The Sony NWZ range offers some of the best non-Apple MP3 players around, but its names do Sony no favours. NWZ-A865 and NWZ-S675 are about as memorable as the titles for various shades of grey on a paint chart. It's hard to get too excited about an MP3 player called the Sony NWZ-B173, but it has features that make it worth remembering, especially for sporty types.
The Sony NWZ-B173 is a slightly higher-end looking alternative to the B162, reviewed last year. But the basics are the same. It's roughly the size of a cigarette lighter elongated by a centimetre or two and one end pops off to reveal a full-size USB socket. Jam this into your PC and you can drag 'n' drop music files, and charge the internal battery. Sony has sensibly made the end cap fairly resistant to being pulled off, but losing the thing remains one of the top concerns with this little 27g musical stick.
A key feature of the NWZ-B173 is that it's calibrated to charge very quickly at the outset, giving around 90 minutes' use off a three minute charge. We got more than an hour's play after a sub-5min charge, starting from a completely empty battery, confirming these claims.
Its charge-and-go style makes the device an obvious choice for one key group - runners. Never again will you have to put off a jog for a half-hour while you wait for your iPod to charge. The baton-like shape is also perfect for runners or gym folk. Its edges are curved, making it comfortable to hold, and it fits snugly into your grip - a full fist's worth.
The 3.5mm headphone jack sits on the cap-less end, so it won't get in the way in this scenario either. You do need to readjust your grip to change tracks, though.
Fast-forwarding and skipping tunes is handled by a wheel that sits just before the removable cap. It sticks out from the sides of the body a little, and is ridged to make operating it blind a cinch. The play-pause button sits in the middle of this wheel, and it once again thinks about people not needing their eyes, with a little dimple protrusion on top.
It works fairly well, and the track-change wheel feels strong enough, but depending on which part of the menu you're in, it can feel as though you're pressing the counter-intuitive direction. That's the problem with using a more context-sensitive approach like this, rather than buttons with dedicated functions.
Also on the body are volume controls, a button that controls the bass boost and Zappin function - more on that later - a voice recorder button, menu key and hold slider. On its bottom are holes to fit a lanyard and belt blip. Once again - good for sporty types.
The Sony NWZ-B173 isn't a big step forward functionality-wise compared to the other NWZ players we've reviewed in the past 12 months, but it does feel and look a good deal better. The colour finish along its front looks a cut above most budget players, with a translucent top layer that adds the appearance depth to the surface, and the superior styling puts the slightly cheaper NWZ-B162 to shame.
Several features that will be important to many are still missing, though. There's no FM radio, memory is non-expandable and format support is pretty poor - missing out on things like OGG, FLAC and other such audio nut faves. The one non music-related extra is voice recording, which uses the mic on the back. Tap the voice recorder button and it'll take you instantly to the voice recorder section, which dumps files to a separate folder within the internal memory.
There's 4GB of internal memory, which is enough for thirty or so albums encoded at decent quality. But if you want greater flexibility, the Sandisk Sansa Clip Zip 4GB edition costs around the same - and can hack lossless files, has a radio and expandable memory. However, the Sony offers 10 hours more battery life off a charge - 18, rather than eight. Along with the player itself, the NWZ-B173 comes with a pair of non-isolating earbuds - very basic fare.