July 1, 2004 10:31 AM PDT

Sony challenges Apple with 20GB music player

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Sony Electronics will begin selling two hard-drive music players this fall which, combined with its new music download service, will create an iPod-like parallel universe.

The consumer electronics giant announced two products late Wednesday: the $400 20GB Network Walkman NW-HD1 and the $500 40GB Vaio Pocket VGF-AP1L. Both players will be available in fall for use with the Sony Connect music download service, which was launched in May. The devices and the service will make Sony the latest to compete with Apple Computer's iPod and iTunes products. Sony's belated arrival compares poorly with its historical leadership position in the portable music player business, said Susan Kevorkian, an analyst with research firm IDC.

"The industry has been waiting for them to come out with jukebox devices," Kevorkian said. Apple launched its iTunes music download service and iPod devices in April 2003.

Sony's new players join a growing list of devices that can be used with the Sony Connect music service, which executives feel gives them a larger target audience.

"We have the broadest array of portable audio products...we have a complete line of devices at different prices for different lifestyles, collectively leaving us in a strong position," said Rick Clancy, senior vice president of corporate communications at Sony Electronics.

Even the two new devices target different types of consumers. At the current prices, Sony's new players are high-end devices.

The Vaio Pocket is for the enthusiast who is looking for a media player, Clancy said. The device's 2.2-inch color screen allows consumers to display photos and album covers while playing music. Consumers will also be able to offload photos from a Sony Cybershot digital camera to the device, making it a repository for digital content other than music. The device will connect to a PC or camera via a USB 2.0 connection. The device will come with a lithium-ion battery and a LCD remote control that attaches to headphones. The Vaio Pocket will be available in September.

The Network Walkman comes with 256MB of flash memory along with its 20GB 1.8-inch hard drive. It weighs less than 4 ounces. It also uses a USB 2.0 port to connect to a PC. It comes with a jog dial button for navigating its monochrome LCD screen. It will be available in mid-August.

Both devices use Sony's ATRAC3 music format. Using desktop software included with the devices, MP3, WAV and WMA files can be converted to ATRAC3 and played on the players. The Network Walkman will hold up to 13,000 songs, while the Vaio Pocket will hold 26,000, according to Sony.

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Just add Replay Music...
Combine these devices with a recording program like Replay Music or Replay Radio, and you've got a killer way to listen to online radio and discover new music.

Who needs the Sony Connect store, and who wants to be stuck with ATRAC?
Posted by applian (13 comments )
Reply Link Flag
13,000 songs?
Yes, this holds 13,000 songs if you encode them at 48Kbps. I
think it's gotten crazy how every manufacturer wants to one-up
the iPod capacity by lowering their quoted bitrates.
Posted by chabig83 (535 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Dead Walkman errr... not walking.
This device could not be deader if they made it use memory
sticks!
It can't play MP3s and is tied to Sony's music store... and people
are going to look at the disk size (20GB) not the quoted number
of songs.
Sony really have lost the plot...
Posted by (4 comments )
Link Flag
is Sony product manager a suicide bomber?
When I start reading about the NW-HD1 music player (NOT a MP3 player) I saw this: priced less than ipod = Nice; battery 3 times capacity of ipod = sweet; size of a credit card = wow; and only plays music from Sony music store KABOOM? Its dead before they launch it ...
So in other word, Sony expect us either to have a software and change all our music library format to their ATRAC thing, or to go and buy 13.000 song at their store so we are able to use all the memory capabilities... humm that is around $1 dollar per song... plus the cost of the player... final price $13.400 dollars for this "MP3 players"

For real who is the marketing consultant or product manager of this division? he is a genius… how can he rip off Sony like that?... I wonder when they will start making TV and DVD that will only play movies from Sony, or you will be able to see the Sony channel...JAJAJA I feel sorry for them... they use to be smart...
Posted by Guayaipe (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
One aspect alone makes this inferior.
One thing alone is going to kill these devices. The conversion to ATRAC3 alone is going to kill any quality you get off the original tracks. I've yet to see a flawless conversion from one file format to another without a pretty substantial hit in sound quality. Example. Apple's WMA to AAC conversion process. Its OK. But its not great.
I think there is a serious conflict of interest going on over there at Sony between Sony Records and Sony Electronics. In the end I doubt consumers are going to want to convert their files over to ATRAC3 esp when the price is comparative to the iPod where there is no conversion. At least none when it comes to MP3 -> iPod. Once again Sony takes a shot at the hoop and totally misses.
Posted by Jonathan (832 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Vertical intent
Sony's presence in players and in music publishing is not so much a conflict of interest as it is an intent to gain power by vertical integration. If I own the rights to music I have a lot of influence over how that music may be (legally) used.

