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Network Walkman - Sony's new MP3 Flash music 

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players take on iPod Shuffle

After being left in the dust by Apple and its iPod range of music players, consumer electronics giant Sony has pulled up its pants to unveil a range of MP3 players which use flash memory to store songs.


The nine new Sony music players will find a market that has expanded rapidlly, and are well aware due to the popularity of iPod. Apple's recent launch of the iPod Shuffle had cracked the market wide open, and Sony is aiming to pitch right at them.

The new flash music players are well-designed - and cigarette-lighter-sized - to match the style of the iPod.

 If you compare the iPod Shuffle and the new Sony MP3 players head-to-head, Sony comes out on top - though which ones wins the coolness factor is still unclear. The new music players have up to one gigabyte of storage and cost between $150 and $180. The Flash-based music players will hold the same number of songs as the iPod Shuffle models, but offer much longer battery life. Sony said the new devices would have 50 hours of battery life - compared to the Shuffle's 12 - and they also come with a small display screen. That display screen is Sony's trump card - because try as you might, people would still like to see the next song they want to play. Or if you don't remember the track and can't figure out the words! 

The range is impressive - A 512-megabyte model costs $130, while a 1-gigabyte model costs $180. Models with an FM tuner each cost $20 more. By comparison, Apple's Shuffle is priced at $99 for 512 megabytes and $149 for 1 gigabytes. The models will be available in May.

A second set of players, set to ship later this month, are roundish, with a diameter slightly larger than a poker chip. The MP3 players run on AAA batteries which Sony says will give the user 70 hours of playback time on a single battery. The prices range from $90 for 256 megabytes of memory to $150 for 1 gigabyte of memory. There is a third water-resistant design at $130 for 256 megabytes of memory.

The new Sony players support the MP3 audio format which Sony had resisted for a long time. That is crucial - Sony, for a while, had desperately had tried to sell its propreitary audio format ATRAC to customers - with no success. Mp3s rule the world, and though a little to late, Sony has realised that.

"It's almost like the empire strikes back," said Richard Doherty of The Envisioneering Group. "Sony has taken a lot of quiet and loud criticism and has turned it into a brilliant line of players." 

The lineup includes a set of cigarette lighter-sized models, a bit more expensive than the iPod Shuffle but with a much longer advertised battery life - 50 hours of playback time with a rechargeable battery compared to Apple's 12 hours.

And unlike the Shuffle, the Sony players have bright, 3-line screens to display song information.


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