While the world of portable media players may seem to be divided into two categories—iPods and non-iPods—Sony makes a strong case for adding a third with its X Series Walkman. Sporting a sexy design, gorgeous OLED touchscreen display, Wi-Fi connectivity, and 16GB of internal flash storage, the $299 Sony Walkman NWZ-X1051 (also available in a 32GB, $399 model) has all of the right ingredients to make it a formidable portable media player. The Web browser on this device disappoints, and you don’t get the iPod touch’s deep catalog of apps, but if you’re a media maven who wants top-notch audio quality, the Walkman X Series is a strong choice.
Sony did a remarkable job of crafting an audio player with its own unique style. The X Series has more eye-popping appeal that the Samsung YP-P3, and doesn’t try to emulate Apple’s aesthetics. Instead, this 3.8 x 2.1 x 0.4-inch player sports a stone-like Geo Design finish around its perimeter that not only looks cool, but feels great to the touch. Its gritty surface enhances your grip when the player is in hand, and is a nice contrast to the polished front and back of the device.
The underlying aluminum construction gives the X Series a solid feel. The back of the 3.5-ounce player carries a lightly speckled finish highlighted by the Walkman logo—the same finish that surrounds the display on the opposite side. The only aesthetic downer is the large, white letters that identify the physical buttons on the right side of the device, which detract from the premium design.
The X Series utilizes a hybrid control scheme, which is Sony’s term for a mix of touchscreen and physical input methods. On the top of the device you’ll find playback controls, which help immensely when you have the player in a pocket and don’t want to pull it out to touch the screen; the back has a hold button; the right side contains a noise-canceling switch, dedicated volume controls, and a small hole for those unfortunate times when you need to reset the device. The front of the X Series has a grooved Home button that returns you to the main menu when pressed, and shuts down and powers up the device when held for a few seconds.
Great OLED Display
The bright and sharp 3-inch (432 x 240-pixel resolution) OLED touchscreen is the most appealing feature of the X Series. OLED displays offer two advantages over traditional LCDs found in most PMPs: increased image vibrancy, and longer battery life.
We were impressed with the variations in skin tones when we viewed an episode of The Life of Ryan that was downloaded from Amazon Video On Demand. In addition, the blacks, blues, and reds in people’s clothing really popped. Viewing angles were also quite good; the screen remained highly legible even when we held the X Series at sharp angles.
As OLEDs don’t require backlighting, they can eat far less battery power. Sony rates the X Series to play back nine hours of video playback on a charge, which is three hours longer than what the iPod touch’s LCD is rated to deliver.
The home screen contains ten monochromatic icons: Slacker Portable Radio, FM radio, YouTube, Photos, Music, Video, Noise-canceling, Podcast List, Internet, and Settings. All the icons are on one screen, as you can’t install any apps of your own. Compared to the icons on the iPod, they’re rather dull-looking, but when you press one, a yellow halo appears around it, indicating your selection.
Syncing and Compatibility
Although the number of compatible audio and video formats isn’t as deep as portable media players such as the Archos 7, the X Series has enough to satisfy all but the most hardcore mediaphiles. It supports AAC, Linear PCM, MP3, and WMA audio; JPEG images; and H.264, MPEG-4, and WMV files.
Content can be dragged and dropped from your PC to the X Series, or you can use the bundled Content Transfer software, which allows for simple set-and-forget content transfer. After loading the Windows-only software onto our PC (it installed within seconds), we were able to set the software so that the X Series automatically synced music, video, and podcast content whenever we connected the player.
When it comes to managing content, however, the Content Transfer software is light years behind iTunes or Windows Media Player. Although you can can easily delete individual files or entire folders, you can’t do something as basic as creating a playlist. For that task, we recommend using Windows Media Player, as iTunes doesn’t recognize the Sony X Series (you can only drag and drop individual files between iTunes and the Content Transfer software).
In short, music played on the X Series sounds great. It’s on a par with the Samsung YP-P3’s stellar sound quality, and miles beyond anything we’ve heard come out of an iPod. The strings in The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” were sharp, and the low-end bass and drum sounds were remarkably solid, yet didn’t overwhelm the soundscape.
Tapping the Option button located on a small taskbar on the bottom of the screen gave us access to seven equalizer settings (None, Heavy, Pop, Jazz, Unique, Custom 1, Custom 2), seven surround-sound settings (None, Studio, Live, Club, Arena, Matrix, Karaoke), five playback settings (Normal, Repeat, Shuffle, Shuffle & Repeat, Repeat 1 Song), and other audio options.
When you have a song selected, pressing the Web icon (symbolized by a globe) takes you to a screen that lets you launch Yahoo oneSearch or YouTube. When Firewind’s “Mercenary Man” was selected, Yahoo oneSearch pulled up results that let us visit the band’s Wikipedia page for some background on the group. When we later chose YouTube, we were able to check out some of the music videos from the Greek hair metal band.
