Since it was announced last August, we've anxiously been waiting for Sony's flagship Walkman Z (the first to feature Android) to hit US shores. (It made it here well after the holidays passed. Better late than never, right?) While Sony is billing the Z as a Walkman first and foremost, its spacious 4.3-inch display and 1GHz Tegra 2 SoC ensure it's powerful and well-sized for playing games and generally making the most of Gingerbread. The device will be available in a variety of flavors, with up to 32GB of storage ($330), though for the purposes of this review we've been rocking the entry-level 8GB model ($250). Although we haven't exactly been charmed by similar devices vying for a piece of the iPod Touch's market share, the Walkman Z has plenty of promise. The question is, does it deliver? And does it deserve your $250 when it goes on sale in March? Let's find out.
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Sony Z series Walkman player review


Hardware


Unboxing the Walkman Z you won't find much included; there's a set of earbuds and a USB - WM-port cable for syncing and charging. Once you get the player in your hands, you'll quickly be taken aback by what a gorgeous piece of kit this is. Along the device's front, you'll find a glossy black finish that blends in with its 4.3-inch screen -- as a splashy touch, it extends over to the edges of the device. Although we love the accents, it turns out that the corners easily scuff thanks to the PMP's bold edges. Users with smaller hands may find that the device digs into their palms when held in the landscape orientation. Furthermore, the device could use some nipping and tucking. According to Sony, it measures in at just about 2.88 x 5.38 x .44 inches (70.9 x 134.4 x 11.1 mm when you factor in the bezel and folds).

The design lends itself so well to gaming that we're disappointed it's not a PlayStation-certified device

Although the chipped edges left us wanting more in the way of durability, the back of the Z has a slight contour, making it a dream to hold in the hands, especially in landscape mode. The design lends itself so well to gaming that we're disappointed it's not a PlayStation-certified device. We have to say, though, it's not particularly svelte, with a thickness of about 11mm at its pudgiest points. Surprisingly, that curvy shape didn't impede our holding the player in portrait, as we found ourselves planting our fingers on the sides instead.

Taking a tour around the device, there's a power button up top, while the right side is home to the volume rocker, micro-HDMI socket and "W.Control" launcher. Considering this is a media player, we were disappointed with the feel of the rocker. On our unit, it was slightly slanted toward the up position, making it feel almost stuck in place compared to the throw of the volume down portion. The bottom of the Z is where you'll notice a looped area (wrist strap?), a proprietary WM-port for charging / syncing and a reinforced 3.5mm headphone jack. All of the ports lend themselves well to tight connections, ensuring our cables didn't easily shift out of place. The headphone jack does bulge out a few millimeters from the back and the bottom, but we were happy to have the extra thickness in the occasional times when we snagged our headphones' cable while walking.


Around back, you'll notice a smooth metallic purple finish and duo of small speakers, along with a recessed reset button. Overall, the hardware feels very well assembled, proving resistant to flexing and (to a degree) fingerprint smudges. Although it's made of plastic, in a blind test we'd swear that we had a metal slab in our hands. Noticeably absent, however, are any cameras -- a reminder that the Z is a media player at heart. We're not exactly saddened by the exclusion, but it's a puzzling omission, given that competing devices like the Samsung Galaxy Player and iPod touch include this and still manage to cost less. Lastly, you'll be able to use voice control and record memos thanks to a built-in microphone, which isn't visible from the outside of the device. Don't get too excited, though, as the sound quality there is mediocre at best.

Moving back to the front, Sony's paired the Z with an 800 x 480, LED-backlit TFT LCD. While it's not the best panel we've ever seen, we have little to complain about, thanks to the reasonably deep blacks and pleasing colors. Viewing angles are wide enough to appease two viewers at a time, and it can get extremely bright -- so much so that we found its lower settings adequate most of the time. Although there's nothing in the way of a physical home button near the bottom, you'll find a trio of capacitive buttons for back, home and launching menus. Each responded well to our every input, but sadly, Sony's opted to exclude any backlighting or haptic feedback. The design choice hampered our use of the Z anytime we found ourselves in a dimly lit room. If you're familiar with Android devices, it shouldn't be a huge problem given the muscle memory you're likely to have built up, but even white paint in place of silver would have gone a long way in making them easier to make out in our peripheral vision.

The Z lacks any expandable storage options, which could be a big problem if you go with the lowest-end 8GB model we reviewed.

Another disappointment for many will be the lack of expandable storage. Following in the iPod touch's footsteps, the Z lacks any expandable storage options, which could be a big problem if you go with the lowest-end 8GB model we reviewed -- we had a paltry 4.58GB of usable space to store files. Sure, there's always Sony's Music Unlimited service or even others like Google Music for streaming over WiFi, but if you like your files to be local, then we'd suggest opting for the larger 16 or 32GB variants.

