RETRO TECH: Sony NetMD Walkman

I’ve owned several mp3 players over the years. Back in 1998, I got a Diamond Rio PMP300 for Christmas (which was eventually stolen… enjoy your 32MB mp3 player, jerks!). After that, the girl I was dating at the time gave me a Samsung UpRoar for my birthday, the first cell phone to feature mp3 playback. After I moved to Charlotte, I upgraded to a Samsung SP-i600, a giant clamshell phone running Windows Mobile 2003. The i600 was pretty nice for its time, but I’ve always been the kind of guy who prefers a single gadget that does one thing well over a “Swiss Army” gadget that does many things poorly.

You would think an iPod would be right up my alley. But iPods were expensive when they first came out, and I was reluctant to buy an Apple product. The search for a music player that was better than the i600 but fairly inexpensive led me to the Sony NetMD MiniDisc Walkman:


Sony developed the MiniDisc in 1992 to compete with Philips’ Digital Compact Cassette (DCC). While DCC was an abject failure, the MiniDisc fared slightly better. The format was popular in Japan, where record labels enthusiastically released albums in the MD format (record labels in the rest of the world? Not so much.). But because of the strength of the dollar against the yen at the time, MiniDisc players were just too expensive for most folks in the United States. And the fact that only component (non-portable) MiniDisc players had the ability to record also limited the appeal. A few years after MiniDisc players hit the market, CD burners became popular, allowing people to burn their own CDs for use in nearly ubiquitous portable CD players. So, by the early 2000s, the MiniDisc was all but a dead technology.

Sony is also the poster child of “Not Invented Here” Syndrome. Sony executives dismissed the mp3 format as an inferior technology. They, of course, considered Sony’s own ATRAC encoding to be a better product. That may or may not be true, but what really mattered was that no one was trading ATRAC files on the Internet, or ripping their CD collections into ATRAC files. So Sony sat on the sidelines, touting their “better” in-house technology, while Apple sold iPods by the million.

Sony finally decided to enter the massive market for mp3 players, and decided to use the MiniDisc as the vehicle for it. Like Frankenstein’s monster, they created software which would allow mp3 files to be played back on MiniDiscs. So instead of the 74 minutes of high-quality audio MiniDiscs normally held, one could fit a dozen or so albums on the new “NetMD Walkman”. One of the main complaints with inexpensive mp3 players of the day was their small capacity: who would want to go on vacation with only 512MB of music? The NetMD seemed to fix this, as one could make as many MiniDiscs as you wanted to carry around. Heck, you could even make a “workout” MiniDisc or a “chill-out” MiniDisc or whatever you wanted!

The NetMD was fairly decent hardware-wise. It felt solid for the most part, although I wasn’t a fan of the gold color. I also hated the scrolling LCD (note to manufacturers of portable devices and car stereos: even in 2005, scrolling LCDs sucked). The back of the device was ergonomically designed, so the player felt good in your hand. My main complaint with the hardware was that the damn battery cover was poorly located and cheap. I know mine popped over several times, and it was a common complaint on the Internet.

But what really sucked about the the NetMD was the piece of shit software you were forced to use with the player. It was called “SonicStage”, and was easily the worst piece of software I’ve ever used (and yes, I’ve been forced to use Lotus Notes before!).

Like most library-based music software, after you installed SonicStage the app would scan your hard drive looking for music files. This was apparently no problem for people who had small libraries of 400 or 500 songs. But for people like me – with 13,000 songs – it was a nightmare. This is because the software would lock up whilst scanning, and you had to go to Task Manager, kill the process, and restart it. It took several days for SonicStage to scan my entire library, and in the process I had to start the scan before I left for work, log in to my computer via Remote Desktop a couple of times a day and restart the process, then start it again before I went to sleep. Did I mention that I couldn’t let SonicStage scan my music while I was actually using the computer? That’s because the software used 100% of my CPU while scanning for files.

