Just last year it was hard to believe that Sony's Walkman brand had ever had the same cachet as Apple's iPod. Shackled by proprietary standards and wretched software, Sony's digital music players couldn't compete no matter how good the sound quality or attractive the styling was. Last year Sony finally saw sense, abandoned the awful SonicStage and embraced the world of Windows Media Player and Drag and Drop.
We loved the NWZ-A815 and liked the over-priced NWZ-A829, hoping that the stage was set for a renaissance of the Walkman's fortunes, but against very stiff competition from iRiver, SanDisk, Cowon and Apple, this latest generation certainly has its work cut out.
The new line-up is split into three ranges - the gorgeous, slimline S series, the entry level B series and the one this player belongs to, the mid-range E series. While the S series is the designer line you can hardly describe the E436F as an ugly chub-monster; less than 9mm thick and three and a half inches high, it's a nice compact player with a metal chassis finished in a mix of gloss and matt plastics. Our review unit came in black, but red, pink and blue models are available if you prefer a dash of colour.
Build quality is excellent, the 2in screen doesn't seem prone to smudging or scratching and the player exudes a sense of durability that many of its less expensive rivals would struggle to match. But before this turns into a puff piece we can still find something to moan about in the physical design: the use of a nasty proprietary USB connector when there's plenty of room for a standard mini-USB port. Curse you, Sony, for giving us another little black cable for us to lose!
Sony has stuck with its tried and tested controls, with a four-way D-pad surrounding the play/pause button, back and option buttons on either side and a volume rocker on the side. There's nothing really exciting about the GUI, based on a simple grid of function shortcuts leading to lists (with image and album artwork thumbnails) for your audio, photo and video content, but it works.
There's no difficulty in scrolling through via alphabetized lists for album, artist, genre etc. to find individual tracks, and if all else fails you can always search folder by folder. The only fly in the ointment is, as in the last generation, that you can't create playlists or queue up tracks on the device itself; you need to set them up in Media Player first.