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Reg Kit Watch Sony today announced yet another attempt to displace the iPod from the top of the digital music hardware charts.

But unlike the clunky-looking players launched in the Japanese market, the European model appears a serious challenger for Apple's market leadership.

The NW-HD1 is a "credit card-sized" 8.9 x 6.2 x 1.4cm unit fitted with a 20GB 1.8in hard drive. There's enough RAM on board to provide 25 minutes of skip-free playback. There's a seven-line LCD for track information and player status data.

Sony Network Walkman HDD - NW-HD1

The device uses USB 2.0 to hook up to a PC running Sony's own SonicStage software, from which consumers will soon be able to download songs from the European Sony Connect online store - which appears to have entirely failed to launch in June, as promised.

Sony Network Walkman NW-HD1

The NW-HD1's primary format is Sony's own ATRAC 3 Plus - other formats are converted to that mode when they're transferred over to the player.

In addition to the NW-HD1, Sony will also release the Vaio Pocket Music Player VGF-AP1, which recently debuted in Japan, though Europe will get two models - 20GB and 40GB - rather that just one.

The player sports a 2.2in, 320 x 256 26,000-colour LCD - "designed to be viewed in daylight without difficulty", Sony claims - and can download photography from a digital camera, Sony said. In that respect, it's pitched more at next Christmas' Microsoft Personal Media Center devices than the iPod, a fact confirmed by its October 2004 availability. It will ship with earphones and a USB 2.0 connection cradle that doubles as its battery recharge unit. Sony claims the Lithium Ion battery will provide 20 hours' playback time.

Sony Vaio Pocket Digital Media PlayerThe device sports Sony's G-Sense interface which maps sectors of the display onto a series of 25 buttons. The handheld unit measures 11.5 x 6.3 x 1.7cm, but the right-hand side rear bulges out to 2.7cm thanks to the battery. The VGF-AP1 weighs 195g.

The NW-HD1 is scheduled to ship in Europe in August. Before then, early this month, Sony will ship a pair of Flash-based players, the NW-E55 and NWE75. Just over 2.5cm in length and 40g in weight, they offer up to 256MB of storage capacity and are each powered by a AAA battery - enough, says Sony, for 70 hours' playback. Both have a backlit LCD and a colour silver (NW-E75), or blue, red or pearl (NW-E55).

Prices were not disclosed.

Sony's been in the portable digital music player for some time, but its lack of support for the MP3 format has hindered its success, as has its preference for its own MiniDisc format. This has kept it away from the hard drive-based player segment, which has allowed Apple and others, like iRiver and Creative, to build up strong market share.

Sony will have to work hard to counter the brand awareness Apple has in the digital music player and store sector, but its established presence in the portable music hardware market will take it a long way. Early indications suggest Connect isn't much good, but the Walkman brand certainly is and we expect Sony's players to be too. Sony's kludgy MP3 support may hinder it, but if Apple can get away with what is effectively its own music format, so can Sony. ®

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