A classical music broadcast that the X Series picked up from the FM airwaves was static-free when we walked around midtown Manhattan, but quickly became filled with pops and hisses when we entered our office. Clicking the on-screen Option button and then Auto Preset quickly scanned the airwaves and populated the player with 23 stations (there are 30 presets in total).
The X Series comes with one of the best bundled sets of earbuds we’ve heard. The rubber-tipped buds squeezed firmly into our ear canals and sealed out ambient noise, instantly dampening some of the sounds on a busy Manhattan street corner. On top of that, Sony has built-in noise-canceling technology that works in tandem with the player; the X Series managed to reduce the rumbling of a passing truck to a soft background muffle when we flipped the switch. Sony also includes an in-flight adapter that lets you feed the audio from your armrest through the Walkman to the headphones, allowing you to apply the Walkman’s equalizer (and noise-cancellation ability) to in-flight movies.
Slacker Portable Radio Application
The Slacker Portable Radio application allows users of the Internet radio service to access their custom stations through the X Series. Associating your X Series with your Slacker account is as simple as launching the Slacker application on the player, connecting to a Wi-Fi signal, and copying the registration code that appears into the Slacker Portable ID area in the browser-based, PC version of the service. What makes Slacker on this player better than the Slacker app for iPhone and iPod touch is that you can cache songs, which means you can listen to your favorite tunes without a Wi-Fi connection.
It took more than 40 minutes to wirelessly transfer our content to the X Series. Due to the player’s three-station limit, two of our other custom stations didn’t make it over, but you can log into Slacker and pick which ones you want to transfer as many times as you like. The audio sounded great; a Barry White song had plenty of bass, but didn’t override the high notes.
Video Playback and YouTube
It was an effortless affair controlling our The Life of Ryan episode. Translucent media control buttons allowed us to play/pause, fast forward and rewind (at up to 3X speeds), and skip between chapters. Tapping the Scene Scroll icon breaks video up into chapters based on time elapsed; you can choose intervals between 15 seconds and 5 minutes. Each segment is represented by a thumbnail image that you can swipe through in a Cover Flow-like fashion (complete with a black background and reflections). Once swiped, the horizontal timeline stays in motion and switches to a tapered three-quarters viewpoint that looks quite cool. Music and video can’t be purchased over the air, despite the integrated 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi radio.
Like Apple’s iPod touch, the X Series has a YouTube application that enables fast access to the popular video repository. When we connected, we were presented with a vertical list of featured videos (many of which were from the San Diego Comic Con 2009). Launching a video automatically switched the device to landscape mode, where the X Series smoothly streamed an interview with the wizened comic book ambassador, Stan Lee. Colors were bright, and the audio stayed in sync the entire length of the clip. An on-screen option button let us search for content by keyword, and check out related and most-viewed videos.
Pictures transferred to the Walkman X Series looked sharp and colorful. Clicking Options let us adjust the brightness, view the resolution, file name, and file size, and set images as wallpaper. Although JPEG is one of the most common photo file types, we would’ve liked to have seen support for BMP and PNG included.
The included 802.11b/g Wi-Fi radio on the X Series allowed us to connect to the Web without too much hassle. After clicking the WWW icon, the player swiftly scanned the area for signals. Upon finding our office signal, we input our passkey, and fired up the browser. The process took approximately 30 seconds.
Unfortunately, the Walkman’s Netfront Web browser is one of the worst that we’ve ever encountered in a portable device; it didn’t render any of the sites we visited in a familiar manner. Yahoo’s homepage, for example, was a stripped-down collection of links. It took 16 seconds for the X Series to fully load CNN’s mobile site; our iPod touch loaded the same page in 12 seconds.
Another thing that irritated us was the fact that the browser, which is presented in landscape mode, requires you to flip the X Series to a vertical position in order to input keystrokes. Oddly, there is no landscape keyboard; you’re instead forced to use a cramped and awkward alphanumeric keyboard in portrait mode. Entering URLs is made even more difficult by the fact that the cursor doesn’t automatically move to the right when you enter a character; you must manually move the cursor to the right.
Fortunately, you can use the X Series’ Wi-Fi connection to do more than just surf the Web. We were able to subscribe to podcasts directly from the player. Tapping Refresh while in the Podcast section of the X Series pulled new content (when available) for feeds we subscribed to on the player and on our PC.
Sony places the X Series’ endurance at approximately 33 hours for audio playback, which is 3 hours shorter than Apple’s rating from the iPod touch. As mentioned above, the X Series has a rated battery life of nine hours for video playback. It took four days of periodic use—in which we listened to plenty of tracks, watched video, viewed photos, and downloaded podcasts for a few hours each day—before we needed to find an outlet.
Priced at $299 and packing the same capacity as the 16GB iPod touch, the Sony Walkman X Series offers a different take on the portable media player. Instead of focusing on e-mail, games, GPS, multitouch, and thousands of apps, it gives users outstanding audio and video quality, and the Slacker and YouTube apps are just icing on the cake. Although the Web browsing experience is poor, the X Series is a formidable PMP.