Sony is a company going through major changes - it recently announced plans to lay off 10,000 plus of its workers (some of those through buyouts), has instated a new CEO, and just had one of its worst fiscal years ever. It also recently ended its Android smartphone partnership with Ericsson, and plans to now produce handsets under its own name. It's a difficult and uncertain time for Sony, and the Walkman Z, unfortunately, seems to be an excellent microcosm of the company's larger problems.

There comes an end to the life of every great consumer electronic. The portable CD player. The beeper. The cable descrambler box. All great inventions in their time - but made obsolete by modern alternatives. Now, it's time for the portable media player to step down.

The PMP hasn't actually been with us all that long. Really only since the original iPod, back in 2001 (I suppose you could count previous MP3 players generally). But the rise of the smartphone has sealed the PMP's fate, and unfortunately, it seems some companies are still trying to get in on a market that's very obviously been terminally ill for some time. And yes, this is going to be one of those deep, big-picture reviews, if you haven't already noticed.

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The Walkman Z is a device that contradicts itself at every turn. It's beautiful (and I do mean that) and well-built, but it's large and cumbersome and has oddly sharp edges. It runs a relatively stock version of Android 2.3, but charges only via a proprietary cable, and has no expandable storage. It has excellent DSP and equalizer controls, but they only work with Sony's music and movie apps. Its size and shape are perfect for playing games in landscape mode, and yet it's not PlayStation Certified. And while its main market competitor, the iPod Touch, has haptic feedback, front and rear cameras, and an ambient light sensor, the Walkman Z has... well, none of those things. And yet it costs $50 more.

Sony Walkman Z Series: Specifications

  • Price: $250 (8GB), $280 (16GB), $330 (32GB)
  • What's in the box? Sony Walkman Z, multipin USB charging and data cable, Walkman headphones.
  • Processor: NVIDIA Tegra 2 dual-core, 1GHz
  • Operating System: Android 2.3.4 Gingerbread (stock, mostly)
  • Display: 4.3" TFT-LCD (WVGA 480x800)
  • Memory: 1GB RAM / 8GB internal (4.6GB usable)
  • Wireless: Wi-Fi, FM radio, Bluetooth 2.1
  • Cameras: none
  • Battery: size unknown, non-removable
  • Ports/Expandable Storage: Sony multipin, microHDMI / none
  • Thickness: 11.1mm
  • Weight: 156g

The Good

  • The Walkman Z is undeniably cool-looking, and very well put-together (if scratch and scuff-prone).
  • The Walkman button with gesture controls is pretty neat.
  • Its large size makes it ideal for gaming in landscape mode.
  • The exterior speaker, when software enhancements are enabled, is unusually good.
  • The headphone amp is powerful and sounds good, and Sony's EQ and virtual surround settings are well-done.

The Not So Good

  • It's huge. About the size of an Epic 4G Touch, but with a smaller display, and much thicker at 11.1mm.
  • The display just isn't very good in sunlight, viewing angles are mediocre.
  • Storage space is abysmal in the base model (4.6GB usable), and non-expandable.
  • A proprietary charging cable on something that's basically an Android phone without the phone parts? Really?
  • A $250 pricetag isn't going to have these things flying off the shelves, especially considering the comparable iPod Touch is $50 cheaper.
  • The unlit capacitive keys are literally impossible to see in low light, and no haptic feedback makes them even harder to find.

Hardware / Build Quality

The Walkman Z is definitely a cool-looking piece of kit, and compared to the pretty-undeniably-ugly XPERIA Ion, it makes me wonder why Sony doesn't take its smartphones in this design direction. The royal blue rear cover just looks kind of awesome against those painted black metal accents on the sides.

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As you can see, that awesome blue rear cover (which is plastic) also gets scratched up really easily - and so do the Walkman Z's oddly sharp corners. For something that's getting tossed into bags and generally designed to be portable (and, I imagine difficult to find a case for), it's a bit disheartening that the Walkman Z isn't a little more rugged. Still, the Walkman is extremely solid, and does feel very well put-together - something Sony's XPERIA division could learn from.