Performance and battery life


Internally, the Z packs an accelerometer, a Tegra 2 SoC clocked at 1 GHz along with 1GB of RAM, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR and 802.11 b/g/n WiFi. Sure, as far as mobile devices go, these specs are fairly humdrum, but they're enough for mostly fluid performance. You'll also have access to FM radio as long as you have headphones plugged in to act an antenna. Menus scroll smoothly, and even graphically intense games run free of hiccups. Occasionally, though, its performance was hampered by app error messages that tended to pop up. The few times that this occurred, every app on the device would simply fail to open, usually warranting a reboot to fix the issue. Even more than that, though, the most glaring issue we encountered were some incredibly slow load times when using the native Gingerbread browser -- in many instances it would take minutes to load simple webpages over WiFi, while our other mobile devices on the same network finished within seconds.



Sony Z series Walkman player Samsung Galaxy Player 4.0 HTC Rezound
Quadrant 2,199 1,651 2,347
Linpack single / multi (MFLOPS) 33.268 / 13~ 17.64 / NA 52.0 / 60.3
NenaMark 1 (fps) 54 50 53.5
NenaMark 2 (fps) 28 NA 35.8



So, how well does it stack up to the bevy of other Android devices out there? Quadrant averaged out at 2,199, putting it right above the HTC Vivid. In contrast, Sammy's Galaxy Player 4.0 only mustered up a score of 1,651, even though its screen has the same resolution as the Walkman -- an important spec where Quadrant is concerned. Meanwhile, Single-threaded Linpack left us with a healthy score of 33.268 -- a healthy boost over the Galaxy Player, at least, though not flagship phones like the Rezound. Lastly, in Nenamark the Z landed a healthy average framerate of 54 fps, while in version two it managed roughly 28 fps.

Sure, it's far from the latest and greatest, but it's certainly powerful enough, functioning fluidly in our day to day use.

Of course, performance means less if your PMP needs charging throughout the day to keep up. Thankfully, that wasn't the case with this guy. WiFi on (not connected), looping a video at 50 percent brightness, the Z managed to stay strong for five hours and 29 minutes -- just six minutes more than the Galaxy Player 4.0 lasted in the same test. All told, Sony rates the Z at five hours for video playback and 20 hours for audio (14 with Bluetooth enabled). Still, Apple claims up to 40 hours of music playback / seven hours of video on its current iPod touch, so it's something to keep in mind. We were usually able to go for a few days without plugging in while using the Z as our secondary media player.

Software


As we mentioned, the Z chugs along on Gingerbread (version 2.3.4, to be exact). Thanks to the openness of Android, it's many times a gamble when it comes to how much bloatware you'll find on your shiny new device. In the case of the Z, aside from a demo version of Riptide GP, a few pre-loaded tracks and included apps like Sony's WiFi checker, DLNA and media players (among others), we're happy to report that customization is light and relatively free of anything that can get in the way. As expected, you'll have access to Android Market, so loading the device up with whatever apps you desire shouldn't be a problem. Notably, if you happen to have a Bravia TV in your abode, you'll be able to "Throw" your media to it wirelessly from the PMP.


As far as the Walkman part goes, Sony's added some features that aim to keep you using its video and music apps within the device. While you'll be free to use any service you wish, like Google Music, those won't allow for full optimization. Within the home screens, you'll find a widget for basic playback control -- the so-called "W.Control" button on its side will also display a pop-up version of this that's accessible even when the player is locked. Sadly, however, the button cannot be reassigned for other tasks or apps. The pop-up can be navigated with taps, or Sony's W.control, which merely allows you to swipe forward and back to change songs. At best, W.control feels gimmicky to us, but it's still nice to have the option available. When the device is unlocked, you'll also have access to your full library of music.

So, here's the big reason to use the included players: Sony's loaded the Z with a number of equalization options and proprietary DSPs to enhance your audio. Problem is, unless you want to use Sony's supplied goods, you won't have access to any of it -- if you're a big Google Music user like us, it hinders the reasoning for going with the Z in the first place. But alas, such is to be expected running Android, as your options for a music player are only limited by what you can manage to load into it. Specifically, the EQ is of the five-band variety (allowing for two custom presets), with Sony's "Clear Bass" as a sixth parameter. This is essentially a quick way to raise bass levels beyond what would normally cause distortion in cheaper cans, but it's not to say that bass heads won't love it in general.

Sony's loaded the Z with a number of equalization options and proprietary DSPs to enhance your audio.

Past that, you'll notice a VPT virtual surround toggle, which can mimic the sound of different rooms like a stadium or lounge. The virtualization can also be set for a more natural front-facing stereo sound, if you're not fond of the side-by-side feel headphones tend to have. We can't say that we used VPT very often, but we're still glad the option was there. And that's not all. There's DSEE (a setting to enhance the treble in lower quality files), Clear Stereo (a basic stereo expander) and a Dynamic normalizer to even out the levels between songs. Lastly, there are two options for enhancing the built-in speakers: xLoud and Clear Phrase. The former allows the speakers to gain a boost in volume beyond their normal functionality, while the latter voices the audio for a fuller sound. Overall, xLoud and Clear Phrase proved most useful when we just wanted to pick up the device sans headphones -- still, it's worth noting that the built-in speakers won't be of much use in louder environments.


