Backstage: Sony’s stylish iPod shuffle competition

Even as an iPod shuffle owner, I’ll be the first to say two things: first, Sony got the aesthetic design of the shuffle’s latest competitor – the new NW-E505 Network Walkman ($149.95) – almost entirely right, especially the screen. The 3-line OLED display isn’t quite as useful as it could be, but it’s bright, attractive, and does let you see up to three songs or menu choices at a time.

But in even more important ways, the company got it almost entirely wrong. In a Marvel Comics-style “What If?” world where the 505 was $50 cheaper, we might be looking at a serious challenger to the low-end of the iPod family. But would anyone seriously shell out $150 for a 512MB flash player when there’s a 4GB iPod mini for $199? Is the average person even willing to spend $150 for half a gig of music storage? And what’s up with the five buttons and twisting, three-position control knob?

 

Backstage: Sony’s stylish iPod shuffle competition

Our brief look at the NW-E505, with plenty of pictures, continues inside. Click on Read More for the details.

Backstage: Sony’s stylish iPod shuffle competition

You can’t help but be impressed by the NW-E505’s body when you first see it. The shuttle-like (shuttle, not shuffle) design uses mirrored plastic and frosted metal to create a highly sleek, almost futuristic body that’s a tiny bit smaller than the iPod shuffle in footprint, but thicker. Sony sells blue and pink versions of the 505, and a nicer silver for the 1GB 507. A darker blue color is used for similar models called the 405 and 407, described below.

On all of these models, Sony uses an odd control knob to move backwards and forwards through tracks – it’s hidden on the right, inbetween a play/stop button and the headphone cable, with two tiny buttons for volume up and down right above it. Those aren’t the silver buttons you see to the left of the play/stop button – one brings up the menu, the other lets you switch to FM radio mode.

 

Backstage: Sony’s stylish iPod shuffle competition

FM radio mode! Yeah, we don’t use it too often. But many people have been begging for it in an iPod, and even with the recent release of BTI’s Tunestir accessory, they’ll probably continue to wait for something better to come along. By comparison with other devices we’ve tested, Sony’s FM tuner is really quite good. You tune with the control knob and the signals come in pretty much as you’d expect them to. The P—on the screen is for presets.

 

Backstage: Sony’s stylish iPod shuffle competition

 

Backstage: Sony’s stylish iPod shuffle competition

Then there’s the user-adjustable bass and treble control screen. Okay, it’s not a five-band equalizer, but it’ll do the trick for most people. You can save two presets (“Sound 1” and “Sound 2”) and switch between them and the flat default Sound setting with the button on the unit’s back, which also doubles as a repeat songs button. A pin-hole sized reset button is also there; thankfully we haven’t needed it (take that, Creative!).

 

Backstage: Sony’s stylish iPod shuffle competition

 

Backstage: Sony’s stylish iPod shuffle competition

 

Backstage: Sony’s stylish iPod shuffle competition

Sony’s even thrown in some alternate visual displays for musical playback – a standard screen with most of the details you’d expect, then a graphical (timer) version without text, and a not-quite-a-visualizer screen with moving bubbles. In power saving mode, the standard display disappears and little echo sound waves appear on the screen to indicate playback. These are all fun touches – surely better than not having a screen at all.

 

Backstage: Sony’s stylish iPod shuffle competition

 

Backstage: Sony’s stylish iPod shuffle competition

But here’s the rub. There’s a lot to like about the hardware of the NW-E505, but it’s missing so many things that iPod owners now take for granted. We’ll skip optional accessories entirely, but in the box, you get a light plastic shirt pocket clip that ain’t going anywhere, and a generic black bag that some people might use as a tote for both the E505 and its cheap included earphones – assuming they don’t mind the risk of one scratching the other. Sony also includes a small headphone extension cable and a USB cable for both charging and syncing.

