Sony takes aim at iPod with new hard disk Walkman

Sony Corp. has unveiled its first hard-disk drive-based digital music player to bear the Walkman name. The device was launched on Thursday as the Walkman brand marked its 25th anniversary.

The NW-HD1 features a 20GB hard-disk drive and is, according to the company, the smallest music player at this capacity. It measures 89 millimeters by 62.1 millimeters by 13.8 millimeters and weighs 110 grams.

The capacity is half that of Apple Computer Inc.'s highest capacity iPod, but Sony says its player trumps Apple's in terms of the number of songs it can store: 13,000 on the Walkman versus 10,000 on the iPod.

However, Sony's measurement is based on songs encoded using its ATRAC3 (Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding for MiniDisc 3) compression system at the relatively low rate of 48Kbps while Apple's measurement is based on the AAC compression system at 128Kbps. At the same bit rate, the Walkman can store around half as many songs as the iPod, which is consistent with it having half the storage capacity.

Sony said that in practice, it's the music quality that counts and that as ATRAC3 is more efficient at compression, it can get away with using a lower bit rate to deliver an equivalent quality.

The Walkman supports only Sony's ATRAC3 compression format, versions of which are used with Sony's MiniDisc players and its recently-launched Windows-only "Connect" online music store. Music files encoded in other formats, such as MP3, first have to be converted to ATRAC3 before they can be played and software to accomplish this is included. Transcoding typically results in some reduction in quality.

The sleek aluminum case features a 1.5-inch backlit display and the on-screen display language can be switched between Japanese, English, French, German, Italian and Spanish.

The player runs on an internal rechargeable battery and this will last for up to 30 hours when playing files encoded at the minimum supported bit rate of 48Kbps, according to Sony. This falls to 27 hours when listening to files encoded at 64Kbps or 128kbps.

Battery life has been one of the biggest complaints that users have had about the iPod and so its no surprise that the Walkman beats Apple's quoted "up to 8 hours."

Sony plans to put the NW-HD1 on sale in Japan on July 10 for ¥53,000 (US$490), in the middle of August in the U.S. for less than US$400, and later this year in Europe.

While the device is the first hard-disk drive based model to carry the Walkman name, it's not Sony's first hard-disk drive based media player. The company has already launched four such devices -- three under its own name and one under its Aiwa brand -- in the last nine months as it attempts to make a name for itself in the digital music player market.

One of the most recent to be launched was the Vaio Pocket. It went on sale in Japan in June and features a specification close to that of the new Walkman: the same size hard-disk drive, the same support for ATRAC3 only, and the same price.

What makes the two different is a better tolerance on the part of the Walkman model for use on the move, said David Yang, a spokesman for Sony in Tokyo. The Vaio Pocket can also be used as a portable picture album, which is a feature not present on the Walkman.

Sony isn't considering a version of the player with a smaller capacity hard disk drive, Yang said.

The Tokyo company is pushing a new version of its MiniDisc technology called Hi-MD at users who want to store less music. Each Hi-MD disc provides 1GB of storage space and costs around $7, making it a cost-effective way to store small amounts of music, he said.

Sony may consider a model with a higher capacity drive. However, it needs to ensure there is a consumer need for such a product if it is to launch one, Yang said.

Updated 07/01/04 9:50AM: Details added about ATRAC3 compression, case design, battery consumption and Sony's future plans.

This story, "Sony takes aim at iPod with new hard disk Walkman" was originally published by PCWorld.

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