Introduction to the device: The Sony Dash is marketed as a “personal internet viewer.” In my opinion, it does not live up to that name. Others are more accurately calling it “glimpse internet” and “upgraded alarm clock.” It’s a 7″ touch tablet designed with a weighted wedge style, meant to sit on a countertop or bedside table. Sony basically licensed or bought the Chumby OS and added its own internet video service as well as re-designing the UI a bit for the larger screen. I was attracted to this device because I liked the idea of a Chumby, but it seemed overly bulky and too small of a screen. The Dash takes all the good parts about a Chumby and adds a bigger screen and a better design.
I’m giving a lot more detail below, but to sum up: what you think of this device is largely going to depend on what you want from it. To me, this device’s best tagline would have identified it as a “wake-up station”…telling you everything you need or want to know as you wake up to begin your day. So yeah, in short, it’s a glorified alarm clock. Imagine though, if you will, if your alarm clock could:
- tell you weather and traffic at a glance
- have multiple alarms per day, each with their own sounds, configurable in any way you want…if you want to wake up at a different time each day, with a different tone each day, it can handle that. (Really, if you’ve ever used your cellphone as your alarm clock, consider everything your cellphone can do as an alarm clock…this can do all the same stuff, without you ever having to worry about all the problems of cellphones as alarm clocks…and if you don’t know what the problems of a cellphone as an alarm clock are, ask me, and I’ll happily iterate them for you.)
- quickly show you a few e-mails, status updates, or photos
- let you go to sleep/snooze to a podcast or internet video
If you look at that list and think, “wow, that’s exactly what I want in an alarm clock,” then you’re the target user for the Sony Dash. Sadly, they’re not marketing it to you at all. Really, they’re barely doing anything to sell this device. I’ve seen exactly zero ads. Were it not for Engadget, I wouldn’t have even known it was available or what it was. And, stupidly, what Sony is doing is positioning this so it goes up against things like the iPad and Archos tablet. Sony should be positioning this as the best damn alarm clock in the world. That’s their mistake and what will, IMO, make this device fail.
On that note, I’ve seen alot of reviewers poo-poo the Sony Dash by saying “oh, my cellphone could do this” or “oh, my iPad does this better”. Well, your cellphone and iPad don’t do what this does, because neither of those devices are meant to sit still on a bedside table. Your cellphone and likely your iPad get up and leave when you do, which makes them nearly useless as an alarm clock unless you are a single person living alone. Even if you are a single person (or if you are willing to have separate devices for each person), you’d need to buy several accessories to make a cellphone or iPad sit as nicely as this does on a surface. So, long story short, a cellphone and an iPad appeal to a broader audience, no doubt, but, this device hits a very necessary niche for which the iPad and cellphone are ill-designed.
Below are a few of my favorite things about the Sony Dash:
- Very fast and easy setup on the device — you can use the device without going to the web, but there are quite a few apps that require configuration via the web, and the web config has issues (see Cons list)
- Design is sleek. It looks damn cool on your bedside table.
- Pleasing UI, simple to navigate
- AccuWeather weather (a plus over other weather services, IMO)
- Sits securely (can be rubbed by cat without falling over)
- Bright and colorful screen, videos look great
- Completely customizable alarms and alarm clock
- “night mode” that dims the screen and shows only the clock, when the next alarm is set for and the weather in black and white…though I did notice today that it’s got a little “mom” that writes itself in in cursive, which is kind of a cool “surprise” bit of chrome
- Price is just about right, in my opinion. It’d be better at $99, of course, but at $199, I think they exclude some of the really basic users that would potentially not understand the device while still making it cheap enough to be a gadget-head impulse buy. It’s well under a netbook price point, even less than some cellphones that have the same functionality. Plus, $199 is the start…my guess is that retailers are getting ~30% from this which gives them room to discount it in the future. (If Sony ripped out everything but the alarm clock and weather functions, shrank the screen, and got it to $99 or $79, that’d be a very nice product…would beat the heck out of the “executive neverlate alarm clock” which is just terrible on so many counts and sells for $80-$120 depending on where you go.)
- Usable touch keyboard, fine for posting to Twitter or Facebook, but I wouldn’t use it to type a long e-mail
- Really good selection of default sounds loaded
- Was able to access my Amazon purchased videos and play them easily, and since I haven’t bought anything else that does that yet (except my PCs, of course), that’s a nice feature for me.