 

Backstage: Sony’s stylish iPod shuffle competition

That’s correct: a USB cable. There’s nothing wrong with that on the surface, and especially given that the NW-E505 promises 50(!) hours of run time on a single full-charge. Even better, Sony very wisely mentions on the box that three minutes of charging time will give you three hours of playback. Genius stuff, there, seriously. But you’ll have to have the USB cable with you to recharge. That’s not the case with the iPod shuffle – any open, powered USB port will do, no need for cables.

The much bigger problem is software. Using Sony’s bundled SonicStage, now in its third major release, is like stepping back three years in time. Never mind the fact that it’s Windows PC only; its default organization of music files, menus and overall functionality just cannot compare in either ease of use or breadth of features to iTunes. Sadly, that would have been true even if we were talking about an old version of iTunes, but the latest ones make the gulf even more profound.

We would have been entirely happy if we could just drag and drop MP3 files onto the NW-E505 – it is, after all, now capable of playing them without transcoding. But Sony forces you to use their bad software, which itself forces you to build a new music database, and so on. Slogging through SonicStage just to update a device with the capacity of an iPod shuffle just seems insane.

 

Backstage: Sony’s stylish iPod shuffle competition

The last couple of issues are the obvious ones: pricing and practicality. Apple understood the magic of the $99 price point with the 512MB iPod shuffle; even though Sony has a legitimately cooler piece of hardware on its hands here, it’s not worth the $150 asking price, even if you leave iTunes, the iPod shuffle’s wealth of optional accessories, and everything else aside. This was true even before the 1GB iPod shuffle dropped this week to $129.

Apple’s also nailed the “truth in marketing” and simplicity points, at least as far as music storage is concerned. Sony’s box continues to insist that the 512MB E505 can hold 345 songs – almost three times as many as a 512MB iPod shuffle – which practically just isn’t true. Because this is so misleading, there are asterisks all over the front of the box that lead you to explanations: the songs need to be encoded at 48Kbps, and the battery won’t really run for 50 hours unless you play back songs encoded at 102Kbps in ATRAC3 format. Great. Of course, the 512MB iPod shuffle can hold 1,000 songs if you compress them enough, and so on and so on, but Apple’s not cheesy or desperate enough to put that sort of stuff on the box.

Moreover, even with the three-line display, finding songs on the E505 isn’t exactly easy. Yes, Apple oversimplified the iPod shuffle by pulling the screen, but if you use iTunes to fill it up with good tracks, even grandma can figure out how play them back. Sony went in the opposite direction.

 

Backstage: Sony’s stylish iPod shuffle competition

Besides the fact that it doesn’t have a single, unified control pad as simple as the iPod shuffle’s, the NW-E505’s package overcomplicates things both on the hardware and software sides by creating a separate, uber-genre category called “Groups.” This is just another way to cluster songs – not that we needed one – but Sony pushes you to use it with both SonicStage and the E505.

If you want to move forward and backwards normally through tracks, you need to pull out the circular control knob like a wristwatch dial – not all the way, but to a middle position. If you pull it out all the way, as most people will, you get stuck in Group mode, sifting through tracks in chaotic order, or not at all. If you leave the wheel tucked all the way in, the E505 sits in “hold” mode, like the iPod’s hold switch (or the iPod shuffle’s held-down play/pause button). It’s non-intuitive, not a “smarter” way of doing things, and will make grandma cry.

 

Backstage: Sony’s stylish iPod shuffle competition

So who is the NW-E505 right for? Techies who love style, don’t mind dropping $150 on a 512MB player – or $200 for the 1GB version – and are willing to install and use SonicStage. Compared with iPod shuffle sales, that’s going to be a small crowd. Even if you knock $20 off these prices for the versions without FM tuners (405 and 407), and you’re still left with SonicStage and the odd control knob. For now, we’ll stick to our shuffles, but we’re hoping that Apple has something much cooler than this up its sleeve. The music player-as-fashion accessory trend is starting, and if it wasn’t too confusing for a model to figure out, this one would definitely have been ready for the runways…

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