Just when you thought Sony had moved on from music players, the company has revived its venerable Walkman line with the F800 and E470.
If you're scratching your head after reading "Walkman," I don't blame you. The term is a blast from the past, but instead of bringing an ancient cassette player, the F800 is a digital device running on Android. That means a familiar interface to anyone who's used the operating system, plus full access to Google Play and Sony's Music Unlimited. The E470, on the other hand, runs Sony's OS. Though their designs hardly break new ground, they will stand out in an iPod-dominated world.
Of course, the biggest question is whether Sony's devices represent a serious challenge to the iPod. Like it or not, Apple's player has assumed the digital music player throne while pushing once strong contenders like Creative and Archos out of the palace completely. And more importantly, as smartphones have become true convergence devices, the need to carry a standalone music player has diminished. So, really, will Sony see great success here? Based on specs alone, the answer is probably not.
With its sharp corners and slim profile, there's no mistaking that the F800 is anything but a Sony device. Indeed, it inherits many of its design elements from the former Sony Ericsson Walkman phones and the company's current drop of Android Xperia devices. Minimalist to an extreme, it's neither uncreative nor exciting. The 3.5-inch display is as small as I'm willing to go for a touch screen, especially for a device on which you'll be watching video. You'll interact with the F800 either with the onscreen music buttons or the standard Android touch controls (Back, Home, and Menu) just below. The display will show album art and the interface will be easily accessible to anyone who's used an Android device before.
Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich is a nice touch, though Sony hasn't spilled the full details on what the device can do. Hopefully, the company will let the OS live up to its full potential instead of stripping features or hiding it behind a burdensome custom skin. Inside is a Tegra 2 (dual-core) processor, which should keep things humming along smoothly.
The F800 will support a full slate of audio and video codecs including MP3, WMA, HE-AAC, PCM, MPEG4, AVC (H.264), WMV, and even FLAC. The latter format (it stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec) is especially welcome since it compresses audio without any loss in quality. The F800 also delivers an S-Master Digital Amplifier, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, and it comes with a pair of MDR-EX0300E earbuds.
On the whole, that's a decent and somewhat original set of features for a Walkman player. Yet, at $269 (or $299, depending on the memory size) the F800 doesn't have enough on paper to entice anyone with an existing music player to make the switch. The promised battery life (20 hours of audio playback and 4.5 hours for video) is just average, and with just 16GB and 32GB version available, Sony didn't push the boundaries of capacity.
Both in design and features, the E470 is aimed at a more cost-conscious market. At just under a quarter of an inch thick (7 millimeters), the E470 is the slimmest Walkman player, Sony says. That's not a record I was clamoring for the company to beat, but such a compact design is great if you're worried about portability. Yet, the downside of a small device is a tiny 2-inch display. That's not comfortable for watching a YouTube video, let alone a full-length film.
The E470 puts the player's controls below the display. The arrangement looks spacious and comfortable with the intersecting circles bringing back memories of Sony Ericsson phones from last decade.
I don't have more details at this point other than that the player comes with "fun" features such as karaoke mode, synchronized lyrics, and a selection of preinstalled games like Tetris and Sudoku. As mentioned, the E470 is affordable at $79 for the 4GB version, $89 for the 8GB model, and $109 for the top-of-the-line 16GB device. Yes, it's cheap, but that's about it.
How will they fare?
If you take away its groundbreaking design (admit it, it was groundbreaking at the time), the iPod owes much of its success to the vast selection of music that Apple later made available through iTunes. Granted, iTunes involves its own frustrations, but its appeal only increased with the arrival of movies and the App Store. Fortunately, Android devices like the F800 can compete on the content front. Yet, with their ho-hum features and middling design -- curiously, Sony's current Android phones suffer from the same problem -- there's not a lot to entice buyers. Even with a required data plan, you're better off just buying an Android phone.