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