Hardware isn't perfect from a purely features-oriented perspective, then, but under the hood the Sony NWZ-A866 pulls off a compelling performance. There's an FM radio on-board, a voice recorder function and Bluetooth, letting you transfer files from a phone or computer and connect to any Bluetooth-enabled headphones or speakers.
Podcasts are as welcome as music here, but you'll need to use the proper sync software to get them to display properly within the podcasts section of the main menu (as there's no Wi-Fi, you can't download them directly from the player).The simplicity of the NWZ-A866 allows its menu system to stay attractively minimal. The home screen is entirely icon-based, with no text to clutter-up the look.
This will mean that technophobes may take a few minutes to acclimatise to its ways - but we think most of you will agree there's no tricky learning curve here, right? The real triumph of the interface, though, is in touchscreen performance. A combination of speedy system software and a highly responsive capacitive touchscreen make the NWZ-A866's menus a joy to flick through.
Navigating through a music library is handled in standard iPod style. You thumb your way through your albums by artist, album, song name or other ID3 tag identifiers (genre, release year). There's just enough animation in these menus to make them feel slick, without resorting to superfluous visual layers - which tend to slow gadgets like this down. Idly rifling through tracks feels good, feels right.
Other than the responsiveness of the touch layer, the quality of the display helps here too. It's a 400x249 pixel 2.8in panel, using an LED backlight. This gives it a pixel density of 168dpi, which while way below the 329dpi of the current-gen iPod Touch is sharp enough to keep small text easily legible. Unlike the cheaper NWZ-E463, viewing angles are great, free of unsightly contrast shift.
Like the limited storage capabilities of the player, codec support stops it from becoming an audiophile's dream. The NWZ-A866 supports WMA, MP3, WAV and AAC, but won't accept FLAC, APE or (for the real audio crusties out there) OGG. As all of you will have established digital music libraries, whether or not this is a deal breaker should be immediately obvious. We'll cover sound quality in-depth later.
Although the 2.8in screen is a little too small to watch videos of any significant length on, in our opinion, some video codecs are also supported. H.264, WMV9 and MPEG4 vids are welcomed, but other formats such as MKV and DivX simply won't show up. As such, it failed most of our video benchmark tests before we got the proverbial movie projector warmed up.
Fans of more advanced audio and video codecs would be better off with something like the Cowon J3, but the more intuitive interface of this Sony makes it much more pleasant to use. Plus it offers a bagful of periphery features that, while some will find utterly useless others will lap up…