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Sony's digital Walkman doesn't measure up to iPod

A quarter century after Sony Corp. first shipped the legendary Walkman personal stereo, the electronics giant is launching a high-tech model that aims to topple Apple Computer Inc.’s iPod as today’s leading digital music player and status symbol.

Sony has its work cut out: In less than three years, the simple white iPod has undergone four revisions, each time capturing more customers and acclaim with slick designs, clean interfaces and ever increasing versatility.

For now, Apple has nothing to fear.

Sony’s Network Walkman NW-HD1 is as clunky as its name. The gadget looks great, but it’s ruined by a bizarre insistence on a proprietary file format, a confusing navigation scheme and software that tries to be flashy but is incredibly frustrating.

And the Sony, which works only on a Windows PC and will be available later this month, costs $399. That’s $100 more than an iPod that can run on either a Windows or Macintosh machine while providing the same 20-gigabyte music capacity. A 40-gigabyte iPod runs $399.

I tested the Sony and a comparable iPod. Both work in the same general way: Songs are transferred from a PC to the player’s hard drive through a high-speed cable. Software enables downloads and sorting of songs, as well as access to a legal online music store.

Both players also can double as portable hard drives, but I focused entirely on their primary purpose – music. Both produce excellent sound, and neither skipped a beat as I carried them with me while driving, jogging and puttering around the house.

In a few areas, the Sony came out ahead of the iPod.

The Network Walkman played continuously for 31 hours before its battery required a recharge – that was more than twice as long as the iPod, which lasted 13 hours. (The iPod plugs directly into a computer and can be recharged through a FireWire or USB 2 connection; the Sony must plug into a dock, which connects to a PC via a USB cable and a separate power source.)

The Sony also is physically smaller than the iPod, though not by much. Each is generally comparable to a deck of cards.

But regardless of a player’s size, capacity, battery life and audio quality, it’s not much fun if the supporting software – on the player and the PC – doesn’t rise to the level of the hardware. That’s the problem with the Network Walkman.

I have a collection of nearly 1,200 MP3 music files that take up about 6 gigabytes on my PC hard drive.

Apple’s iTunes software had no trouble transferring the MP3 files to the iPod, which can also play other formats such as Apple’s Advanced Audio Coding codec and others. In all, it took 12 minutes to transfer all my files.

The Network Walkman plays only Sony’s own ATRAC3 and ATRAC3plus formats. Before each song transferred, it had to be converted. The process took nearly seven hours.

Sony’s format does produce good sound quality while taking up less space, but users aren’t given a choice. What happens if the unique ATRAC format is abandoned? Just ask anyone who bought a technically superior Betamax VCR instead of a VHS model.

The transfer to the Network Walkman also was interrupted in the beginning and the end with error messages saying a dozen or so songs couldn’t be moved. They gave no reasons.

Once the players were loaded with music, I hit the road. With the Sony, it was a lot easier to fall on my face.

On the Sony, the “Mode” button on the top of the player sorts all the songs by artist, album, genre or other categories. Everything appears in a green display on the front of the player that’s easy enough to read despite being smaller than the iPod’s.

A menu button, also on the top of the player, provides more options, including an equalizer and the gateway to the “Play Mode,” a cornucopia of baffling icons and words like “Play Unit.”

The main navigation tool, located next to the display, is a dime-size collection of buttons used to scroll through lists and control playback.

The fourth-generation iPod is a much simpler, more logical affair with its touch-sensitive wheel and embedded buttons.

The Network Walkman’s navigation system isn’t the only problem. There’s also the software that resides on the PC.

Like Apple’s iTunes, Sony’s SonicStage is a multipurpose program that imports, exports, organizes and plays music. It also serves as a gateway to Sony Connect, an online music store.

An annoying window-in-window layout features large blank borders, minimizing the real estate available for useful information and links. This is especially problematic at Connect, where there’s little room to show off featured artists, new tunes, song rankings and other information.

ITunes Music Store manages to pack its pages with songs to sell as well as tools for exploring what others are listening to.

Sony’s store also has fewer tracks, 500,000 songs to iTunes’ 700,000 plus.

Finally, Connect-purchased songs have more restrictive digital-rights-management rules that allow transfers to only three computers, two fewer than iTunes. Some of the rules also change depending on the company that controls the song.

The good news is that Sony is planning to redesign its music store and, eventually, its SonicStage software.

Ultimately, though, there seems to be a lot more in need of revamping.

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