Touch-screen MP3 players are all the rage, so it was only a matter of time before Sony hopped on the bandwagon. As it turns out, it was more time than we all anticipated. The company's X-Series Walkman was announced at CES 2009 and was expected to hit shelves in mid-June, but the player didn't go on sale until early July. The good news is that the final product is every bit as impressive as the preproduction model that CNET got to play with back in May. The X-Series Walkman offers a high-quality design with a gorgeous screen, a fun and innovative interface, and a plethora of cool features--just be prepared to pay for it accordingly. The player is priced the same as the iPod Touch, with the 16GB going for $299 and the 32GB listing for $100 more.
Sony did not skimp on the construction of the X-Series Walkman, which is modeled after a geode with its glossy face and back plates wrapped in a glittering textured edge. The player is made of sturdy metal and has a weighty quality that makes it feel as expensive as the price tag insists. It's not as slim as the iPod Touch, measuring 3.8 inches by 2.1 inches by 0.4 inch, but it's still quite pocket-friendly, and the 3-inch OLED display is nothing to scoff at. Our one complaint is that the shiny surface is extremely smudge-prone and nearly impossible to keep clean given the touch screen interface.
Of course, the fingerprints are easy to ignore thanks to the fact that Sony went above and beyond with the interface, which is the best touch-screen utilization next to the iPod Touch. In fact, it's the only other touch screen we've come across that's actually fun to use. It has the "bounce back" effect when you are quickly scrolling through a long list, and a rather cool and unusual tilted scrolling effect for video and album art that's hard to explain in print--best to check out our First Look video for that. But perhaps best of all, you don't even need to use the touch screen for playback controls. The Walkman has tactile play/pause and track shuttle buttons on the top side, as well as a dedicated volume rocker on the right edge, meaning blind (in-pocket) navigation is a possibility with this player. That's truly a rarity in a touch-screen device. Another cool physical characteristic: the giant hold switch on the back.
In general, navigating the X-Series is a simple task. All of the main functions are laid out as icons on the top screen, where you are free to set any photo as wallpaper for personalization purposes. Delving into the music menu takes you to a list of songs, artists, albums, genres, or playlists, depending on where you left off. A soft key that appears at the bottom of all music screens allows you to choose between the various subnavs for music, including a folder browser option. Album art is always front and center, and you can choose to view by cover art only for a more visual experience.
Indeed, album art is the most prominent item displayed on the playback screen, which also features soft keys for playing, pausing, and skipping tracks. Or if the old-fashioned way of switching songs doesn't appeal to you, you can tap and hold on the album art and then use tilt-and-scroll to visually select another track. The playback screen also offers up track, artist, and album name; a battery meter and clock; and soft keys for pulling up a contextual menu, stepping back through menus, and connecting to the Web for song-related content (more on this later).
Even getting content onto the X-Series Walkman is an easy and enjoyable process, something that could not be said of Walkmans of years prior. Sony includes its excellent, superlight Content Transfer app. It allows for simple drag and drop of media files directly from your desktop or from within iTunes. You may also choose to use a jukebox such as Windows Media Player or Rhapsody. Although the X-Series will mount as a UMS device for use with a Mac or Linux machine, the app is made only for Windows.
Perhaps the most interesting feature offered by the X-Series Walkman is the onboard Slacker app, which lets you get all the free music you want on-the-fly. And unlike with the Apple iPod Touch, you won't need a constant Wi-Fi connection to have access to it. While the X-Series does include a wireless antenna for hopping on to hot spots, the Slacker app only needs access to the network when refreshing station content. Each time you refresh, music is cached to the Walkman so that you can listen to it wherever you are, regardless of Internet access. (In other words, it functions in exactly the same way as on the BlackBerry.)