Considering that we're holding a Japanese unit in our hands, our impressions of Sony's OLED Walkman will be somewhat limited. That said, we figured it prudent to pass along our initial judgments until the US model shows up sometime between tomorrow and next century. After giving the flashy PMP a photo shoot yesterday, we spent the rest of the day (and night, we won't even front) toying with Sony's most hyped Walkman in quite some time. Eager to hear just how fantastic / horrible this critter is? Follow us past the break for our two pennies.
Design and feel
What can we say? The OLED Walkman (formally known as the NW-X1050 in Japan) looks and feels incredible. The build quality is top notch, and it really hits the sweet spot between being sturdy and not too heavy. There's no mistaking that this is a serious piece of kit when picking it up, and even the buttons are rock solid. We're really digging the size Sony chose here; the 3-inch OLED display is spacious enough, yet the overall player is plenty small to sneak into tight spaces without causing too much fuss. We're also big, big fans of the dark graphite border. Despite appearing somewhat chintzy in the press shots, the look and feel in person really impresses. The texture adds a sense of security / grip when holding it, and it definitely acts as a differentiator from all the other flat-faced PMPs out there.
Naturally, we greatly appreciate the standard 3.5 millimeter headphone jack, but the proprietary Sony connector at the bottom just rubs us the wrong way. Was throwing a mini-USB connector up there too much to ask? As it stands, you'll be forced to carry around a specialized cable (à la Apple's dock-connecting iPod) if you plan on charging it or adding / removing files via a computer. The built-in Noise Canceling switch is a welcome extra, though in our testing, we didn't notice a difference with it on or off. The volume rocker is perfectly placed atop the right side, and the Play / Pause, Skip Forward and Skip Backwards buttons are thoughtfully placed at the top of the unit, providing easy access when it's shoved in your pocket. In atypical fashion, Sony has placed the Hold switch on the rear -- rather than the side or top -- of its OLED Walkman. We can't say we're huge fans of it yet, but we suppose it's something you could adjust to with time. Finally, the single Home button on the bottom of the face makes it dead simple to escape whatever mess you're in and get back to the front screen -- nothing that we haven't seen mastered before, but hey, if it ain't broke...
Without question, the standout feature on this here player is the 3-inch OLED display. Boasting a 432 x 240 resolution, which is a few pixels less than on Cowon's S9 (480 x 272), the panel is nothing short of awe-inspiring. The first time we spotted the home screen, we couldn't help but be taken aback -- colors were dramatic, crisp and downright lovely. It really shines when viewing album art, photos and video, though we can't help but bemoan the fact that Sony has inexplicably crippled the video mode to handle 320 x 240 clips at a maximum in most scenarios. Why, Sony -- why? Moving on, we can say that the actual touch response was nothing short of perfect. Swiping the panel to move from album to album was effortless, and every icon we tested reacted perfectly to even the most gentle touch. So yeah, the OLED panel itself definitely lives up to the hype, but unfortunately we're not so sure a fancy display justifies the steep increase in price versus LCD-based rivals.
Software / user interface
Hardware wise, Sony has generally had a knack for really nailing it, and that's evidenced in the construction of the OLED Walkman. Software -- on the other hand -- hasn't exactly been the firm's strong suit. We're happy to say that the user interface on this device is perfectly suitable, if not enjoyable to use. There's absolutely no lag to speak of when moving between menus, and while we'd appreciate a few customization options, the standard icons certainly get the job done. Unfortunately, the Japanese pre-production model we had wouldn't allow us to hop online or check out YouTube, so we weren't able to check out how well it handled the pressures of the web.
While checking out videos and tunes, we were pleasantly satisfied with the UI. Metadata was laid out well, changing artists / albums / tracks was a cinch, and browsing files was a lesson in simplicity. Even with many aspects in Japanese, we didn't have too much trouble navigating thanks to sensible pictorial cues. We should also remark that loading the player up with media couldn't have been easier. Rather than having to deal with proprietary software (ahem), users can simply drag and drop files from their PC into the appropriate folder when it mounts in Windows Explorer or on the desktop of a Mac (yes, we tried both and had great success).
Usability / sound quality
As for overall usability, Sony's OLED Walkman is leaps and bound more versatile than the litany of alternatives that lack WiFi, an FM tuner and a web browser (in theory, at least). Truth be told, it handles its core duties with class, playing back movie clips and audio files exactly as you'd expect a higher-end PMP to do. Navigation is a breeze, the external buttons are excellent additions and the 33 hours (maximum) of battery life should be more than sufficient for most. As we stated earlier, we weren't able to witness how it handled web content, which is definitely a shame.
One thing that we can't possibly praise highly enough is the audio quality. We tested this player with a range of earbuds -- from the stock ones bundled with an iPod to a set of Westone UM1s -- and we were simply blown away with the dynamics. Hands down, this is the best sounding PMP that we've had the pleasure of using, and sticklers for good sound will definitely be impressed. Regardless of the genre, the OLED Walkman served up crisp, balanced audio. Devout audiophiles will no doubt bang on this unit's inability to handle FLAC, OGG or other lossless formats, but hopefully they'll find solace in the fact that this one does lossy files about as good as one could possibly expect.
Obviously, it's too early for us to tell if the OLED Walkman is a great value or not. We've yet to come across a definite US price for either the 16GB or 32GB model, and we weren't able to test out every single feature due to the language barrier and pre-production status. If the Japanese price for the smaller of the two proves true (it converts to around $400), it still makes the OLED Walkman nearly twice the price of Cowon's OLED-infused 16GB S9 and a full Benjamin higher than Apple's 16GB iPod touch. We have to believe that the MSRP here in the States will be a bit under $400, but without knowing for sure, it's hard to rank the three. Obviously, those who find value in the App Store won't have a need for this player. The OLED Walkman may do music, movies, radio and the web, but it won't ever track down a nearby taxi, figure out what restaurants are around you or call a friend via Skype via an elegant application. If you're into those type things, Apple's iPod touch still has the market cornered.
Frankly, Sony needs to price this one at or below the going rate for the touch in order to make those in the market think twice about how often they'll actually use applications downloaded from the App Store. Between the S9 and the OLED Walkman, we're giving the early edge to Sony; the software here is far more polished and it actually has WiFi, something the S9 is sorely missing. On a more general level, we're just stoked to see someone nail an OLED-based music player, and we can't help but be giddy that more are hopefully on the way from other manufacturers. The OLED revolution may be stuck in first gear, but this device is a brilliant example of why this technology deserves a slot in today's consumer electronics arena. We'll be waiting on pins and needles to hear Sony's decision on US pricing and availability -- we know it's obvious, but the asking price will definitely make or break this unit's ability to be taken seriously in the all-too-saturated PMP market.