Time was when a Walkman was literally your only choice of portable music player. Unfortunately it's not 1978 any more and while they have their detractors, Apple's iPods have become the de facto benchmark against which all other portable media players must compete. That the latest iPod nano differs from its predecessor only by the addition of a video camera (which, while cool, is a bit gimmicky) and a shiny exterior speaks volumes about how far ahead of the competition Apple is, in many respects.
Nonetheless, those not willing to be tied to iTunes, or who value sound quality over a very slick user interface will recognise the advantages Sony's Walkmans offer over their rival. And that's leaving aside the often massive price hike, capacity for capacity, with which Apple's products are encumbered.
The E Series, for example, which is now Sony's closest rival to the iPod nano as the S Series has lost its way somewhat (really Sony, speakers?) starts at around £65 for this 4GB NWZ-E443, with the 8GB NWZ-E444 and 16GB NWZ-E445 available for about £80 and £100 respectively. That beats the iPod in two respects. First, the entry point for the E Series is lower, if you don't mind the limited capacity and second for the same amount of storage, Sony is asking a lot less.
It's not like the E443 feels cheap. It might be made of plastic, but there's a solidity that inspires confidence, so that even if you're clumsy enough to drop the player, it should survive the experience unscathed. A metal finish would, of course, have been preferable, but savings have to be made somewhere.
I much prefer the physical controls to the touch-sensitive ones of the Samsung YP-Q2. Being able to reach into a pocket to pause a track, or change the player's volume, not to mention being sure each press is acknowledged as such, makes the E443 far less frustrating to use than Samsung's player.
Anyone who's used a Sony player - X Series excluded - in the last couple of years will be familiar with the E443's menu system, which is just as intuitive as ever. Annoyingly the player is as picky as ever when displaying album art, so if you've embedded a png, for example, you'll be left with a placeholder icon on the player. It's a minor criticism really, though, as despite being able to display images, the E443's 2in 240 x 320 pixel display is too small and too low resolution to make the feature worthwhile.