Sony is broadening support for the MP3 file format in its portable music player range. It will introduce a new hard disk-based MP3 player in December, and will offer software upgrades for earlier players with hard disk storage so they can play MP3s too.

The NW-HD3 can play MP3 files, but is otherwise similar to its predecessor, the NW-HD2, according to Sony. The hard-disk drive storage capacity is unchanged at 20GB.

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Like its predecessor, the NW-HD3 supports Sony

Sony previously resisted adding MP3 support, arguing that it is inferior to the ATRAC system, which also includes digital rights management support.

However, the Japanese electronics giant has been unable to ignore rising demand for online file sharing and PC-based jukebox software, the growing popularity of products such as Apple's iPod and the emergence of competitors such as iRiver -- all of which support and use MP3.

Sony will put the new player on sale in Japan and the UK in December and in the rest of Europe in January. The company is considering sales in the US and Asian nations outside of Japan but has yet to make any decision.

The Japanese launch is scheduled for December 10 -- two months to the day since it launched the NW-HD2 player, and five months to the day since it launched the NW-HD1, the first Walkman-brand hard-disk drive based music player.

Sony also said it will offer owners of the NW-HD1 and NW-HD2 players the chance to add MP3 support. Owners will be able to have the firmware in their players upgraded at a cost of ¥2,000 (around £11) by taking or sending it to a Sony service centre, the company said.

Sony is not alone in offering the ability to upgrade firmware but some of its competitors, such as Apple, allow users to do it themselves via their PCs at no charge.

Sony will sell the NW-HD3 for ¥42,000, which is equivalent to the price of the previous model plus the cost of the firmware upgrade. In the UK, the product will cost £249.

Sony also announced it will simultaneously put on sale a flash-memory based music player in Japan. The NW-E99 also supports ATRAC3plus and MP3 and has a capacity of 1GB. It will cost ¥30,000 (£165).