Review You've got to hand it to Sony. The iPod may be the portable music boss, but it's not stopped trying to take Apple's baby out. It was some time before it seriously plucked up the courage to do so, with the release last year release of the NW-HD1. That was back in late 2004, and it was followed only a few months later by the NW-HD3. Now Sony has produced another hard disk-based unit, the NW-HD5.
So what does this one bring to the table and has it done enough to really put the boot into the iPod? Yes and no. Sony has revamped the design once again and come up with a device with a distinctive look that might not appeal to all. As far as specifications go it's another 20GB player and while the dimensions have shrunk very slightly since the HD3, it's actually 5g heavier, at 135g. It's still not as svelte as the 112g HD1, however. Even so, it's a lot leaner that the iPod, which since the demise of the mono-screened version is only available at a relatively portly 167g. With its brushed metal finish, the NW-5 does feel quite solid in the hand though some may balk at the thin flap covering the USB and AC power connectors at the top. There's also a space for a Sony remote control - though there isn't one included in the box. Nor is there a cradle, Sony having dispensed with it after the HD1. A small fabric cover is provided but there's no belt clip holder included.
Numbers are also up as far as battery life is concerned, with Sony quoting a maximum of 40 hours. This is a theoretical maximum of course, based on 13,000 tracks encoded at a bit-rate of 48Kbps. This is not really sensible of course and Sony does at least quote a more realistic 30 hours for MP3 at 128Kbps. Even using higher bit-rates you'll still enjoy far greater staying power from the Sony than an iPod. The battery is also removable, a nut that Apple has yet to crack, ensuring that when it does start to get knackered it's a simple job to pop open the side and insert a new one. Let's hope that Sony doesn't charge the earth for a replacement. Despite the bundled AC adaptor, the player handily charges over USB, taking six hours to do so.
The biggest change over the HD3 though is the design. While the iPod display is now colour, Sony has yet to enter that territory and has gone for white text on a black background. This looks rather smart though not quite as easy on the eye as the iPod display. It can also be reversed (black on white background) but this didn't look right to me. Of course this may well depend on the colour of your unit. While my review sample was a cool slab of black the NW5 can also be picked up in silver and, rather differently, red.
The display is seven lines long, providing plenty of room for showing the track name, album, genre and bit-rate among other things, at the same time. Underneath the screen are distinctive controls laid out in a plus shape, with two extra buttons on either side. These have a rather strange plastic bubble feel to them and seem unnecessarily small, which may displease the fat-fingered.
One neat trick is what Sony dubs its 'Follow turn' feature. This enables you to change the orientation of the display so you can use it on its side if you prefer. This can be done manually, or if you select the 'Auto' setting and then turn the player off at the desired angle, the display will then magically swivel itself round when you turn it on again. It's not an essential feature but it's a nifty enough to show off to your mates.
Either way, the interface is good, if still not as good as Apple's clickwheel system. To move between albums and artist you need to use the arrow buttons around the central play/pause button and though it's logical it's sometimes confusing as to when you have to push back and when you have to push up. At first I often moved to the beginning of a track when I meant to browse the track listing but I soon got used to it.
Sony's previous players were seriously hindered by the bundled SonicStage software, which was legendary for its awfulness. SonicStage is now on version 3.1 but largely is just as weird and unwieldy as it always was, though it is usable. It amazes me that a company the size of Sony can't devote sufficient resources into making decent software. The great news is that Sony seems to have finally mastered the concept of play lists. Previously, play lists were named 'Compilations' and involved copying tracks over to the player each time they appeared in a play list, wasting time and disk space. Thankfully it doesn't do that anymore. Genius.
But while SonicStage may be a poor stunted thing compared to iTunes, the NW5 is undeniably a great sounding player. Tracks encoded in MP3 sound noticeably better than they do on my third generation iPod, giving them a new lease of life. I also conducted some subjective listening tests using ATRAC 3 and ATRAC 3 Plus. Of course, this was on my own excellent sounding Koss Porta Pro earphones as opposed to the small earphones included in the box. The default encoding method in SonicStage is to ATRAC 3 Plus at 64Kbps. This is decent but not fantastic - equivalent to 128Kbps MP3. The next higher quality ATRAC 3 Plus setting is 256Kbps. It's quite a hike in terms of file size but it does sound superb. Below this is plain ATRAC 3 at 105Kbps and 132Kbps, and personally I'd go with the latter as it gives the best trade off between quality and capacity. If you prefer a more universal format SonicStage can now rip straight to MP3 and will convert WMA tunes on the fly.
What the HD5 doesn't have is extra features such as an FM tuner or a microphone, which will probably put off those who want their MP3 player to offer kitchen sink functionality. SonicStage may put off even more people. The look and the interface of the NW-HD5 may be too quirky for some.
Judging the hardware alone, however, the Sony is a lean mean little player that knocks spots off the iPod in terms of size, battery life, sound quality and even price. Granted it still doesn't have the same unquantifiable cool but then there are an awful lot of people who aren't members of the iPod fan club.
Reccomended Retail $499.00