MP3 players don't have it easy any more. Roll back 10 years to the early days of digital music players and the mere idea of being able to carry around a complete music collection was enough to excite. These days, a music player needs to let you play advanced 3D games and write a novel on-the-go to compete. The Sony NWZ-A866 doesn't subscribe to these rules though. Although its slim, touch-focused form factor is right up to date, it largely rejects the convergence bonuses of the iPod Touch.
Instead, the NWZ-A866 is a comparatively simple music player. It doesn't offer Wi-Fi connectivity or scores of apps, but if you already have a smartphone to take on these tasks, it could be just what you're after.
Not having an advanced OS to contend with also means the player can slim right down without appearing clumsy or compromised. In this sense, it's much like its cheaper cousin the NWZ-E463. However, where that £60 player was a little plasticky, the NWZ-A866 feels strong and solid. Sexy, even. It needs to feel this good though, as at £219 for the 32GB edition it costs as much as the Cowon iAudio S9 or current-gen iPod Touch. It ain't cheap.
The back is made of tough, slightly metallic finish plastic, but the screen surround and side is plastic-coated metal, finished in sultry glossy black. This attracts fingerprints and greasy marks, but otherwise looks the business. Next to the iPod Touch, this is one of the best-looking players around, edging off the Cowon J3 and latest Philips GoGear model in our estimation.
At 75g and just 9.3mm thick, the NWZ-A866 is immensely portable, and light enough to hold in-hand while out on a run. Its body also offers functionality pluses some touchscreen music players lack - physical controls.
Along the right edge are a trio of playback buttons, volume controls and a hold switch. These are deliberately contoured to make identifying them blind - for in-pocket operation - simple. One of the few valid criticisms to be made about the iPod Touch is that its lack of physical controls can make quick operations, like changing tracks or nudging the volume a tad, unnecessarily fiddly. The Sony NWZ-A866 doesn't suffer from such issues.
Here's that proprietary socket. Humph.
Its hardware isn't perfect though. In traditional Sony fashion - as the force behind such proprietary flops as the Minidisc and ATRAC format - it uses a proprietary socket connector, for charging and data transfer. We'd ideally like to see a microUSB here, as it's fast becoming the standard for the majority of small consumer electronics, but its no deal-breaker as mass storage data transfer is supported. You're not tied to any headache-inducing third-party software here.
Physical buttons? Yay. No microSD? Boo.
The lack of a microSD slot is more irritating. In snagging itself the expandable memory feature, the NWZ-A866 could have won a serious victory over the iPod touch. The 32GB of internal memory is enough for around 320 albums at 192kbps, but for serious music fans intent on taking around a comprehensive collection, this won't be enough. Thanks to the fall of the hard drive MP3 player though, only a small handful of devices offer significantly more storage potential - such as TrustedReviews favourites the Cowon X7 and iPod Classic.