[Hardware Review] Sony NWZ-W252 Metal Gear Solid Walkman

Looking to inject a bit more Snake into your workout? Oh, Sony's got you covered, and they've got a little surprise in there too.
Author: Sam Bishop
Published: August 1, 2010
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If ever there was an indication of just how much the electronics landscape has changed in the past decade or so, one needs only look at where Sony is with their eponymous Walkman brand. What was once the absolute ruler of the portable music space has become something of the poster child for just how quickly the digital age has made the Walkman a second-rate stand-in to the iPod.

It didn't happen overnight, of course. There were plenty of missteps that guided Sony from being essentially the way to talk about a portable music player in the same way Q-Tips or Band-Aid or Kleenix are default descriptors of cotton swabs, adhesive bandages and tissues. Arguably the most egregious was the dragonian digital rights management software and painful process for loading music onto the increasingly digital playback devices. The Mini-Disc, ATRAC, Sony Connect and SonicStage have become almost dirty words in the span of the last few years, though none are quite as hiss-inducing as "rootkit".

Sony's W-Series Walkmans are something entirely different, however. Though the company was never really absent from the aesthetic-leading design side of things, their embracing of an entirely open music player is something to behold -- most notably because of how that industrial design complements the player's features.

Front and center of things is the ease with which the player integrates with iTunes, Windows Media Player or can simply use Windows Explorer to drag and drop files to and from the device. Upon first plugging in the player, the 2GB storage offers the software to help it integrate into Windows (sorry, no Mac compatibility here) cleanly. Windows 7 and Vista in particular are nicely supported with a widget that pops up from the task bar that lets you check battery levels and storage size at a glance, and if you opt to use the Walkman interface, files are automatically converted to compatible formats for you on the fly.

This also allows for a bit of light processing as well. The songs can be normalized so there are no volume spikes and each song can be scanned to find the most melodic or chorus-rich parts of a song. That latter part is central to the whole ZAPPIN interface. Because there's no screen here, Sony came up with a system where you can use the jog level to "scan" between songs by 4- or 15-second intervals rather than playing songs from the start. It's an interesting idea, and once the particulars of the ZAPPIN interface are sussed out (you have to press and hold the jog in to start and then just tapping it will exit for you), it actually becomes a fairly quick way to peruse your music if you have multiple folders.

[Build Quality]
Being that this is a Metal Gear Solid-branded version of the W252, you'll also find a little present waiting on the Walkman in addition to the software: six tracks from the MGS: Peace Walker soundtrack. They're great tracks, though comprised mostly of the menu and main themes. Still, they're atmospheric examples of why Peace Walker is such an uncompromising entry into the series despite being "only" on portable hardware, and the mash-up is a neat one. Aside from the packaging, DRM-free soundtrack snippet and the camo paint scheme (which is glossy and really quite nice looking), the MGS tie-in is pretty limited. Still, it's worth picking up this version over the others almost for those bonuses alone.

An interesting element to starting and stopping things comes from the way the Walkman is activated. The two earbuds are held together with a simple little magnet. When the connection is broken and the jog level pressed in, the Walkman powers up, while snapping them back together halts things. The magnet is fairly strong, but it won't hold the two pieces together if the player is stuffed in, say, your pocket, but it should hold up to light jostling in a gym bag or backpack.

The actual jog level itself is springy without feeling spongy, quickly responding to inputs (complete with a pleasant female voice and chimes that announces when the unit powers on, swaps tracks or folders depending on how long you hold a direction, pausing/resuming and when the ZAPPIN interface is activated or shut down). In truth, it feels kind of like having a little robotic assistant announcing everything for you as you flick back and forth, though it can look a little odd in public to be constantly reaching up to fiddle with the player itself.

Perhaps the most technically notable thing about the USB 2.0 player is that Li-ion battery it packs. Plug it in to start charging and after about three minutes you'll have ninety of playback. The full charge time is about an hour and a half to actually top the thing up to the full 11 hours of play time, but seeing as this is designed for workouts, you won't have to stand around for long to get a good routine-ready amount of juice stored up. It's damned impressive that the battery can hit that kind of capacity so quickly, and despite regular charges and drains in the smaller window's range, we saw nothing in the way of diminished long-term charges held, though admittedly we only used the unit for a few weeks.
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