When Apple Computer's iPod soared to prominence a few years ago, I predicted that it was only a matter of time before the competition caught up and even surpassed that device. Boy, was I wrong. Despite an almost constant onslaught of products from companies such as Creative, iRiver, and Rio, Apple has maintained and even extended its lead. Today, the iPod is the de facto standard for portable audio and a must-have fashion accessory for teenagers, college students, and commuting professionals.

Downfall

Lost amid all the iPod hoopla, curiously, is Sony, which started the portable audio craze in the late 1970s with its seminal Walkman cassette-based device. Sony eventually expanded its Walkman line to include CD-based devices and controlled the market it invented for over 20 years. But Sony stumbled badly in the digital age. The problem was that Sony owned both content (movie and music businesses) and delivery (Walkman) systems. Sony's content-creation businesses wanted Sony's electronics division to make sure that none of their content was being stolen with Sony devices. Thus, Sony's first digital Walkman products were sad jokes, limited to a proprietary Sony audio format called ATRAC.

The end result was that Apple was able to waltz into a market it didn't even fully understand at first and walk away with the crown, thanks to great design and customer research. Sony, the one-time king, could only watch in horror as Apple sold millions and millions of iPods, and as its own digital Walkman products faltered in the market.

Uprising?

With the ouster of its CEO and a corporate reorganization now complete, Sony is ready to try again. Its first effort is the horribly named Network Walkman Digital Music Player NW-E500 series (yes, seriously). There are currently two versions?the E507 (which offers 1GB of flash memory) and the E505 (which offers 512MB). These products were designed in Japan before Sony's corporate upheaval, and it shows: They?re too small for large American hands, and they sport the same confusing array of buttons that seem to adorn every Sony product. In some ways, they?re vastly superior to Apple's flash-based player, the iPod shuffle. But in some ways, crucially, they fall short.

First, the good news. The one outstanding feature on the Sony device is its organic electroluminescence display, which appears to float below the surface of the device and offers three lines of text. The display is an excellent and welcome feature. (By comparison, the iPod shuffle doesn?t feature a display, although competing flash-based players, such as the Creative MuVo series, do.) The Sony device's display elicits a surprised exclamation from all who see it. It's just really well done.

The Sony device also gets killer battery life. I didn't get to test Sony's claims of 50 hours of playback time, but I did use the device extensively during a week in Vermont recently, and I didn't have to charge the battery even once. The iPod shuffle, by comparison, is rated at just 12 hours of playback time, which is about accurate.

Unlike the Apple product, Sony's Network Walkman also features an FM tuner and a nice time/calendar display (and some other goofy displays that can best be described as the MP3-player equivalent of a PC screensaver). The bundled earbuds also include a nice short cord and a separate cord extender, which I much prefer to a long dedicated cord.

All that sounds pretty good, right? Hold on a second.

Into the Muck

Everything else I have to say about this device is negative. First, the price is exorbitant. Sony charges $199 for the 1GB model (compared to $129 for the 1GB iPod shuffle) and $149 for the 512GB model (compared to $99 for the 512MB iPod shuffle). You might argue that the display, FM tuner, and other unique features justify the price difference, but you would be wrong: You can get a 1GB Creative MuVo?with a screen and FM tuner?for the same price as the iPod shuffle. Even if you're after a screen, the Sony is too expensive.

Sony's software and hardware?as always?are horrible. I've used many Sony products over the years, ranging from PCs and laptops to digital cameras, camcorders, and the PlayStation Portable (PSP). And although all these products have offered stunning designs, they?ve also suffered from horrible UIs. Sony products are besieged by an unusual number of buttons, and the Network Walkman is no different: There?s a horrible pullable Jog Dial that serves numerous purposes and a weird assortment of small, almost unpressable buttons. The software is even worse: Sony's insanely slow and overly complicated music-management software is just woefully bad?and please, don't get me started on the ineptitude of its Connect online music service. With an iPod shuffle, you set up a playlist in iTunes, plug in the device, and you're done.

While we're talking about hardware, I?ll highlight the most frustrating aspect of the Sony device. Whereas the iPod shuffle sports a full-sized male USB port on one end, letting you plug it into any industry-standard USB port for charging and synchronization (and, let's not forget, even line-in music output), the Sony device features only a small, digital-camera-sized female USB port. Therefore, if you want to transfer music to the device or charge it, you?ll need to cart around a USB cable. The insanity of this decision comes to full light when you realize that the port has a difficult-to-remove rubber port cover. After all, this is Sony we?re talking about.

Those are the major problems, but let's pick some nits. Whereas the iPod shuffle features a wonderful lanyard, the Sony comes with a clip-on plastic clip that appears to be just waiting for the first chance to unclip and deprive you of your $200 investment forever. It does, however, come with a velvety bag, which is good for ... what? That?s unclear. Even the Sony packaging is lousy. The device comes in an impossible-to-open blisterpack that's sure to slice open your fingers.

Resist the Temptation

Without understanding the limitations of the Sony Network Walkman, you might see its razzle-dazzle display and assume the iPod had finally met its match. Don't be confused. The overall user experience of the Sony Network Walkman is abysmal. For the time being, at least, Apple has nothing to fear. My advice is to stick with the surprisingly affordable iPod shuffle?which is near perfect, in my opinion?or check out a Creative MuVo if you absolutely must have a screen.