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Sony’s Latest Walkman Easy on the Ears, Not on the Wallet

When I was younger, I loved my Sony Sports Walkman. It was bright yellow, with a gray handgrip that doubled as a cassette door, and it brought the rocking tunes of Def Leppard with me as I ran in my neighborhood. You might be surprised that the Sony Walkman brand still exists today even after the demise of portable cassette players, but the series simply evolved over the years, moving from tapes to CDs to today’s digital MP3 players.

This past week, I tested the company’s latest model, the Sony Walkman F800. Like the Apple iPod touch and Samsung Galaxy Players, the F800 is a connected media player that lets you enjoy music and video, browse the Web, check email and download apps via Wi-Fi. It doesn’t make voice calls, but it does eliminate the monthly data plans associated with smartphones.

The Android-based F800 provides a rich audio experience, and performs most of its functions well. Unfortunately, at its current price — $270 for the 16 gigabyte F805 model and $300 for the 32GB F806 model — the Walkman F800 is simply too expensive. The new 32GB iPod touch costs the same, at $300, but offers a higher-resolution screen, dual cameras and the Siri personal assistant app. The $150 8GB Samsung Galaxy Player 3.6 has the same resolution screen as the Sony Walkman, but it’s slightly larger and comes with built-in cameras and expandable memory.

The highlight of the Sony Walkman is sound quality. The music player offers numerous options for enhancing the audio, including a built-in equalizer with six presets for different music genres, and a normalizer that minimizes the difference in volume between songs.

I listened to a variety of music on the player, including rock, jazz, hip-hop and classical, and I was impressed with the richness and balance in the sound quality. The bass boomed with powerful vocals, and I didn’t notice any kind of distortion.

There was also plenty of volume when listening through headphones, but the bottom-mounted speaker sounded weak. I always use headphones when listening to music on an MP3 player, so this wasn’t a dealbreaker for me. The Sony Walkman also has Bluetooth, if you want to wirelessly connect to more powerful speakers.

I like that there’s a dedicated Walkman button on the right side of the device to quickly launch the music app even when the screen is locked, but there are no physical controls for the music player. Instead, you use the onscreen buttons or touch gestures, such as swiping left to right to advance a track. The app’s interface is pretty intuitive. My only complaint is that some of the drop-down menus are translucent so it’s hard to read when a menu is overlaid on top of another screen.

One fun extra is the preinstalled Walkman Classics app. It lets you select from several images of old Walkman models (including my beloved yellow Sports model) with onscreen buttons, such as Play and Fast Forward, that let you control the music player.

The Sony Walkman supports a variety of audio formats, including MP3, WMA and AAC, and there are several ways to get music onto the player. You can connect to your PC or Mac using the included USB cable, and drag-and-drop files from your computer to the player — it’s a bit tedious, but it worked just fine when I transferred songs from my iTunes library to the Sony Walkman.

The new Walkman also comes preloaded with an FM radio app and Sony’s Music Unlimited service, which lets you stream songs via an Internet connection (it costs $10 per month after a free 60-day trial). Since the Sony Walkman is running Google’s Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich operating system, you can also listen to any music purchased from the Google Play store, using the Play Music app.

The drag-and-drop method also worked for video, too, and the Sony Walkman supports AVC, MP4 and non-copyright protected WMV files. To watch movies and TV shows purchased from the Google Play store, you must use the Play Movies & TV app.

I downloaded an episode of “Community” from the Play store, and was able to watch it in a few minutes. The Sony Walkman’s 3.5-inch touchscreen shows off 800 by 480 pixels, and pictures and video looked sharp and clear. The Samsung Galaxy Player 3.6 has a slightly larger 3.6-inch display with the same resolution. But the iPod touch tops both, with a higher resolution 4-inch 1,136 by 640 pixel widescreen display.

The Sony Walkman’s narrow screen made it harder to watch video for long periods of time. I wouldn’t watch a full-length movie on it, unless I was desperate to kill some time. Browsing the Web and using the onscreen keyboard were also challenging. The screen offers pinch-to-zoom and landscape support, but even so, users with larger hands might find it difficult to type on the smaller keys.

The Sony Walkman measures 4.62 inches tall by 2.24 inches wide, and it’s 0.37 inch thick, so it can fit into a pocket. One downside of the design is that Sony uses a proprietary connector instead of a more standard micro USB port, so you have to use the included USB cable to transfer files and power the device. And there is no wall adapter included in the box. It’s also missing a rear- and front-facing camera and a microSD card slot for expanding memory.

One nice thing about the Sony Walkman is that it ships with a more current version of Android than the Samsung Galaxy Player has. It comes with a number of basic apps, like a calendar and an alarm clock, and even offers turn-by-turn directions via Google Maps Navigation. I tried it out, and it was able pinpoint my location using both Wi-Fi and GPS data, getting accurate driving directions to a work meeting.

The F800 was generally responsive, but at times it would lag slightly when launching applications and navigating between menus.

Sony estimates that the battery can provide up to 20 hours of audio playback, and four hours and 30 minutes of video playback. I used the Walkman to listen to music during a full work day, with Wi-Fi on and email running the background, and the battery only drained about 15 percent. But when I watched a movie, the F800 lasted just two hours and 40 minutes.

The Sony Walkman F800 offers stellar audio performance, but that alone does not make it worth the expensive price tag. Unless Sony lowers this price, I’d recommend taking a look at the iPod touch or Samsung Galaxy Player instead.

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