But that’s not so bad, right? I mean, sure… it took SonicStage several days (and many restarts) to do what iTunes or WinAMP can do in a few minutes… but you only had to do it once, right? Well, no. As far as I could tell (and I freely admit that I might have been doing something wrong), SonicStage had no ability to watch folders for new music. So if you finally got your SonicStage library up and running, but then downloaded a couple of new albums… you had to delete the existing library and start all over again. And, of course, the software would lock-up every couple of hours and use up 100% of your CPU again. Not cool.

And SonicStage was crippled by Sony’s ridiculous “check-in system”. You see, Sony can make some cool hardware. But then Sony’s software division (the side that owns record labels and movie studios) freaks out about “piracy”. They demand Sony’s hardware side cripple their products so as not to hurt the software side. And so, with the NetMD, the software side demanded that an artificial limitation be put in place that only allowed a song to be copied to (at most) three MiniDiscs at a time. If your favorite song was “London Calling” by The Clash, you could only put it on three MiniDiscs at one time. If you wanted to put it on a fourth disc, you had to remove it from one of the three existing discs (check-in) before you could put it on the other disc (check-out). Oh, and if you lost a disc (I had one fall between the passenger seat and center console of my car, and it took a few days to find it), you obviously couldn’t check those songs back in, so you were limited to 2 copies of the song… unless you wiped the library and started over (yet again). I suppose all this hassle was necessary because Sony was terrified that the 14 people who actually owned this piece of crap would share discs with each other… YAAAAAAARRRRR! But, in reality, it just made keeping tabs on your own music a giant pain in the ass. So thanks for that, Sony.

But the worst thing about SonicStage was that it was all a lie. Oh, the packaging said “MP3 PLAYBACK!!!” in XBOX HUEG letters. But that wasn’t how it worked. Not at all. Although SonicStage could accept mp3 files as input, it actually converted mp3s to ATRAC before copying them to the NetMD player. Of course, this took time. So while my friends with iPods saw mp3s copied to their devices at lightning speed, my NetMD would poke along, converting the mp3 to ATRAC (using 100% of the CPU as she goes), then copying the ATRAC file at USB 1.1 speed to the disc. And the fact that the NetMD required ATRAC files is why you just couldn’t use a WinAMP or Windows Media Player plug-in with the device: Sony required licensing fees for the ATRAC encoder, and no software house wanted to pay them for it. So I was forced to use this piece of crap software… and did I mention that it would lock up while encoding and copying files to the player? Yep, it did that too. And it was worse than the system scanning lock-ups, because once SonicStage locked up while copying files to the device, it would not be able to “find” the device once restarted, so (like a bad CD burn) you had to restart your computer to continue the process.

SonicStage was shit in every possible way. I know iTunes has a lot of haters out there, but trust me: if you had to use SonicStage for just one day, you’d run back to iTunes with open arms. SonicStage was so bad that I spent hours online looking for a replacement. The only thing I was able to find was a Japanese version off a Sony Japan site. It was totally bizarre: when you opened the app, you were shown a 3-D cube. You rotated the cube with your mouse and chose a side with the appropriate icon (for some crazy Japanese reason, the “access your playlist” icon was a yellow bird that looked something like the Twitter bird). However, this software was just as unreliable as the English version, and was incomprehensible to boot (“to copy files to my device, do I click the Pachinko ball icon, or the pizza slice icon?”).

It’s no wonder that I tossed the thing into a box in my closet and haven’t looked at it since. I mean, the music quality was decent, and it was cool being able to carry around multiple discs (compared to a 512MB flash player). But actually using the device was the biggest hassle I’ve ever had with any gadget, ever. I hated the NetMD and was overjoyed when Apple released the 2G Shuffle some time shortly after I threw in the towel on the MiniDisc. Using iTunes and the Shuffle were so much easier than the NetMD that I’ve only bought Apple products since then… and haven’t bought a Sony product since!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.