It'd be a slight overstatement to say there was a round of applause when we heard that Sony was going to break the habit of a lifetime and start selling music players that were capable of playing MP3s. But it was certainly greeted as a welcome volte-face.
Yes, the company that has made a virtue of its contrariness when it comes to compatibility has finally seen the sense in adopting the format that everyone else uses and that even Apple – the company with the catchline Think Different – has supported ever since its first iPod.
The first thing we noticed about the NW-A3000 is that Sony seems to be going after the girls. This player and its smaller 6GB sibling are available in purple, baby blue and silver – although manly black is on the menu too. Only when you tap one of the Sony's buttons does the rather clunky menu appear through the 'futuristic' (according to the press materials) coating. This is a device with a look all of its own – and it works for us.
Sony warns that installing the necessary software for the player takes around 30 minutes, and we certainly had more than enough time for a cup of tea while it did its stuff. More delays occurred when we started using the device – when you click on the NW-A3000's desktop icon it sets off to hunt down all the tracks already stored on your hard disk and imports them into its library.
As well as ripping tunes from your CD collection or importing them from an existing library, tracks can be downloaded from Sony's Connect Music Store for 99p a pop and, to get you started, Sony offers a free album when you register your player. Once you've got some tunes on your player, you can listen to and manage your music collection using the SonicStage software Sony supplies. This offers in-depth details of your tracks and plenty of control over their playback settings.
The good news is that once you've finally got tracks on the NW-A3000, you'll find the audio quality rather impressive. We compared playback on this and a couple of other MP3 players and found the Sony superior. That said, the supplied headphones are nothing to write home about and the device's cord is ridiculously short. Thankfully, we had a jacket with a breast pocket, but most people will surely want the option of carrying it in their pocket, backpack or handbag.
The Sony's menu is nowhere near as user-friendly or sleek as those on other players we've seen – no intuitive touchscreens or fast track locator here. You can drill down to find pretty detailed track information, sort by various criteria or get the Sony to shuffle tracks 'intelligently', but there's little on offer that other players lack.
More worryingly, the Hold button works only when the player is in use and the NW-A3000 was rather prone to switching itself on and draining the battery. To power off, you have to go through several menus. However, we liked the cunning way Sony has kept the cabling to a minimum by using a USB connector for plugging into both the PC and the power pack. With hard disk-based players such as this one, charging up straight from the PC via a USB port simply isn't possible, so full marks to Sony for making one USB port do double duty.
Sony claims a capacity of 13,000 songs and a battery life of up to 35 hours.
To MP3 or not to MP3?
As the MP3 file format has grown increasingly ubiquitous, Sony has resolutely stuck to its own proprietary compression technology, Atrac, on all of its digital music devices. With sales below target expectations, Sony's move to MP3 support seems to be a reluctant necessity.
But MP3 support on the NW-A3000 is not what it seems and is bound to frustrate many a user. Tracks you drag from the library to the player icon in the software interface take ages to copy across, not least because unless you change the preferences, your music library gets transcoded. File format settings can only be swapped between Atrac3 and Atrac3plus, with no option to retain and play files in their original MP3 format. What's more, the NW-A3000 managed to suck up almost all our test PC's resources while it was busy transcoding, so we weren't able to crack on with other tasks while waiting for the player to be filled with joyful sounds to savour on the commute home.