Sony’s Android powered Walkman sounds superb but has some issues that hold it back from overall greatness.
IT OCCURS TO me that we’ve come a long way. Back in the 1980s, my Sony Walkman II was a prized possession, and with my collection of original and copied tapes, it was my only portable music device. When I received the Android powered NZW-Z1050 Walkman Digital Media Player, I tried to get it connected to the 3G Network. Admittedly, I was distracted at the time but I hadn’t really registered the fact that the Z1050 wasn’t a smartphone. Actually, I’d kind of disregarded the fact that high-end media players that aren’t phones even existed, despite being a regular iPod Classic user.
So… is there a market for a touchscreen media player that isn’t a phone? Apple seems to think so, as do millions of iPod Touch users. The Touch never quite floated my boat. That’s just my opinion of course; people buy these things like crazy because they get access to all the wonders of Apple’s App store (including Angry Birds) and that’s enough to make it worth the asking price. So I see the point, but I’ve got an iPhone, which does everything the Touch does and more, albeit for extra money. The thing is, you need a phone anyway, right? Especially when you’re outdoors listening to music. So why carry two devices? In my book, the iPod Touch is a glorified remote control that you give to your kids to allow them to play games without monopolising your phone.
What then, to make of Sony’s new Walkman? Well, it’s just like an iPod Touch, in terms of functionality, if not in looks, so Sony is probably safe from a protracted legal assault by Apple’s law firm. In short, it’s a music and video player with full Android functionality; bar the smartphone section, that is.
Features, Use and Construction
It’s not really a big old beast (despite being much bigger and fifty percent heavier than the svelte iPod touch) but the form factor and shape make it seem a fraction large, and the abrupt edges at the back of the body feel a little clumsy in the hand. That said, the Z1050 is an exceedingly solid device, with a beefy metal frame, which bodes well for a long life as a jack of all trades in the home as well as out and about. This particular model has 16Gb of storage and runs the Android v2.3 operating system via a dual core CPU. The touchscreen is a 4.3-inch 800 x 480 LED backlit unit. There’s no option for user-expandable storage in the form of a Micro-SD slot. The Z1050 is Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capable and there’s a Micro-HDMI output to allow it to be hooked up to TVs, which some will find very handy indeed, although there’s DLNA support, so compatible TVs can have media beamed to them wirelessly with little effort.
In use, the Z1050 is quick, with the dual processor contributing to lag-free gaming and seamless application switching. The screen is a decent size and is bright but no match for the excellent retina display on an iPhone 4S or the big 4.7-inch screen on the recently reviewed HTC One X. These are a different class of device at a much loftier price tag, however, but the iPod Touch screen is a 3.5-inch 960 x 640 type, so it’s ahead of the Sony as well in terms of resolution, if not in size. Still, in isolation, you won’t feel as if you’re missing much, but Sony could have stolen a march on the competition here with a top-class screen.
The Android interface always made me think I was using a phone and once, out of sheer habit, I tried to take a photo while I was walking around with the Z1050. No camera? No camera! This is a bizarre omission seeing as Apple’s direct competitor has not one, but two cameras and shoots HD video as well. Maybe this Walkman is really just meant to be a player, not a capturer?
Another strange aspect to the Z1050’s Google integration via Android is that it offers map and navigation functionality, but good luck with that unless you’re carrying a Wi-Fi router in your pocket (which is possible in Japan, apparently) or in the boot of your car. There are also settings to change the ringtone – if this device starts ringing, then I suspect you may have some major problems at hand and you’d better hope that it’s a call from above as opposed to one from below, if you get my drift. It strikes me that Sony could have spent more time on the overall integration here, but these are minor points; on the whole, Android makes the Z1050 vastly more functional and flexible than a standard media player.
The Android OS proved to be stable and the apps weren’t prone to crashing at all. It wasn’t all wine and roses though; I had a number of glitches ranging from needing to reset the unit to get it to accept my Google ID to problems with Google-specific apps being unable to connect despite Sony’s own Wi-Fi checker verifying that the connection was up and running. Repeated resets back to the factory default settings solved these problems, but while I’m willing to go with the “well-abused review unit” argument to a degree, this sort of stuff doesn’t happen on iDevices, in my experience and it shouldn’t happen after a factory reset.
