Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Gift of Sony

Let's continue our stroll through a big box retailer's flyer. Next to the TiVo® DVR is the Sony S2 1GB Sports® Walkman® MP3 player. For someone who runs, walks or otherwise works out, this could be a great gift. It uses embedded memory, so there's no moving parts to jostle.

One gigabyte is enough room to store a decent amount of music -- especially if the device is used primarily for workouts. The S2 also has an FM tuner, and some exercise-oriented features, such as a pedometer, stopwatch and calorie counter.

So is it a stand-alone or a contextural gift?

It could be considered stand-alone. You can take it out the box, turn on the FM tuner and go for a job. When we look at the digital music side of it, though, it becomes contextural -- and in a way that gives most people headaches.

According to the specs, the S2 plays "MP3, ATRAC3, ATRAC3plus™, WMA(non-DRM), AAC (non-DRM)." If you're not familiar with the byzantine workings of Digital Rights Management (DRM), you can be creating a lot of work for your gift recipient. Let's break it down.

MP3 format is the one format just about any player can use. CDs transferred to your computer from your personal collection can be saved in this form (if the CDs don't have some kind of malicious DRM). Many bands on MySpace and other websites also use this format.

ATRAC3 is a Sony format that they've unsuccessfully tried to force on the public. For a while Sony digital music players ONLY played ATRAC files, requiring you to convert everything to this format in a long, slow transfer process. The Sony CONNECT™ Music online store uses this format -- which is why you can't use songs bought from CONNECT on other brands of players -- only Sony players can play ATRAC files.

WMA files are Microsoft's proprietary answer to the MP3 format. WMA files can be played on any Windows-based player, which is just about everyone except Apple. Music purchased from most online music stores are "protected" WMA files, which means they have DRM added to limit their use.

AAC format is the one used by Apple, and is the format songs purchased from the iTunes store come in. As with other online stores, DRM is added to the files to limit thier usage.

Note that the S2 can play non-DRM WMA and AAC files. What does that mean? It can't play any files in those formats if the songs were purchased from an online music store. Here's another little twist. While Sony's grudgingly allowed MP3 files onto their players, all other file formats have to be converted to ATRAC3 before they can be transferred to the player.

This is why only non-DRM WMA and AAC files can be used. The DRM prevents file format conversion (or at least makes it inconvinient). If the recipient has a lot of music purchased from iTunes, they will not be able to use them with the S2. If they prefer Windows Media Player and have bought songs from Napster, URGE, Rhapsody and most of the other online stores, those songs also will be incompatible.

This is a heavily contextural gift. If the recipient hasn't really gotten into digital music and exercises, the S2 would be a great choice. If they already download a lot of music, it might be better to consider another embedded memory player that's compatible with the bulk of their library -- either the iPod shuffle if their iTunes customers, or perhaps a Creative Labs Zen V if they're not.

And finally, running down Ken's shopping rules:
#1 - If they specifically as for the S2 Sports Walkman, get it. If not, do some research about what format their digital music's already in.
#2 - Sony's name denotes a family of products -- not just the old portable cassette player. Make sure you've got the right "Sony Walkman"
#3 - The S2 is very reasonably priced (about $120) especially now that its on sale.

- Ralph

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