we must point out that Sony is taking a step in the right direction by adding AAC and WMA support to its latest MP3 players, and that includes the NW-E003. Of course, it also plays MP3 and both protected and unprotected ATRAC files (WMA and AAC must be unprotected). This is a surprisingly open attitude from the company that once didn't even directly support MP3 playback. Unfortunately, Sony rather takes the shine off it by requiring that you use SonicStage to transfer tunes to the device. This software is simply awful -- we found ourselves hating it all over again in the few minutes it took get some tunes on the NW-E003. It's poorly laid out and does not organise music in an intuitive fashion. For us, this is a deal breaker. But for those who are accustomed to the SonicStage/Connect universe, the NW-E003 should make the cut.