Simple, sleek, and understated
The newest series of Walkmans comes in a variety of capacity/color combos. You can go with a 2GB ($120) S-615 version in black, pink, red, or silver; a 4GB ($160) S-616 model in the same choice of colors; or the more capacious 8GB S-618, which comes only in black and will set you back $210. It's not the cheapest player on the block--the Creative Zen V Plus, which offers roughly the same features, runs 30 to 40 bucks cheaper. However, the NWZ-S610 offers a more sophisticated design with a larger (1.8-inch) screen and a higher-quality feel. It's also a little larger overall, measuring 3.1 inches by 1.6 inches by 0.4 inch, though whether this is a good or bad thing depends on the user. It's certainly pocket-friendly.
Below the ample screen, the NWZ-S610 offers a similarly well-proportioned control pad. A central play/pause key is surrounded by four tactile directional arrows, which are used for skipping tracks and navigating menus. Happily, volume is handled via a dedicated rocker on the right spine of the device. The front of the player also houses the ever-handy back/home and power/option (contextual menu) buttons. A hold switch can be found on the left edge of the device, while the top and bottom contain the standard 3.5-millimeter headphone jack and proprietary USB port, respectively.
Easy navigation and easier syncing
In general, the Walkman is a snap to use. This is in large part due to a lovely, icon-driven main menu on the device itself, but we can't forget the absence of the requirement to load music via SonicStage--that's a huge help on the software/transfer side of things. Transferring songs, including subscription playlists from Rhapsody, is a breeze, and the NWZ-S610 plays oh-so-nicely with Windows Media Player for syncing any content. Supported formats include MP3, WMA, and AAC for audio; AVC (H.264/AVC) Baseline Profile and MPEG-4 for videos; and JPEG for photos. If you get tired of your own content, you can tune into the onboard FM radio, which offers an autoscan feature and 30 preset slots.
Delving into the various content menus proffers different results, all of them straightforward and easy to navigate through. Oddly, playlists cannot be accessed through the music menu, but have their own icon on the main menu screen. Within music, you can sort by album, artist, and so on--navigating by album is particularly nice as there's an option to do so by cover art. Once you dig down into the tracks, there's a useful twist-like interface feature. You can navigate down lists using the up and down keys, but press the right or left ones and you're taken through sections, such as 0 through 9 and A through D. This is quite handy for getting quickly through long lists. The photo menu offers a lovely 3x4 thumbnail grid, and videos are listed with their titles and a handy thumbnail still shot. It's a polished interface overall, and it makes browsing pleasant.
Sound and settings
In addition to the various features mentioned previously, the Sony NWZ-S610 series offers various audio and display settings. For example, you can flip the screen orientation in order to view photos and videos in landscape mode ("wide-screen")--a convenient feature. You can also choose to view full-screen album art while listening to music, rather than a thumbnail with song info on the playback screen. The player also has the standard playback modes (shuffle, repeat, and so on), and there's a snazzy EQ section that offers a graphic representation of the presets (five in all, plus two user-defined modes). Then, of course, there are the various sound-enhancement tools--Digital Sound Enhancement (DSE), Clear Bass, and Clear Stereo--which honestly don't do much, but they do offer a little improvement. Finally, there are the surround sound effects, for those who want to feel like their listening in an arena or at a rave.
Sony has never had trouble with MP3 player performance (except if you include the performance with its software)--the NWZ-S610 is no exception. As we've come to expect from Walkman players, the rated battery life is fantastic: 33 hours for audio and 8 hours for video. CNET Labs was able to eke out a slightly less impressive 25.2 hours for audio, and a pretty appalling 1.9 hours for video. Photos look very good on the bright color screen, with nice detail and excellent color saturation. Video is similarly impressive, though we wouldn't want to watch more than 20 to 30 minutes on this size of screen. Sound quality for music was fine through the included headphones, but much better through a pair of Shure SE530s (any high-quality earphones should do the trick). The NWZ-S610 series offers nice, tight bass; rich, enveloping mids; and clear, sparkly highs--what more can you ask for, really?