Speaking of the Sony supplied music app, you may be wondering "Well, is it any good?" The short answer is yes. It loads quickly and movement within it is snappy and free of lag -- swiping up from the bottom brings up a the basic playback controls similar to the home screen widget. You'll have a basic choice between list and grid view for your music, but if you want something more visual the Cover art view scatters your albums across the screen. From here you'll be able to flick the covers around, however, it feels like a jumbled mess regardless of how smooth it is. Lastly, Sony's loaded the player with SenseMe channels -- think iTunes Genius. Based on 12 tonalities, the feature can listen through your library and sort it under categories like "Emotional" and "Extreme." As smooth as Music Player was, we still found ourselves opting to use Google Music despite its lack of sound customization options.

The reason is simple, too: Sony supplies MediaGo software for syncing music and media Windows PCs, but Mac users currently aren't receiving any of that love, leaving USB drag and drop as the only option. Thankfully, the PMP is smart enough to sort everything out on its own, but that doesn't make the process feel any less archaic. This is a big problem with the player, as it makes it less compelling for folks using Google Music or iTunes to switch over to device that makes basic syncing a real pain -- not everyone will want to use Music Unlimited or Walkman apps when the device is open for business with others.

Sound

Unless we have you completely wrong, you'll mainly be using the Walkman for listening to music. Agreed so far? Good. The Wakman's voicing is slightly crisper and more tightly focused than what we've heard from other devices we have lying around, including the iPhone 3GS. Sony refers to the internal digital amplifier as its S-Master MX. The Z really shines when paired with a solid set of headphones, and with that said, it reminded us of Sony's MDR-NC200D. Make no mistake, this Walkman sounds exciting and full-bodied, and while it may not be up to snuff for those eyeing devices from companies Cowon, it easily trumps our experience with Samsung's Galaxy Player 4.0. For anyone curious about its supported formats, you'll be limited to WMA, MP3, Linear-PCM and AAC-LC (no good vibes for FLAC and the like, and of course there are always third-party apps).

The Z really shines when paired with a solid set of headphones.

If you're not rocking your own set of earbuds, Sony's included set does a decent job of funneling sounds into your ear canals. The bottom line is that they're a cheap set of moderately comfortable 'buds that easily trump what you'll get from the bitten fruit -- just don't expect to be blown away by the fidelity. They'll push out a fair amount of bass, but you'll be dealing with tinny highs. The PMP's built-in speakers are also nothing to phone home about, but they do prove useful in a pinch, especially for watching videos and playing games. Thanks to those DSPs Sony's thrown in, you'll be able to cleanly boost the volume beyond normal limits as we mentioned earlier.

Configurations and the competition

So, now that we've spent over 2,000 words discussing the player, let's talk about your options for ordering one and how it stacks up to a few other key players on the market. In the US, at least, the only choices you'll have include the color you see here, and storage flavors of 8GB ($250), 16GB ($280) and 32GB ($330).

When we talk about the Walkman Z's competition, we're really referring to two devices: the iPod touch and the Android-based Galaxy Player. Starting with Samsung's contender, you'll have a choice of a 4- or 5-inch screen, not to mention expandable storage (both ship with 8GB of internal space). Despite being priced slightly lower ($230 / $270), its performance is poor enough that we recommend leaving this one on the shelf. Bring the iPod touch into the fray, though, and the Walkman suddenly gets some more serious competition -- something to think about considering it's been unchanged for well over a year now. With a starting price of $200 for 8GB, the touch is simply a better buy, with all the benefits of iTunes integration, plus a higher-res, 960 x 640 display and dual cameras for photos, filming and video chat. Meanwhile, extreme audiophiles can always go with the Cowon D3, but its out-of-box file-compatibility and pleasing performance comes at the expense of a heavily skinned version of Android.

Wrap-up


Sony's Walkman Z has left us in a bind of sorts. The PMP has a lot of good in it when you stack it up against a direct competitor like the Samsung Galaxy Player 4.0, but it's not without a notable amount of minor annoyances. The hardware looks and feels great, but then you're left with palm-pushing edges that love to get scuffed. The on-board DSP and Walkman controls are great, but they only function if you use Sony's apps for your music. The list goes on, but surely, you get the gist.

So here's where that leaves us: if you've gotta have a moderately powerful Android PMP focused on music listening and don't mind non-user expandable storage, we'd certainly recommend the Z over Samsung's Galaxy Player. Even if you're not going to use Sony's supplied services and sound-shaping options, the Z sounds fantastic even when you're using other music apps.
As far as PMPs in the land of Androids go, though, the Z is a powerful option that's sure to please. On the flip side, with the iPod touch costing $50 less despite its extra features -- namely, twin cameras -- the Walkman is going to be a hard sell for folks in search of a solid, all-purpose media player.
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Sony

Sony Z Series Walkman Player

Pros

  • Impressive audio quality
  • Tegra 2 provides snappy performance
  • Plethora of sound options w/ Sony apps

Cons

  • Hardware chips easily
  • Walkman features limited to included apps
  • Relatively expensive
  • No transfer software for Macs
Summary

Despite a few quirks, the Walkman Z is a solid choice for those seeking a PMP running (nearly) vanilla Android.