Monday, March 09, 2009

A Walkman-phone

Apparently Sony decided to build on their "Sony Walkman" brand name recognition by making their cell phones, like my new Walkman W350, feature the MP3-playing ability that is now built into every device more complex than a grain of rice, as a big deal feature instead of just an afterthought. Nearly all their promo shots of the phone show the MP3 player screen, and there's external buttons on the phone not for such niceties as voice dial or camera but for the "Walkman" feature.

Unfortunately, they didn't go so far as to ship the phone with enough memory to, you know, actually hold any music to play. That would be silly. More to the point, it would deprive them of a chance to push their MemoryStick format which they cling to despite the fact that everything else uses the SDcard series of formats for the same purposes. On the other hand, 8G holds an awful lot of music for a really low price.

There's also an FM radio built in which is unfortunately only usable if you buy the wired headset (since it uses it as an antenna) and really who still uses wired headsets? Kind of unfortunate to have to give up such a feature, but so it goes. There's even XM radio streaming over the data connection, but as I have neither a data plan or an XM subscription, I can't try that out.

As much as I'd like to grouse about this phone, though, I have to give them credit for doing the Walkman thing well. First, the controls are straightforward and the interface quite usable. It's child's play to listen to an album in album order, to make and shuffle a playlist, and to move from track to track. You don't even have to open the flip: a cunning bit of engineering lets the fake "buttons" on the flip work to press combinations of the underlying number-key buttons in ways that control the music. (The "play/pause" button is a bit too small, it's too easy to hit Up or Down while aiming for it, but otherwise, it's great.) There's even an album art display.

More importantly, the sound quality is great. On my A2DP Bluetooth headphones, which work perfectly with the usual integration features (controls on the headset, automatically switching between calls and music, etc.), the sound is perfect. At first, I had some skipping problems, but that turned out to be my computer trying to talk Bluetooth to the phone every two minutes interrupting things. I had to hack the registry to make it stop! (Advice: never let their software suite connect via Bluetooth to your phone unless you really really need to avoid the cable.) Once that was resolved, the connection is rock solid. My old phone would lose connection even if I had the phone in my left pocket instead of my right, but this one is perfect all the time.

Surprisingly, the sound quality just letting the phone itself play is really pretty good. Tiny devices always have tiny speakers which make tiny, tinny sound. And this is no hi-fi, but for a device this small it's really unexpectedly listenable. I would always prefer the headphones, but this morning I didn't have them handy while I was getting dressed, and a song was playing in my head and I wanted to play something to get it out, so I tapped Play and got dressed. And the music was actually almost boom-box quality. Amazing to get that from a cell phone about the same size as a post-it-note pad.

With the phone on a convenient belt-clip it'll make a great music player on my bike, once spring gets here. (And it can't come soon enough.)

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