Walkman is a familiar name in portable media players, going back several decades. Sony's Walkman Z Series ($210, as of June 1, 2012) is basically an Android phone without the phone, and with a strong emphasis on media playback and gaming.
The Z Series' 4.3-inch, 800-by-480-pixel-resolution screen is big enough for good video playback and an enjoyable gaming experience and yet small enough for the device to feel comfortable in one hand. The player weighs 0.34 pound, which eventually felt a tad heavy, but was fine for casual use.
The sharp edges and button layout make it a little less friendly for one-handed use, though. I have small hands, and my thumb can almost make it to the top corner on the far side, but the Z Series' sharp corners and edges make the stretch uncomfortable. Three capacitive buttons sit on the bezel below the screen for Back, Home, and Menu.
When held in portrait orientation, the power button is on the left side of the top edge, out my fingers' reach when I held the player in my left hand. The volume rocker and the Walkman button occupy the right edge--a location that made them much easier for me to press.
The headphone jack and proprietary charging/data connection port sit on the bottom, and the mini HDMI port is on the bottom of the right edge. The left side has nothing. On the back are the tiny speakers and a reset button. The back is not removable, meaning that the battery is not user-accessible, and hence that the reset button is necessary.
The purple-blue plastic on the back of the Walkman provides a nice contrast to the shiny black of the rest of the device. The design has gentle curves near the top and bottom, which makes the device a pleasure to hold in two hands in landscape orientation.
One feature omission is a camera. The Walkman focuses on media playback, but I would have appreciated having a rear- or front-facing camera to take pictures and videos, or handle video chat.
Performance and Specs
The Z Series runs Android 2.3.4 Gingerbread, and packs a dual-core 1GHz Tegra 2 processor and 1GB of RAM. Thanks to these specs, multimedia playback and gaming worked well. The unit comes with a demo version of Riptide GP, which played smoothly and showed crisp, clear graphics. Every video file I tried--from the included Spiderman trailer, to a 720p rip, to an Avengers trailer on YouTube--played without a hitch.
The screen is bright and clear, with enough resolution to make games and videos look good. It's not a 720p screen, but at this screen size, it looks good.
On the wireless side, since the device doesn't include a phone, there is no data modem. You do get Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth with A2DP and AVRCP. The built-in FM radio uses the headphone cable as an antenna, so it works only with the headphones plugged in.
Headphones are essentially the only way you'll want to listen to music from this player. The built-in stereo speakers on the back produced disappointingly weak and muffled sound.
Regrettably, Sony chose not to include a MicroSD card slot with its player. The Walkman comes in 8GB, 16GB, and 32GB sizes, but a sizable chunk of that space will be unavailable from the get-go: On the 8GB model we had for testing, only 4.58GB were free for user storage.
Sony promises 5 hours of video playback, and the battery seemed to hold up well in my informal testing. The standby times are great too--enough to let me to enjoy several days of casual use without needing to recharge the battery.
Software and Extras
Sony's customization of the Android home-screen launcher and its inclusion of a convenient music playback widget are pleasing. And each of Sony's custom apps has a similarly designed icon, which gives the bottom navigation bar filled with these apps a more unified look.
Sony provides several custom apps for media management and playback. One app is designed to help you use DLNA to listen to music and to view pictures and videos from your home network. Another, the Sony music player, is clean and well-organized. The stock Android music app is available too, but Sony's offering is both more attractive and more functional.
You get additional options for sorting your tracks, including by release year or by folder. In addition, the player's SensMe channels can organize the music in your library on the basis of such themes as Energetic, Upbeat, and Relax. It took the Walkman Z Series about an hour to analyze the 500MB of sample music that I loaded on it and to sort the files into SensMe categories. Sony also includes a five-band equalizer and a handful of other Sony-developed audio enhancement technologies like virtual surround sound.
A link to Sony's Music Unlimited service enables you to stream music from Sony's collection and to manage personalized playlists. The link on the homescreen goes to a Web page that explains the service and provides links for downloading the app. Basic service costs $4 per month, and premium service runs $10 per month.
Sony doesn't preinstall much beyond its custom apps. In particular, I didn't find any productivity apps besides Google's Gmail and Calendar; but with full access to the Google Play Store, you can add anything you might need.
The most annoying thing about using the Z-Series Walkman involves its proprietary cable for data transfers. Part of the beauty of an Android player is the openness of the Android ecosystem; but being stuck with a proprietary cable is regressive--and a tremendous annoyance in practical use.
Sony's included earbuds offer full, rich sound. They aren't especially comfortable to wear, though, and they stick out rather far. They're joined together in that annoying (or endearing, depending on your taste) Sony way where they don't split in an even Y shape. The cord to the left bud is significantly shorter than the cord to the right bud, so that the main cable that connects to the player runs off the left side, leaving an extra loop of cable to run over the right ear.
Sony's experience with audio playback really shows. The built-in speakers may be thin, but the audio quality through a good set of headphones or speakers is strong. Sony calls its audio-processing software S-Master Technology, and it yielded full, rich sound through my Bose desktop speakers and through several test pairs of headphones. And Sony offers a ton of equalizer options that you can tweak if the straight sound is not to your liking.
The Walkman supports MP4 and WMV video, as well as AAC-LC, L-PCM, MP3, and WMA audio; the competing Samsung Galaxy Player 3.6 and Samsung Galaxy Player 4.2 support far more video codecs, plus FLAC, Ogg, and WAV audio.
The Sony Walkman Z Series combines a powerful processor, a good screen, and great audio processing. But if you're prepared to deal with a proprietary connector, a sealed battery, and an absence of expandable storage, you may want to check out the iPod Touch. That said, the bigger screen and Tegra 2 gaming options may sway some buyers looking for an Android alternative to Apple's hegemony.