The biggest change over the HD3 though is the design. While the iPod display is now colour, Sony has yet to enter that territory and has gone for a dot matrix with white text on a black background. This looks rather smart though not quite as easy on the eye as the iPod display. It can also be reversed (black on white background) but this didn’t look right to me. Of course this may well depend on the colour of your unit. While my review sample was a cool slab of black the NW5 can also be picked up in silver and rather differently, in red.
The display is seven lines long providing plenty of room for displaying information such as the track name, album, genre and bit-rate among other things, at the same time. Underneath the screen are distinctive controls laid out in a plus shape, with two extra buttons on either side. These have a rather strange plastic bubble feel to them and seem unnecessarily small, which may displease the fat-fingered.
(Update: It has been pointed out to me that many NW-HD5 owners have had these buttons crack, even after a couple of days use. This has not happened on my review sample even after a few weeks but it seems only prudent to alert readers to this problem. A database has been set up for owners to report the issue on this page and there's also a link to a forum thread about it).
One neat trick is what Sony dubs its ‘Follow turn’ feature. This enables you to change the orientation of the display so you can use it on its side if you prefer. This can be done manually, or if you select the ‘Auto’ setting and then turn the player off at the desired angle, the display will then magically swivel itself round when you turn it on again. It’s not an essential feature but its nifty enough to show off to your mates.
Either way the interface is good, if still not as good as Apple’s wheel based system. To move between albums and artist you need to use the arrow buttons around the central play/pause button and though it’s logical it’s sometimes confusing as to when you have to push back and when you have to push up. At first I often moved to the beginning of a track when I meant to browse the track listing but I soon got used to it.
Sony’s previous players were seriously hindered by the bundled SonicStage software, which was simply legendary for its awfulness. Since we last saw it, SonicStage has moved on from version 3.0 to 3.1 and largely is just as weird and unwieldy as it always was. It frankly amazes me that a company the size of Sony can’t devote enough resources into making great software but with some effort and patience it is usable. The great news is that Sony, consumer entertainment giant that it is, seems to have finally mastered the concept of playlists. Previously playlists were named ‘Compilations’ and involved copying tracks over to the player each time they appeared in a playlist, wasting time and disk space. Thankfully it doesn’t do that anymore. Genius.