Another problem with the Walkman Z is that it's just so damn big. While its 4.3" display is average by contemporary standards, the Walkman Z is both very noticeably wider and longer than my Motorola DROID BIONIC, which also has a 4.3" display. The Walkman Z is 133mm x 70mm, making it 3mm longer and as wide as an Epic 4G Touch (which has a 4.52" display), if that gives you a sense of size. This makes it great for gaming in landscape mode (lots of non-screen space for your thumbs), but the Walkman Z isn't even PlayStation Certified. What gives, Sony? It's also a decidedly chunky device for something not packing a cell radio, at 11.1mm thick.

As for more functional hardware, the Walkman Z doesn't have much exciting going on. An HDMI-out port for mirroring is a nice touch, but the proprietary multi-pin charging slash data cable? Not so much. Why, Sony, why? For something big and juice-hungry like a tablet, I can at least fathom the reasoning behind a proprietary connector, but on a phone-sized Android media player? Whether to satisfy Sony's need for proprietary accessory cable sales, or simply to copy Apple's iPod model, I'm not sure, but it's a pointless complication either way.

The Walkman Z also lacks an ambient light sensor, haptic feedback, backlit capacitive keys, or cameras of any kind, which makes it feel rather stripped-down for a $250 piece of equipment.

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The power button on the Walkman Z is big and easy to press, which is perfect for a media player. The volume rocker on my review unit definitely protrudes more on the vol-down side than up, and I'm really not sure if that's intentional. The placement of the headphone jack at the bottom of the device doesn't seem to have any real downsides.

You may have noticed by now that there is one more button on the Walkman Z along the right side - the Walkman button. Its purpose is simple, and it's really just a great idea. Press the Walkman button, whether the device is on or off, and the currently playing song will pop up on the display with controls. It doesn't sound like anything brilliant (and really, lockscreen music controls can accomplish the same thing), but I'd certainly like to see something similar to this on Sony's smartphones in the future. You can also configure those pop-up controls such that they operate in gesture mode, giving you a large target box (instead of a small widget), where swiping left or right will change tracks, and tapping anywhere operates the play/pause functions.

Display / Battery Life / Storage

The Walkman Z is equipped with a 4.3" WVGA (480x800) LCD display. For a run-of-the-mill LCD, the Walkman Z's provides good colors, deep blacks, and gets plenty bright for indoor use. Go outside, though, and things change. PMPs are devices often used while on-the-go, particularly outdoors. The Walkman's display at maximum brightness is barely enough to use in direct sunlight, and even then, only when you're viewing it straight on can you really see anything - viewing angles are just kind of awful.

Battery life on the Walkman Z is basically what you can expect of an Android phone without a cell radio - good. You'll easily get a full day of media consumption out of the Walkman (provided the display isn't on most of the time), and while battery life is nothing to write home about, it's good enough that it's not complaint-worthy, either.

One thing that is complaint-worthy is the Walkman's storage - while 8GB would be decent (and matches the entry-level iPod Touch), in reality, the Walkman Z has even less than that. Out of the box, you'll have 4.6GB of that 8 available for use. That's it. Storage isn't expandable, either. For $250, this is clearly absurd. While the 16GB model of the Walkman Z will only run you $30 more ($280), Sony is already running dangerously afoul of the market-leading 8GB iPod Touch, which comes in at only $200, with the 32GB version costing $300. If there's one thing that will keep the Walkman Z on store shelves, it's clearly the price.

Performance / Software

A Tegra 2 dual-core processor powers the Z, and for gaming, this is great. You can download awesome titles from the Tegra Zone, and generally play most high-end Android games that are available today (not Sony's PlayStation titles, though). The problem is that outside of gaming, the Walkman Z isn't exactly quick. The launcher is one of the laggiest I've seen on a modern Android device, and seems capped at around 20FPS in the homescreens and app drawer. Switching to a third-party launcher will alleviate this lagginess almost completely, thankfully.

