Sony 'iPod' review

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For details on Sony’s NW-HD1 iPod killer click here

So is Sony’s new Vaio Pocket Series VGF-AP1 hard disk music player going to prove too hot for the iPod? According to The Guardian, probably not.

In a preview of the player the reviewer praises Sony for delivering a colour LCD screen (surely a dead cert for the next gen of iPods) and offering battery life of 20 hours (much better than the Apple product’s eight) but says that the player is too bulky and the interface not quite as elegant.

Read on for the full review

Sony turns up the heat on Apple’s iPod

Sony’s new music player is impressive – but is it good enough to trump the iconic Apple iPod? Ashley Norris finds out

Saturday May 15, 2004

One day, when historians pen the history of Sony, they’ll highlight May 2004 as a key month in the company’s life.
Over in the US the company unveiled Connect, its music download service, and took the wraps off its portable gaming device, the PSP. Here in Europe it has been parading its flagship ultra light notebook computer, the Vaio X505.

In spite of all this innovation, at its press conference this week in Brussels the gathered journalists were only really only interested in one product – Sony’s answer to the iPod, the Vaio Pocket Series VGF-AP1.

After several years of taking a head-in-the-sand approach to the hard disk personal audio market, almost certainly the result of pressure from the company’s music label, Sony is now set to launch a product that could be the first to chip away at the iconic Apple player’s huge market share.

While other companies, notably Philips and Samsung, have only tinkered with the hard disk player format by offering virtual facsimilies of the iPod, Sony has thrown out the rulebook and come up with a genuinely innovative device.

So: is it likely to break the Apple monopoly when it debuts in the UK in the autumn?

Design

The most striking thing about the VGF-AP1 is its form factor. It is larger and heavier (200g) than the slimline iPod and sports an ergonomic shape, in that the right hand end of the player is designed to be gripped by fingers and a thumb.

Most of that extra bulk is to accommodate a 2.2inch TFT LCD screen. The screen – a real innovation in personal audio – not only displays the player’s operational interface, but can also show the cover art of the album that is being listened to. In another neat touch owners can transfer images to the VGF-AP1, either from their PC (via a USB 2.0 connection) or direct from a digital camera. These images can then be stored and viewed on the device.

The other notable design innovation, or quirk depending on your point of view, is a 25 button pad that controls the main interface. The jury is out on how effective it is. Personally, I prefer the more elegant wheel of the iPod.

Features

Sony hasn’t yet decided which accessories will accompany the player, but did confirm it will come with a neat remote control complete with screen and a pair of quality earphones.

Unlike the iPod, which is available with three different storage sizes, the VGF-AP1 will only go on sale with a 20Gb hard disk.

In terms of features, the player is slightly under specified, with no niceities like an FM tuner, integrated Wi-Fi or direct encoding from CD players. The player is also only compatible with a limited number of audio formats.

Naturally it works best with Sony’s Atrac 3 format. Music in this format can be downloaded via Sony’s Connect download site (which launches in the UK in June) or via its SonicStage 2 software, which accompanies the player that turns CD tracks into Atrac 3 files. Unlike the original SonicStage the new version converts MP3 files into Atrac 3 on the fly as users transfer the tracks to the player. This is a huge leap on from having to convert huge numbers of MP3s to Atrac 3 before porting them to the device.

Sony claims that transferring MP3s to Atrac 3 doesn’t impact on the sound quality of the files. But, seeing as the compressed MP3 files have to be decompressed and then compressed again it would, however, be surprising if some fidelity wasn’t lost along the way.

The SonicStage software can also convert Windows Media Audio files to Atrac 3, but, in bad news for iTunes fans, it isn’t compatible with AAC.

Another intriguing feature is the VGF-AP1’s intelligent playlist facility. The player apparently logs each time a track is chosen, and according to Sony, can remember tracks that a user has played at a certain time of day.

So, you can get soothing songs for the evening, or brisk ones for exercising, for example. Alternatively it can recall which tracks the user played regularly over a period of time, so it can offer up songs that regularly cropped up on playlists months before.

Performance

Given Sony’s audio heritage it would be a major surprise if the VGF-AP1 didn’t deliver a quality performance. In a very brief audition the VGF-AP1 sounded excellent. I would say that it delivers a great deal more from the lower frequencies than its competitors, though it is hard to say if overall its performance is superior to the iPod.

The VGF-AP1 has one other major trump card. While the iPod delivers around eight hours before its rechargeable battery gives up the ghost, the VGF-AP1 apparently plays for at least twenty hours. Off the record, the company is claiming that it is actually a great deal more than this.

Verdict

Overall the VGF-AP1 is an impressive debut in the hard disk audio market. The colour screen is a genuine innovation, the battery life is excellent and the sound performance spot on. So will I be swapping it for my iPod come the autumn? I’m afraid not.

The iPod’s weaknesses, notably its battery life and lack of Windows Audio compatibility, are well documented, and if these are major concerns for a buyer the Sony VGF-AP1 is clearly a better bet than the iPod.

With pocket space at a premium however, the bulk and size of the VGF-AP1 really works against it. And while the colour screen is undeniably cute, it is something I am happy to live without. Besides, it will be amazing if the next gen iPod doesn’t also feature one.

Still the VGF-AP1 certainly fires a warning shot across Apple’s bows. Over to you Mr Jobs.

— Sony’s VGF-AP1 will reach the UK in the autumn. The company hasn’t given any indications of pricing yet.

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