Vertical industry is a thing of the past, but I believe Sony is tempted by the notion that there is no substitute for a song one wants to hear.

If I have this compelling desire to hear ZZ Top or [insert a current music artist that is all the rage], nothing else will do: a million _other_ songs on iTunes will not satisfy me.

In the end I think this is all a pertubation working against the music consumers' interests: open (not free) licensing and common high quality digital formats would make music fans happier, and sell more songs.

[in my opinion]

Eric Pederson
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://songzilla.blogspot.com" target="_newWindow">http://songzilla.blogspot.com</a>
Posted by (4 comments )
Link Flag
Sony's Conflicts of Interest and Proprietary Formats Doom their Devices
Wow, I wonder who's in charge of Sony's product development. They must be on drugs or going through some serious issues, because these releases have as much chance of becoming hits as you have of fishing a marlin out of your backyard pool.
I won't be all pessimistic, however. Let's look at what these devices have going for them:

1) Aesthetics - Apparently Sony and Apple are the only two manufacturers whose portable music products make you look either like an ubergeek or (in the case of a CD walkman) seriously behind the times.
... and that's about it. Now for the bad news:

1)Sony lost its brand name clout in this arena of electronics eons ago when it allowed the iPod to have free reign for a couple years (yes, there are other players - I myself own only a Creative Nomad Jukebox Zen 40GB - but right now Apple's Godzilla)

2)In view of the above, it's puzzling as to why Sony would choose to stick to a proprietary format (ATRAC3) that hardly anyone besides audio geeks knows of. Apple can stick to its AAC FairPlay regime because it's the market leader, although exactly how long they can keep running a closed system without eventually being relagated to niche status remains to be seen.
Sony, on the other hand, is starting at the bottom rung of the ladder, while Apple is already in the tree looking down. Rather than allow their device to play any of the more popular formats directly, an egotistical Sony requires that all music first be converted to ATRAC3. Naturally, this precludes any tracks bought from any of the other major DRM sources. The only way to get around that is via the tedious burn-rerip charade. Oh, and as if that isn't inconvenient enough, you'll have to convert your ENTIRE library to ATRAC3. I wonder just how many even minor music fans - those with less than 500 tracks - would be willing to sit through such a process, much less those with a 1000 or more songs.

3)Thanks to the "brilliant" synergies of simultaneously being a hardware and a media company, Sony will only trip over itself in the portable media arena. There'll always be a conflict of interest, and as we have seen, the hardware side is usually the losing side.

By the way, if you care enough about the quality of your music, you already know that Sony's proprietary formats have always underperformed.

In fact, I daresay that the whole format issue will be the Achilles heel of the Sony players. This is likely the result of Sony's own ego - wanting to look as strong as Apple - but it will ultimately be the downfall of their music devices.

Anyone out there own an ATRAC3-capable MiniDisc player? How about a MiniDisc player, period? Hahahaha. I've known only 4 owners of those things, and 3 of them were back in high school. Guess how many people I know own mp3 players?

This product release is yet another that convinces me that Sony should stick to TVs and digicams.
Posted by LANjackal (39 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Great product, but no chance
The NW-HD1 is an excellent product, if we compare objectively. It is the smallest and lightest, has the longest battery life, and costs no more than an Apple iPod with the same amount of storage (20 gigabytes for $400).

Manufacturers love to boast about how many songs their device can hold. Obviously, bit rate, song length, and file format determine how many songs you will actually be able to store and how good they will sound.

In terms of sound quality, these are portable devices, intended for use on the go. When you're riding a New York City Subway train, flying in a Southwest Airlines 737 jet, or using the treadmill at 24-Hour Fitness, it won't matter whether you encoded your favorite song in ATRAC, MP3, AAC, or WMA format. Even the bit rate won't matter.

What native file format a device supports makes very little difference for people with traditional CD-based music collections. The devices all come with software that lets you import songs stored in other formats. It's always best to rip your CDs to (uncompressed) WAV format files and store the files in a permanent media library. (IDE hard drives cost about 60 cents per gigabyte today, and you can get removable trays for about $10 each.) When you buy a new device, use the manufacturer's software to copy and convert your media library to whatever format your device prefers. You will never be tied to a specific format.

