The iPod has been around since 2001, and there have been competing products launched from a host of other manufacturers, but Sony was always conspicuous by its absence. Thankfully, Sony has finally entered the world of hard disk-based players, and I have to say that this is the best looking device I have ever seen. The Network Walkman NW-HD1 is stunning, finished in brushed aluminium with a display that's viewed in landscape orientation rather than the more common portrait layout. Even our resident iPod fanatic had to admit that the NW-HD1 looked fantastic, and was far more pocket-friendly than his iPod.
Considering that the NW-HD1 contains a 20GB hard disk, it's incredibly light, weighing only 112g compared to a 158g iPod. Add to this tiny dimensions of 8.9 x 6.2 x 1.4cm and you've got a high-capacity device that's unbelievably portable in every respect.
The display may not be as large as the iPod's, but it's very clear and easy to read. Navigation is good, but not as intuitive or quick as the iPod clickwheel. Instead, you get a four-way rocker switch with a single button in the centre. In a menu, the four-way rocker allows you to navigate, while pressing the button in the middle will select the highlighted option. When a track is playing, left and right on the rocker will skip forward and backward, while the centre button will play/stop.
On the top of the unit you'll find a volume control, and Menu and Mode buttons. The Menu button will take you into the settings menu. Here you can alter the play mode, limit the volume, set the language, format the hard disk or change the contrast level of the display. There's also a Sound option that lets you set the EQ on the device. You can choose from various pre-set EQs, like jazz, heavy and pops (no that's not a typo, it really is called pops), but you can also create two of your own settings. There's also a Virtual Surround option with various pre-set options, but I wasn't too keen on any of them. One final useful feature under the Menu heading is the Audio Out selection. Here you can decide whether you want a headphone output or a line-out. The latter will improve the sound quality when you're hooking the player up to an external amplifier.
The Mode button allows you to navigate your music. If you keep pressing the Mode button it will cycle through all its options, which are Artist, Album, Genre, Group and Other. It would appear that the Group mode is meant to be Sony's version of a playlist, but more about that later.
On the base of the NW-HD1 you'll find a switch for the internal battery that will turn the device on and off, while there's also a hold switch to stop you inadvertently pressing any buttons while it's in your pocket.
The headphone socket has a slot next to it to accommodate a remote control, but Sony doesn't supply one in the box. Considering the price of the NW-HD1, I find the lack of remote control very disappointing. I did try plugging the remote control from my old MiniDisc Walkman and although the controls worked, the display didn't. That said, while I was at a Sony press conference a couple of months back, I plugged the remote from a Hi-MD Walkman into an NW-HD1 and it worked perfectly.
The backlit green display is small, but the resolution is high, making it very easy to read and navigate. You can choose whether you want the display to be positive or negative, but I stuck with negative - the positive setting is just a bit too green for my taste.