In a nod to its Walkman heritage, the Z1050 has had some extra attention paid to its music player side. The onboard amplifier is an ‘S-Master Digital’ type, which is claimed to be only a quarter the size of equivalent conventional amplifiers. It takes the digital signal and amplifies it in the digital domain, using “a simplified signal path and full digital processing” before the signal is taken directly from the DSP stage to the final output without additional digital to analogue conversion.
The onboard speakers bear the xLOUD tag, which is another one of those Sony buzzwords. The speaker is meant to be loud enough to impress all your friends with and to turn you into a popular portable DJ, but that’ll only work if your mates are really into distortion. The speaker is mono only, goes semi-loud like most equivalents, and is no worse than many of the speakers built into this type of device, but it’s certainly not a cut above the rest. So let’s not rename it xDISTORT, maybe xNORMAL instead. The Z1050 has a very effective built-in FM tuner for those who’re not keen on streaming Internet radio stations. I found it to be at its best while I was in a stationary position, where the signal remained stable. If you’re hooked up to a Wi-Fi network, then the streamed audio options are there to replace FM.
The supplied headphones fall into the pretty reasonable category and they handily trounced my bargain Sennheiser MX460 reference ‘phones. Sony’s own four-driver XBA-4 models (reviewed here) beat the Z1050’s ‘phones in every respect but then again, they cost more than the player itself, so they should. I’d say that the supplied ‘phones and their interchangeable eartips will match most sub-hundred dollar aftermarket ‘phones, but a good dedicated player like this deserves great ‘phones, so an upgrade is recommended, if not mandatory.
The W key on the side of the device gives you access to on-screen music controls even when the unit is locked but there are no dedicated external playback controls, which makes this device feel a little less like a true Walkman. Also missing in action is an inline remote, which is a pity, not to mention strange as Sony has made great use of these remotes in past products. With no inline remote and no external controls, users are limited to dragging the Z1050 out of a pocket and accessing the touchscreen every time an unfortunate shuffle incident occurs or if they just want to change the track or volume.
File loading is via the simple drag and drop method with additional sorting done onboard via Sony’s SensMe system, which divides your music collection into fourteen genres based on mood. The Z1050 also comes preloaded with Sony’s Music Unlimited app, which ties into the Music Unlimited service – think iTunes sans Apple and you’re in the loop. This service will be reviewed in full in a separate article.
From a music player perspective, potential buyers have to consider the wealth of iPod docks and speaker systems out there, from budget to high end, all just crying for an iPod Touch to bring them to life. Not so with the Sony, although a 3.5mm to 3.5mm output will work well, it’s not quite the same as the simplicity of a dock. Sadly, even Sony’s audio products are made for the Apple dock. This surely limits the versatility of the Z1050.
The Z1050 is an interesting little contraption, which definitely has a raison d’être even in a world dominated by smartphones. The Android operating system isn’t the latest of greatest versions but it offers heaps of functionality nonetheless, along with access to over half a million apps on Google Play. You’re likely to find an app to get this device to do whatever you want it to do (within reason) and that’s an impressive leap forward compared to a standard MP3 player. There are some rough edges to the Android implementation but none are really all that annoying, assuming a brand new unit doesn’t suffer from the setup and connection maladies that the review unit had.
As a music player, the Z1050 shines in sonic terms with a big-hearted presentation that fully justifies a decent set of aftermarket earphones, but there are limits in the lack of dock support and the absent external music controls. The fitness for purpose really comes down to personal preference here: if you’re looking for a great sounding portable media player with app support, then this unit has much to recommend it, but as a versatile tool that does everything except make mobile calls, Apple’s iPod Touch has the edge. Then again, there are some out there who’ll choose the Sony purely because it isn’t an Apple product. ASHLEY KRAMER