If you buy music from an online store, the music is already compressed, so it makes sense to use a device with native support for the chosen format. If you have a large library from Apple's iTunes store, stick with Apple devices. If you have a large library from Sony's Connect store, stick with Sony devices. If you have a large library of WMA or MP3 files, stick with devices that play those formats directly (for WMA, the Dell DJ is one example; for MP3, the Apple iPod is one example). Buying music online is a stupid idea, because it ties you to a specific (compressed) format. Switching from one (compressed) format to another is not always possible, and if it is, there will be significant loss of sound quality.

Back to the Sony NW-HD1...

Sony's having a good product won't matter, for three reasons.

1. Apple got there first. Though there is no price difference between the Sony NW-HD1 (20 GB) and the 20 GB Apple iPod, people are more likely to recognize, and know about, the iPod.

2. Apple cultivated a "hip" image. As one person put it, the iPod "gets me chicks". Many people would be perfectly happy with the Dell DJ, but they will spend several hundred dollars more because of Apple's cachet. (If the Sony NW-HD1 ever achieves significant recognition in the marketplace, the same complaint will apply to Sony.)

3. Apple's iTunes music store has been selling people music in a format that no one else supports. Owners of first-generation iPods with small hard drives and dying batteries might want to switch to another manufacturer, but it will not be easy for them to convert their existing music collections. (The same complaint will apply to Sony's Connect music store.)

Here's an objective comparison of the key players in the high-capacity hard-drive based digital music player market:

WEIGHT
7.6 ounces - Dell DJ, 15 or 20 GB
6.2 ounces - Apple iPod, 40 GB
5.2 ounces - Apple iPod, 15 or 20 GB
3.8 ounces - Sony NW-HD1, 20 GB

SIZE (volume = length x width x height)
17.6 cubic inches - Dell DJ
7.1 cubic inches - Apple iPod, 40 GB
6.1 cubic inches - Apple iPod, 15 or 20 GB
4.7 cubic inches - Sony NW-HD1

BATTERY LIFE
8 hours - Apple iPod
20 hours - Dell DJ
30 hours - Sony NW-HD1

PRICE
$499 - Apple iPod, 40 GB
$400 - Sony NW-HD1, 20 GB, 20 GB
$399 - Apple iPod, 20 GB
$279 - Dell DJ, 20 GB, regular price
$223 - Dell DJ, 20 GB, sale price
$199 - Dell DJ, 15 GB

Here's a link to a picture of the Sony NW-HD1:

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://news.sel.sony.com/digitalimages/photo?photo_id=164037" target="_newWindow">http://news.sel.sony.com/digitalimages/photo?photo_id=164037</a>
Posted by rpms (96 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Standard Format
I must admit, I've always been a fan of Sony's products and when I saw the pictures of these new hard-disk based players i knew I had to have one. But one thing puts me off - the proprietary ATRAC format. What the music industry needs is an industry-wide standard format. What we're seeing now is a situation similar to the VHS versus Betamax debacle. The consumer, meanwhile acts as guinea pig - some will win and some will lose. The question is, am I prepared to take the risk of going down the wrong path, or shall I play it safe and buy a music player that plays non-proprietary formats? Sorry Sony, but I've fallen in love with someone else.
Posted by justinbrotherton (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
It had potential
When I first same some of the specs, it really looked like this
product had promise. I've always liked Sony hardware, the build
quality and technical content have always been top notch.
Looking a little closer, there are a few things that change the
Walkman HD from hero to zero.

The fact that any and all tracks are changed to ATRAC3 is the
biggest and worst problem. No MP3 support is a massive turn
off, as it's the single biggest format out there. I always use MP3
at 160 kbps rather than a proprietary format when I rip CDs,
because I know that it'll play on anything (well, it did). I
download (legally) at work and use a flash stick to take it home.
If I was to have this player, I'd have to use the Sony Connect
jukebox at home and at work.

Which is the other thing, the Sony software is terrible. I tried it, I
hated it, I binned it. iTunes works a heck of a lot better. Until
Sony revamps it so it's as easy to use as iTunes, it'll never take
off, except for people that have a Sony player and have no
choice. They'll also need to bring out a Mac client, as it's still Win
only.

The one big advantage that Sony have is the battery life, but if
Apple manage to find a better energy unit, they'll be ahead of
the pack again.

I have a Minidisc player, but it just doesn't cut the mustard any
more. Sony would have been better introducing a MD peripheral
that connects via USB or Firewire to record MDs from PC at
speed.

When all's said, I think I'll spend my annual bonus on an iPod.
Posted by krosha--2008 (5 comments )
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