Sony Walkman NWZ-E436F music and video player
Budget iPod Nano beater
Review With the release of the A-series Walkman, Sony finally bid a probably less-than-fond farewell to its ATRAC and SonicStage past. Now with the release of the B-, E- and S-class Walkman players, Sony is fleshing out the range.
At the bottom of the pile sits the stick-style B series with either 1GB or 2GB of storage. Next comes the 4GB E, followed by the 8GB and 16GB S, and then the Bluetooth-enabled A line with a choice of 4, 8 or 16GB of storage.
Sony's Walkman NWZ-E436F: Walkman 'nano', in other words
With Apple's iPod Nano heading upmarket – the cheapest model available direct from Apple is now the £109 8GB model – the £69 NWZ-E436F may just be the right player at the right time and at the right price to deliver Sony some serious budget video-player sales.
Design-wise, it's clear the E shares a blood line with the A. At 50g, it's 15g lighter than the A, and at 83.9 x 44 x 8.5mm, it's smaller and thinner too. That reduced size means a smaller screen size: 2in and 240 x 320, down from the 2.4in same resolution item on the A. Otherwise, it's a case of if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
The main controls below the screen are the now typical-for-Sony play/pause key surrounded by a four-way ring control to move up and down, back and forward. This cluster is flanked by Option - read 'menu' - and Back keys, respectively doubling-up for on/off and Home controls.
Not quite a Nano-like colour selection, though
The right side of the player is home to the volume rocker and the lock slider, while at the bottom you will find a 3.5mm headphones socket and a proprietary USB port - not a problem so long as you don't lose the cable. A tiny re-set button lurks around the back.
Build quality is up to Sony's usual high standards, though the predominance of plastic does rather mark the E as a player built down to a price. Yet it's a solid device and should prove up to coping with the punishment any modern MP3 player can expect to come its way.
Decent build quality - but lacking pizzazz
In terms of sheer style, though, we don't think the E is quite as slick as either the Nano or the SanDisk Sansa Fuze. The latter, with its fully flush screen and glowing blue navpad surround, is still one of our favorite players from a purely aesthetic point of view.
The E's basic menu structure is clear and simple. A 3 x 3 grid gives you direct access to your videos, pictures, music, the FM radio, whatever is currently playing, and the various device settings. Just use the navpad to highlight the relevant icon then press the centre key to select. It's intuitive, straightforward and fast. You can't really ask for much more from a menu system.
Format support is limited to the usual suspects: MP3, non-DRM AAC, WMA with and without DRM, MPEG 4, H.264, AVC, WMV9 with and without rights management, and JPEG. Quite why Sony has utterly abandoned ATRAC users is anyone's guess as is its refusal to support FLAC, which seems wholly perverse given that Sony trades on the perceived audio quality of its products. There's no Ogg, either.
Though the bundled earphones aren't in the same league as the ones than come with an A-series Walkman, they still proved capable of producing a clear, punchy and distortion-free sound. Sound modification is limited to a five-band graphic equaliser with five pre-sets and the option to set and save two more of your own.
We found the sound of the E just a little raucous out of the box, but once we moved the EQ settings to Pop, things improved mightily. A few moments' more spent fiddling with the equaliser paid even bigger dividends, resulting a sound that was firm, focused and nicely balanced.
No Ogg or FLAC - or even ATRAC support
Video playback is supported up to 30f/s 320 x 240, and the device can be set to play in landscape as well as portrait, but customers without suitable software will need to cough up £6 to enable the transcoding feature on the bundled Sony Media Manager software. We thought this was taking the proverbial when we came across it while reviewing the A-class Walkman, and time and tide have not changed our opinion.
The E is one of the media players supported by BBC iPlayer downloads. By way of a quick test, we downloaded the 25f/s file of episode 4 of Little Dorrit, and while it was perfectly watchable it did look rather jerky. Still, who buys a 2in-screen MP3 player to watch Dickens adaptations?
The E has gumption enough to load as either an MTP or mass-storage device depending on the host, and for Windows users there's also a handy little Content Transfer app on the bundled CD. This is a small window that can be pinned on top of your other applications that allows you drag and drop content directly from iTunes or Windows Media Player. It's effectiveness is a little stunted by the fact that you can't drag artists or albums across, only the actual tracks, leading to a lot of shift-selecting. But it is handy for iTunes users who don't want to have to rummage about in their iTunes folder trying to find just where the hell it has put the other half of that album...
Sony in 'working well with iTunes' shock
But spare a thought for the poor Sony staffers who had to develop software to allow their Walkman players to cosy up to iTunes. The humiliation must have been unbearable, akin to being sent to a convent school outside Heidelberg to spend the rest of the war teaching the young girls home economics.
The FM radio works well by using the earphones cable as an antenna though it's not an RDS device. The E lacks the capacity to set up on-board playlists nor does it have any sort of recording facility. But ID tag and album art recognition was faultless, and you can also view content by folder should anything go amiss.
Sony claims a battery life of up to 45 hours for audio and rather surprisingly this proved to be about right. We got 42 hours from a full charge, which deserves a polite round of applause - as does out ability to stay awake late listening to music.
So how does the E stack up against the competition? As the cheapest widely available Nano is now a good £40 more - the extra 4GB of memory notwithstanding – the E's obvious nemeses are the Sansa Fuze and Samsung T10. Both can be found for a similar price, though the former comes with Micro SDHC memory expansion and a record facility, while the latter now comes with Bluetooth, according to Samsung's website. We think the Sony is a nicer looking device than the Samsung, but neither is quite a slick as the Fuze.
The Fuze and the Samsung have a slight - and we mean slight - edge when it comes to sound quality too. On the other hand, the menu system and navigation on the Sony is the fastest and the most straightforward of the three. At the end of the day, you pays your money and you makes your choice.
Another solid MP3 player from a company you should really expect nothing less from. The NWK-E436F - come on, Sony, more slip-off-the-tongue names in future - has a nice form-factor, is eminently usable, pumps out a more than adequate sound and has a very good battery life. It is, however, just a bit lacking in what some marketing nerks like to call 'surprise and delight'.