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After several years of admittedly reliable service, my old iPod Nano (Gen II) was on its last legs. The Ms supplied a replacement, however, over the holidays and I've been putting it to good use. She picked out a Sony Walkman NWZ-E354 , the 2011 model (it's been replaced by the NWZ-E464, if anyone cares). Truth be told, I asked for the Walkman, since I've been rather underwhelmed by the whole iTunes thing.
Besides the obvious - playing music and podcasts - Sony equips the Sony Walkman NWZ-E354 to display both still photos and videos. It also includes an FM tuner if you're looking for non-recorded content. The 8GB device plays back music in MP3, WAV, WMA and AAC formats; photos in JPG; and videos in WMV format. Images, videos and the user interface are displayed on a 2-inch LCD display at 320 x 240 pixels resolution; in portrait format.
User controls include a five-way button, which looks a lot like the iPod master control but doesn't work that way; and an OPTION and a BACK button on the face. A pair of volume-control buttons and a HOLD slider are on the right-hand edge. On the bottom edge is a micro-USB port and a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. The internal battery charges from a computer or wall charger via the USB port, which also serves for content transfer. The battery is rated at 50 hours of music playback time - my experience bears out this estimate - or ten hours of video: no idea whether that's the case.
Sony ships the Sony Walkman NWZ-E354 with a USB cable for charging and data transfer, a quick-start guide, and a set of earbuds. The 'buds are of dubious quality; I prefer to use my in-the-ear buds from Creative Technology or a pair of over-the-ear noise-canceling headphones from Able Planet. There's no owner's manual included in the package; you'll have to download that from Sony's support site. The Walkman family of portable players comes with Content Transfer software bundled; this package allows drag-and-drop transfer of all content from the Windows File Manager, Windows Media Player, or iTunes. At least it does in theory; the iTunes d-n-d doesn't work for me on Windows Vista. The transfer process is more elegant than iTunes for Windows, though you'll have to use the Windows Media Player to create playlists and otherwise manage media.
This version of the Walkman includes several add-ons, suggesting that features and flash memory are getting way too inexpensive. Besides the core function of playing music and perhaps podcasts; there's the ancillary function of viewing photos, album art and video - although on a screen with dimensions of 1.7 inches by 1.25 inches, "view" seems a generous verb. Beyond that, the Walkman also has additional functions; including a Karaoke Mode,Lyrics Display, and a Language-Study Mode. To use Karaoke mode to suppress the vocal track, you must supply a lyrics file; directions for creating the file are in the on-line manual. Once in Karaoke mode, you can change a song's key to shift it into your range. In Language-Study mode, the repeat function lets you listen to the same phrases over and over. If your ear is a little slow, you can reduce the playback speed to "non-native."
A tiny digital clock appears on the playback screen at all times. The presence of a built-in clock allows for setting a sleep timer (timed OFF) and an alarm (specified time ON). You can also choose a song to be played as your alarm. Sony naturally warns against sleeping while wearing headphones...
Frankly, I use the NWZ-E354 mostly for music, occasionally for podcasts and also for FM radio. I have only two or three images stored since the display is about the size of a commemorative postage stamp. Likewise, I have one or two videos; again because they're so cussed small. One very useful feature for my audio experience is a seven-position equalizer that boosts and suppresses different frequency bands, ostensibly for different music genres - pop, classical, jazz. It has four presets and allows the user to create two custom settings. When the equalizer is turned off, music is rather bright, nearly tinny, but the equalizer compensates pretty well.
All the usual electronics capabilities are built into the Walkman; features like playlists and shuffle songs. You can search by artist, album, genre, release year or song name and play all songs off one album or by one artist. Sony also includes software called SensMe™, which creates "channels" by counting the beats per minute of the songs in the memory. If your music is pretty monolithic - all hiphop, country western, or classical, for instance - this might work. For those of us who might have the Dixie Chicks, Traveling Wilburys, Talking Heads, a Purcell trumpet voluntary and a boatload of Stevie Ray Vaughn and Kenny Wayne Shepherd; it leads to some odd juxtapositions.
Besides those software capabilities, the Walkman also has dynamic volume normalization (minimizes volume difference between songs) and DSEE digital sound enhancement to interpolate detail in digitally compressed music files. There are several different settings of the VPT (Virtualphones technology) engine, software that enhances music by reproducing the acoustics of different spaces (studio, club, arena, etc.). It's all well and good, though somewhat overkill given my years of factory work and attendance at loud live concerts. Huh?
After several years of using an iPod Nano, the Walkman controls and interface took a bit of mental adjustment. After a few months, however, I'm used to the location of the volume controls and the hold button - and I quite like the fact that a blinking yellow HOLD appears on the screen when the button is engaged. I like that I can get to the main screen at any time, letting me shift from music to radio to podcasts, by pressing one button. I like the friendly little "See you later!" when I power it down.
Overall, the Sony Walkman NWZ-E354 has proven an excellent replacement for the dying iPod Nano. I was happy to delete iTunes and not have to see it demand that I install Safari and update QuickTime every four or five days. It's easy to use, has a very simple transfer mechanism, and an intuitive user interface. Best of all, I have an MP3 player that will last several days between charges and produces good music. Most definitely recommended.
Oh, yeah - it comes in blue, red or black. Mine's red.
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