VAIO Pocket VGF-AP1 Update
When Sony first released the VAIO Pocket and billed it as an “iPod killer” a lot of people raised their eyebrows. Arguably, Sony’s design is unique in it’s own right with its horizontal design, bright color screen (which looks better than the iPod Photo’s color screen), long battery life, and quality craftsmanship.
Of course, until recently, calling the VAIO Pocket an MP3 player was not entirely true. Digital audio player? Yes. MP3 player? Not exactly. With Sony’s initial release of the VAIO Pocket, Sony claimed support for MP3 and WMA audio files but only if you first converted them to ATRAC3/plus files. Now, there’s nothing wrong with Sony’s ATRAC audio format as it’s arguably one of the best codecs on the market in terms of quality. The main problem is that Sony’s codec is proprietary and only Sony supports it in digital audio players when every other digital audio player on the market supports MP3 in addition to their own proprietary codec.
In my initial review of the VAIO Pocket, I noted that if a user was already invested in the ATRAC audio format, then the VAIO Pocket was a good choice for a digital audio player. However, a person with a larger existing MP3 collection would either need a lot of patience to convert their MP3s or re-rip their CDs.
With Sony’s release of Firmware Update 3.0.0.C171F/J, the VAIO Pocket has finally added direct MP3 support along with a host of other features that includes usability enhancements and better performance.
Updating the firmware
The process of updating the firmware is straightforward. You simply copy a single file (or two files for the Japanese version) over and run the firmware update program on VAIO Pocket. The program will notify you with your current version and the update file it finds on your VAIO Pocket.
Once the firmware process is complete, the program automatically deletes the update file to clear up space and to keep you from accidentally updating the firmware again. I found that you can use the North American, European and Japanese firmwares on any VAIO Pocket VGF-AP1 or VGF-AP1L.
The firmware update will not wipe out your existing music files but you may have to re-authorize your player with your installation of SonicStage. This is a fairly straightforward thing to do although it’s kind of a hassle. If you don’t re-authorize your player you will be unable to transfer new songs after the update. You may also need to reinitialize your player from within SonicStage and then transfer your songs over again. In some cases, this may be better if you want to transfer over your original MP3s instead of your transcoded ATRAC files.
Sony claims 34 enhancements with the new firmware update and the accompanying software updates. I won’t cover every enhancement since many of them are related. We’ll look at the most substantial enhancements and how they really change the VAIO Pocket.
- Direct support of MP3 files without conversion
- New LCD backlight brightness and auto-power off settings
- Gapless play between tracks
- Album and group play enhancements
- Skin features - new skins are included, and you can copy additional skin data files to the “VAIO_Skin” folder.
- Lyrics view
- Demo mode feature
- Ultra high-speed scrolling
- Various display enhancements
Note that the new lyrics mode only works in ATRAC encoded files. Honestly, this isn’t a useful feature for me so I didn’t test it.
The VAIO Pocket now plays MP3s without needing any conversion. There are two ways this can be achieved. If you SonicStage 2.3 to manage and synchronize your MP3s, you can simply transfer them to your VAIO Pocket now and they transfer immediately. Alternatively, you can use the Music Move 1.2 (also known as VAIO Music Transfer) application to drag and drop MP3s directly onto the VAIO Pocket.
One new behavior when transferring music via Music Move is that it no longer transfers the songs to a generic group. Instead, it will create new groups based the album name of the music transferred.
You must use either of these methods to transfer MP3s to your VAIO Pocket and you cannot simply drag and drop MP3s to the device as it shows up in My Computer.
In either transfer mode, transfers are very fast now since there’s no need for conversion. Additionally, the new versions of SonicStage and Music Move/VAIO Music Transfer handle MP3s a lot better than previous versions.
Another thing to note, while Sony’s software does not convert the MP3s during transfer, it does modify the file. It seems to encapsulate the MP3 with some DRM and turns it into an OMA file. Some people may be up in arms about this especially those who wish to use their digital audio player as a storage device/mp3 player. Obviously, this is an attempt to discourage people from sharing music files. Despite this, the bottom line is that MP3s do transfer without conversion.
In my subjective sound tests, my MP3 files sounded great on the VAIO Pocket. My high quality MP3s (192-256kb/s CBR and 128-320kb/s VBR) sounded as good as my high quality ATRAC3plus (256kb/s) files.
Another question many people may be having is how MP3 playback affects battery life since it’s been assumed that the VAIO Pocket was optimized for ATRAC files. Although I will be conducting further exhaustive tests, my initial experience is very encouraging. I played mixed bit rate MP3s on shuffle/repeat for 7 hours straight and the battery status indicator still showed in the 75-50% range. Even with the assumption of 50% usage (which is unlikely), that shows very good battery life with MP3 playback. Upon further battery exhaustion, I saw the battery indicator drop into the 50-25% range at 9.5 hours. So, one can estimate that the battery will go for at least 17-19 hours before completely being exhausted. That’s pretty astounding and there’s no catch like needing files to be encoded at a specific bit rate to achieve it.
Probably the biggest enhancement in my mind is the improved menus. Previously, when you used any of the left menus, they would pop-up over the main screen obstructing your view. This would be annoying if you were trying to scroll though the songs as you wouldn’t be able to see the list of songs. The new menu pops out pushing the list to the right allowing you to see while you’re scrolling. It’s brilliant and makes a world of difference. Additionally, scrolling is faster overall and more responsive so it adds up to a better experience.
Perhaps the next biggest improvement is the addition of gapless playback. While people may download the importance of this feature, it becomes very important when you’re listening to concerts, live recordings, and movie soundtracks. On the original CDs, the songs will seamless blend into each other. Without gapless playback, your digital audio player cannot imitate this and you will have annoying breaks in between tracks. Owners of Sony’s MiniDisc players have been spoiled by this ability for years.
The next enhancement is the new two-line display. The display now gives more information with song title, artist and song length. Alternatively, you can switch back to the single line display which only displays the song name.
Another interesting addition is a clock display while the unit is in the cradle charging while not attached to your computer. If the device is mounted on your computer it displays the transfer mode message.
Also, when the backlight shuts off now, instead of simply turning off, it fades out. While not exactly useful, it’s a nice refined touch. Speaking about the backlight, you now have the option of controlling the brightness of the backlight. By default, the brightness is at 4 out of 7. This is nice since it allows you to save some battery life. You can now also adjust the remote’s contrast levels as well.
Another new feature is the skins feature that allows you to change the interface colors. There’s no word on if users will be able to create their own skins but at least people are able to customize their VAIO Pocket a little. My own preference is the original skin since it’s the most readable and offers the best contrast. Still, the others are fun and hopefully there will be more choices in the future.
Overall, this is an extremely welcomed enhancement to the VAIO Pocket and adds functionality that perhaps should have been available in the first place. That said, it’s very nice to see Sony following through on their promises to add MP3 support and delivering on it. The added usability enhancements only make the device more compelling. Sony has removed the largest barrier for most users wanting to use the VAIO Pocket. The ability to simply drag over MP3s without conversion is huge now and should make the VAIO Pocket a much more attractive to many users. You can listen to your existing MP3s now or listen to ATRAC encoded songs from Sony’s Connect Service or your own existing ATRAC encoded files and that should make a lot of people happy.
If you’re interested in cases for the VAIO Pocket you can visit my new quick review of a few cases.