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Sony Vaio Pocket VGF-AP1L digital music player

Does colour screen + touch-sensitive control pad = iPod killer?

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Reg review You have to hand it to Sony. Having allowed Apple's iPod to take the lead in the hard drive-based portable digital music player market, the Japanese consumer electronics giant is battling hard to win it back. It's not pinning its hopes to one product but several. August saw the release of the NW-HD1 Network Walkman, and in October Sony will ship the Vaio-branded 20GB VGF-AP1. The Register took a look at a pre-production 40GB model, the VGF-AP1L.

It's undoubtedly a neat design. Early photos of the product suggested a bulky, ugly-looking thing. In the 'flesh' it turns out to be a compact unit about the size of a digital camera or an early iPod. Its design and construction shout out quality, leaving most rivals looking and feeling cheap and plasticky.

Sony Vaio Pocket VGF-AP1L

The landscape-oriented player's showpieces are a 2.2in, 320 x 256 colour display and what's perhaps the oddest control mechanism I've ever seen. Sony's GeSense is essentially a bumpy trackpad whose surface is mapped directly onto the display to control the cursor. Put your finger on the top left of the pad, and that's where the cursor appears on the screen.

The base of the unit is home to a proprietary connector that hooks up to the Vaio Pocket's docking cradle and provides pass-through for power, USB and line-out ports on the back of the dock. On top of the player sits a power slide-switch, which when pushed in the other direction locks the unit's controls. It's a nice systen but I found it too easy to turn the player off when you unlock it.

The remote control and earphone jack are on the top, too. The bundled phones come with a woefully short cable, so using the remote is de rigueur. Its three-line LCD provides the usual track data and the player's hierarchical menu, though the buttons are fiddly to use.

In your hand, the player feels solid but not heavy - it's 195g - and the matt dark silver-grey finish gives it a mid-range hi-fi feel. One end is rather thicker than the other thanks to a shiny black metal screw-on cover protecting the engineer-removable rechargeable battery.

Got the music in me

Like other Sony music players, the Vaio Pocket uses ATRAC 3 Plus, the latest incarnation of the audio format developed by Sony for its MiniDisc system. There's no doubt that it's a fine format, and with the accompanying earphones, the sound was crisp, with good detail and depth.

Any MP3s and WAVs you have can be copied across too, but Sony's SonicStage 2.0 software transcodes them as they go, into 48Kbps ATRAC 3 Plus. Ripping songs from CD offers more choice: a lossless PCM compressed format, ATRAC 3 at 66, 105 or 132Kbps, or ATRAC 3 Plus at 48, 64 or 256Kbps. Unlike iTunes, CD name searching isn't built in - you have to register separately in order to automatically grab album, artist and track titles, and other information.

Transfer is fast using USB 2.0. Conversion adds an overhead, but it's not as slow as I'd anticipated. The mass transfer of MP3s will take longer, but it's by no means impractical to maintain MP3s on your hard drive and live with the format conversion overhead.

More of an issue is the 48Kbps restriction. Transcoding from a higher bitrate down to a lesser one inherently yields a quality reduction, so it makes sense to allow users to choose the bitrate that works best for them. I ripped some CDs to a range of ATRAC 3 and ATRAC 3 Plus bit rates, and found 64Kbps to be an adequate baseline - sort of 128Kbps MP3 level. I'd have liked to have had the choice of transcoding MP3s to at least that level, if not higher.

64Kbps is certainly not hi-fi, but I found it fine for listening on the move or even in a reasonably quiet room. Audiophiles may protest, but they can rip CDs to a lossless PCM format, which the Sony player also supports. The higher rip rates provide scope for better quality music at the cost of lowering the overall capacity.

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