Sony Vaio Pocket VGF-AP1L digital music player

Does colour screen + touch-sensitive control pad = iPod killer?

Verdict

I came to the VGF-AP1L with some hostility - I'm pro iPod, anti Sony's stance on MP3 - but it won me over. I found it far more pleasant to use than I had been anticipating, less bulky and better designed. It's compact, well-built and its audio quality is superb. I liked it.

Sony has a reputation for build and design quality. The Vaio Pocket doesn't disappoint on either front. Consumers tend to be willing to pay more for Sony kit than they would for rival products, thanks to that reputation, and they're likely to pay more than the going rate for the VGF-AP1, though UK pricing had yet to be set when I wrote this.

GeSense is odd at first and may dissuade buyers when they try it in the shop. It's certainly a gimmick offered as an alternative to the iPod's trend-setting wheel-controlled UI, but it works. It's not as intuitive as Apple's UI and you can't use it one-handed, but then why would you? Most folk, I suspect, will spend more time operating the remote control.

The photo option is nice, but again, a gimmick. If I'm going to look a pictures on a tiny screen, I'd rather do it on my ubiquitous mobile phone. Or even my camera's LCD. Like the colour display, it's a nice feature to have, but it's unlikely to be a deal-maker. It's certainly not worth paying a premium for. Particuarly when 90 per cent of the time, the colour screen will remain hidden away in a bag or pocket.

When I tested the Vaio Pocket, Sony had not yet made its about-face and agreed to support MP3 natively. That renders my main objection to the VGF-AP1L - that digital audio format should be the choice of the user, not the manufacturer - void. But even the need to transcode MP3 to ATRAC 3 Plus proved less of a chore, and less of a kick in the teeth for audio quality, than I had expected.

If you don't own an extensive MP3 collection, none of this should matter: rip your CDs to ATRAC, just as most iPod users are best advised to rip to AAC. Both formats offer higher quality audio at a given bitrate than MP3. Sony's jukebox software, SonicStage, isn't a patch on iTunes or a number of other, similar apps. That may limit the device's appeal to techies, but I suspect most consumers new to the digital music world will be less concerned - they'll just get on and use it. Again, it's not great, but it works.

But despite the quality of the product, there remain much better value hard drive-based music players on the market, from the iPod down. There are smaller, ligher ones and/or more feature-filled offerings. Yes, the colour screen is unique and the VGF-AP1L's exceptional battery life is impressive, but neither are sufficient to lift the Vaio Pocket above the crowd. ®

Sony Vaio Pocket VGF-AP1L
 
Rating 70%
 
Pros — Superb audio quality
— Well-designed and constructed
— Nice colour screen with album cover art support
 
Cons — No native MP3 support (possibly... we'll see)
— Expensive even compared to iPod
— Screen too small to make the photo feature worthwhile
 
Price £250 (20GB VGF-AP1), £350 (40GB VGF-AP1L) both TBC
 
More info The Sony UK site

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