Now for the bad news. There are three issues that, in my opinion, are near blocking issues. They’re on a level where, if I weren’t an early adopter geek (who also happens to be desperately in need of a really good and customizable alarm clock), I’d have returned this device already based on these issues:
- USB drives are not working yet. This is huge, because they promise this on the box, and it’s the only way to access your own music from the box (no DLNA or other wireless transfer support). It says “coming soon” if you attempt to play music from a USB drive. Were I not in love with this as my alarm clock, I’d return it based on this alone. That Sony let it out the door with this broken is just insane.
- The web setup is a mess. The site itself looks shoddy, like no one actually cared enough to make it look nice…and the configuration area is not easily accessible from Sony’s main site. You have to go to Sony’s “MyEssentials” site (a term/brand that is in no way associated with the Dash), and that site is not linked from the Sony Dash page on Sony’s site, nor from Sony’s main site. Logging in from Sony’s main site and clicking on “my devices” takes forever to load, so I never found out if I could get to the Dash config site from there. To find the config site after the initial setup, I ended up going to chumby.com, trying my Sony login, and then Chumby re-directed me to the MyEssentials site. Basically, the setup on the Dash itself is so simple, but as soon as you hit the point that you need to use the web to configure something, you’re lost. For this reason alone, I can’t recommend this for non-geeks…which sucks because if this were fixed, I could see this being a really nice gift for a number of non-geeks in my family. I mean, this is basic stuff that they blew off, and it speaks volumes to Sony’s lack of commitment to this device.
- No web browser…which I wouldn’t care about if there were more apps or if this weren’t being sold as a “personal internet viewer”…but to call yourself an internet viewer and not have a browser is just sad. Plus, this makes the apps themselves frustrating. Most of them are just ported iPhone apps, which means they assume you can click links to view more.
There are also quite a few minor issues which Sony/Chumby could resolve in the next few months via software updates:
- Not enough “apps” (really, they’re widgets)…lots of popular news and info sites are not represented, and the apps themselves are not the greatest quality.
- The layout options are limited. There’s only two layouts, and neither of them are satisfying. For example, there’s no layout that has two app panes. You can’t customize shortcuts in any of the layouts, either, so you can’t (for example) make sure that the Amazon Video shortcut is the first (or only) one available.
- Not easy to switch between “channels” (different views with different apps…for example, I have a productivity channel that has my Gmail and Gcal in it and a separate social networking channel that has all of my social networks and news feeds), takes 4 steps to switch plus a not-insignificant load time. Basically makes the channel feature useless because it’s too annoying to switch channels. You’re better off just loading all the apps you want into your default channel.
- No copy/paste functionality…a pain if you’re wanting to post a status to multiple sites
- No podcast browser. NYTimes podcasts are accessible via their pre-loaded app, but if you want any other podcasts, you’re SOL.
- Chumby’s little flying monster logo still shows up on most of the apps, which could confuse people as to what it is or why it shows up, since Sony does not acknowledge Chumby’s existence at all in the Dash’s UI or setup.
Then there are some issues which are, admittedly, by design. That is, Sony never intended the device to have these features and will probably never give it these features, but they’re features that I really think would have made the device better and more usable to a broader audience.
- No accessible internal memory…and assuming they get USB sticks working, there are two issues with this. First, you have to keep your USB stick in all the time if you want to wake up to an MP3. Second, knowing that you have to keep a USB drive in it, the little rubber cover over the USB and 3.5mm port makes that uglier than it needed to be. I do think if you got a nano USB drive, the rubber cover might close over it, but you shouldn’t have to do that. They should have made the USB port more public (not to mention that IT SHOULD WORK) since they knew people would need to keep memory in it. Or, heck, put in an SD card slot instead, to align more with the picture frame type device.
- No DLNA or wireless drive access…again, this is mostly a problem because there’s no accessible internal memory. If I could tell this to wake me up to an MP3 that is loaded on my Zune (which has DLNA) without having to connect my Zune, that’d be sweet.
- No battery – it must be plugged in to use it…and I complain less about this than Engadget or other reviewers have because the design of this is clearly meant to be a fixed device. It’s heavy and relatively bulky, and it’s weighted to be stable on a surface, not to be carried around
- No multi-touch – which, if they implement a browser, will be a bigger deal.
- No line-in to allow a separate PMP to use the speakers and/or screen (so, no waking up to music from your iPod) — this one is something that is a big nice to have. I think with this kind of device, anything you can do to make it have more than one purpose is a good thing. If I could plug in a PMP or smartphone and have it take over the screen and speakers, that’d be a very nice feature.