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The Sony NW-HD5 20GB hard drive audio player is a solid competitor: It certainly has a leg up on its wheel-sporting white rival in the battery life department, and it has a couple of navigation features that should make Apple take note.
Sony has been struggling to keep pace with Apple's hugely successful iPod and iTunes, but it's been a losing battle.
It lacks extras like an FM tuner or recording, but so does the iPod, and the lack of frills makes it very simple to use.
But despite the player's ease of use, very good sound quality, and (finally) native MP3 support, Sony's MP3 player is still held back by the required software and overzealous DRM.
The stylish-looking anodized-aluminum NW-HD5, available in red, silver, or black, measures 2.
4 by 3.
5 by 0.
6 inches and weighs 4.
8 ounces--significantly smaller and lighter than the fourth-generation 20GB iPod.
It has a very simple button layout on the front, below the 1.
7-inch monochrome LCD, and a hold switch on top next to the headphone jack.
The removable lithium ion rechargeable battery is rated for 30 hours of continuous MP3 audio playback at 128 Kbps (or 40 hours for Sony's proprietary ATRAC3/ATRAC3plus formats).
Whentested with a real-world mix of MP3 files encoded at 128 Kbps to 320 Kbps, the battery was found to last for nearly 24.
5 hours--roughly twice the iPod's battery life.
It also has adjustable screen orientation and shock protection, which senses when the player is dropped and releases the recording head to protect the hard disk.
The menus look very low-budget, but they are quite easy to navigate.
Initials Search lets you jump to songs that begin with a specific letter--a handy feature that other vendors should consider implementing.
You can create standard playlists--Sony calls them Bookmarks--directly on the player, but they can't be edited in the bundled SonicStage software.
Likewise, playlists created in SonicStage cannot be edited on the player.
And the Bookmarks have nothing to do with audiobooks, which aren't supported.
The NW-HD5's biggest drawbacks are the Windows-only SonicStage software and the strict DRM.
You can transfer tracks to the player only via SonicStage, much like with Apple's iPod and iTunes combination.
The installation is a fairly long process and requires a restart, and the software isn't nearly as polished as iTunes.
But you also have to "authorize" the player via the Internet, which involves creating a Sony Connect account, letting you use the player with up to five computers--otherwise, the player is tied to a single computer.
SonicStage supports unprotected WMA files, but when transferred the sameto the NW-HD5, they were automatically transcoded to Sony's proprietary ATRAC3 format.
For online music services, you're limited to the mediocre Sony Connect.
Sony has taken a big step forward with native MP3 support, and the player looks and sounds very good.
Its ease of use rivals even that of the iPod.
But we feel that the software and DRM present too many difficulties, and Sony still needs to figure out a better strategy to protect its vast catalog of music copyrights.
If you can live with the NW-HD5's DRM and software limitations, you'll find the player itself provides a very good combination of ease of use, sound quality, and battery life for the price.
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