Android on the Walkman Z is pretty much stock Gingerbread, albeit with a custom 5-button launcher that includes Sony's media apps rather prominently. It's so near-stock that there's really no reason not to install a custom launcher - you don't lose anything.

Sony's proprietary apps for music and video playback are both decent. The music app, in particular, is well-designed and runs very smoothly, though I did experience at least two instances of it crashing on the Walkman Z for no apparent reason. The movie app has a very limited number of compatible playback formats, but obviously you can download alternative media players from the Play Store to get around this limitation. Of course, if you choose to use apps other than Sony's official music and movie playback tools, you lose out on all the included audio tweaking options (they only work in Sony's apps), which we'll talk about in the next section of the review.

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Sound

Given that the Walkman brand is all about audio, Sony has included a number of very useful sound-tweaking options on the Walkman Z. This includes a 5-band graphic equalizer with 6 presets, 2 of which you can customize, Sony's VPT (Virtualphone Technology) settings, which allow you to set the sound signature to different "venues" (eg, Studio, Live, Club, Arena), dynamic audio normalization, and enhancements for the exterior speaker.

The problem is that these settings only take effect if you're using Sony's playback apps for music and video, which is a sad, sad thing. While Sony's music app is actually pretty good, the movie app is very limited in terms of format compatibility, and that's just not cool. I'd particularly like to use Sony's audio tweaks with something like Pandora, which streams at a low quality to start with, and see how much better it can be made to sound.

On a more positive note, sound does come through great on the Walkman. The exterior speaker on the rear is the best I've ever heard on a PMP or smartphone, and by no small margin. The software enhancements (again, which only work in Sony's apps) let bass come through much more clearly, and smooth out the harsh "tinny" sound you'd generally associate with an exterior speaker. While it doesn't get incredibly loud, it sounds pretty damn good for something so small.

Sony's headphone amplifier on the 3.5mm jack, the S-Master MX, is another saving grace of the device. Even without enhancements, music came through significantly louder on the Walkman Z than most Android smartphones, which isn't a huge deal for earbuds, but very important if you plan on using your PMP with a large set of on-ear cans. The included headphones with the Walkman Z aren't bad (much better than what you get with any phone), but they're nothing to write home about, either.

Conclusion

It's not hard to see why the Walkman Z probably isn't for most people. And it's not hard to see why its very purpose is frustrated by existence of ever-more-powerful smartphones.

But what takes a little more searching to find are the things Sony did right with the Walkman Z. It's very clear that Sony has extremely smart people working on its products, and that those people have come up with some great ideas. The dedicated Walkman button with swipe gesture controls. A fantastic music app with good EQ and DSP options, a great external speaker, and a legit headphone amp. And a really cool looking (and well-built) piece of hardware.

The problem is that the Walkman Z also has a lot of things going against it. It's unnecessarily large. It has a proprietary charging cable, no expandable storage (and a puny amount to start with), no cameras, unlit capacitive keys, and no haptic feedback. It's also woefully overpriced, something Sony can't afford in a market that the iPod Touch unabashedly dominates for $50 less. The iPod touch is also, frankly, just better than the Sony in a lot of important ways.

Sony needs to take those good ideas in the Walkman Z and mesh them into its smartphone and tablet products. The touchscreen PMP is a dead end. The only big company that continues to successfully sell such devices to mainstream consumers is Apple, and in ever-diminishing quantities. Even if Sony were to have produced a great PMP device with the Walkman Z, it probably still wouldn't sell - there's no more room in this dying sun of a market, especially at this price point.

Sony, we all know you brought us the Walkman, and we all loved you for it, but I think it's time to let go of the PMP dream, and focus on a more integrated, "one device for everything" approach.