Sony Dash unboxing and hands-on
- Plays Netflix
- Tons of widgets
- Laggy interface
- No battery
- Confusing setup
Internally, we're told the Dash has a 500MHz processor and 256MB of RAM, compared to the 454MHz chip and 64MB of RAM in the Chumby One and 350MHz chip in the Chumby. We're guessing the extra horsepower goes towards supporting video playback and the larger 800 x 480 display, but the Dash isn't a rocket by any means -- the capacitive touchscreen seems responsive enough, but the OS was laggy enough to drive us bonkers.
The display itself is nice and bright with great horizontal viewing angles and average vertical angles -- three or so people can easily share the device at once. You can also flip the Dash over on its back to engage the built-in accelerometer and rotate the display 180 degrees, which is handy if you're using it on a counter. Unfortunately, it's much harder to praise the stereo speakers mounted below the screen -- they're pretty tinny, and they distort at louder volumes if you play any bass-heavy music.
That's really it, hardware-wise -- as with all large touchscreen devices, it's the software that makes or breaks the experience with the Dash.
Upon first booting the Dash, you're prompted to join your WiFi network and download any software updates if needed. From then on, all the action takes place on the homescreen. Sony actually ships two different Dash homescreens: there's a "Dashboard" theme that lists your widgets in semi-flickable horizontal lists, and a more widget-focused "App View" that enlarges the Chumby box and only displays the time, weather, and an app category selector -- tapping a category like "Music" brings up a popover list of apps like Slacker and Pandora. We went back and forth between the themes -- switching isn't hard but takes long enough to prevent you from doing it often. We eventually settled on the App View but we found reasons to like the Dashboard as well -- unfortunately, we kept accidentally launching apps when we meant to flick-scroll them in Dashboard view, and that was enough to make us switch for good.
As with any other Chumby, you set up an online account that allows you to create and manage "channels" of widgets -- essentially groups of widgets that play like a slide show -- and choose between them using either your desktop browser or the Dash itself (if you've already got an account, you can just connect it to your Dash). Unlike traditional Chumbys, though, the Dash also lets you set up and edit channels right from the device, which is pretty nice -- no more trips to the PC when you want to add another news widget into the mix. The options are pretty limitless, but here's a quick breakdown of some of the traditional Chumby widgets and exclusive Dash apps we found ourselves using:
- Netflix: Well, it's Netflix, on a seven-inch screen. All of the Sony-provided media apps use a similar grid-based interface, which isn't the speediest to update when scrolling, but we'll take what we can get. There's no queue management here, so you'll have to add flicks on your computer, but one you start playing a movie things look fine enough -- HD streaming is supported, but the screen is small enough so that we didn't really notice a difference between SD and HD -- we might have convinced ourselves that The Big Lebowski looked better in HD than Bedtime Stories in SD, but we don't lie to ourselves like that anymore.
- Amazon: Just as on the TiVo or Roku Video Player, the Amazon and Netflix interfaces on the Dash are extremely similar. Pricing is the usual Amazon pricing: HD rentals are $4.99 for 48 hours, while SD rentals are $3.99. We'd obviously save the extra buck, since the quality difference is so slight on this display, but we're also sort of wondering why you'd pay to rent a movie on the Dash at all -- are you going to watch it lying bed staring at the nightstand? The Amazon app also seemed a little buggy -- it dropped us to its main page several times when we tried to select things. It's nice that it's there, but we'll stick with renting movies on our real TVs.
- YouTube: The Dash's YouTube playback is fine -- it's actually quite well-suited to the screen size. But like most non-computer and non-smartphone YouTube experiences, it's hampered by a terrible search interface, with a slow touchscreen keyboard and glacial scrolling through lists. By the time you get to what you wanted, you could have watched it twice on a laptop or a phone. That's just sort of a universal YouTube truth, so don't take it as a knock on the Dash too specifically, although a better keyboard and some faster flick scrolling would have really helped out here.
- Blue Octy Radio: We actually love this one -- it's by far the simplest app on the Dash, and it requires the least amount of interaction with the slow touchscreen. Open it up, pick a station -- like, say, our own Trent Wolbe's WFMU -- and hit play. It's almost like... a radio! Imagine that.
- Slacker: Slacker and Pandora make a ton of sense on the Dash, and while the Slacker files-and-folders interface isn't the most beautiful thing we've ever seen, it works, and once you're in the player screen it's the same interface as all the other media apps.
- Pandora: Setting up Pandora on the Dash is a bit of a pain. You can't just log into the service on the device -- you have to activate it through the Sony My Dash website. Once it works, it's Pandora.
- Facebook: Facebook is actually supported by two stock Chumby widgets, one for status updates and one for photos. They do what they say on the tin, although they require you to set them up online, which is a pain. Of course, given the annoyingly slow touch keyboard, that might be a good thing, but we'd have preferred a centralized experience.
- Twitter: It's Twitter. Not the fastest Twitter app we've ever seen, and typing out this tweet took 10 minutes because we misspelled a word and the lack of a cursor meant we had to delete half of it and start over on the lame keyboard, but it'll certainly do in a pinch. You know, if you're ever in bed or in your kitchen, next to a plug outlet, without your phone or laptop. We've all been there, right?
Sony calls the Dash a "personal internet viewer," and cloud-based content is the clear priority: there's no provision for streaming your own media from a computer or server. That's a bit of a bummer, especially since the USB port isn't supported for local playback of music or photos yet. There are a couple Chumby widgets that seem to handle LAN streaming, however -- we didn't try them, but at least they're there. Same goes for photos: it's easier to look at Facebook photos than it is to view images from your PC, and while there are Chumby widgets that bridge the gap, we wish Sony had included some built-in functionality for that.
There are tons of other Chumby widgets -- over 1,000, we're told -- so the Dash can be extended in any number of ways beyond the apps we've listed. But those are the core apps, and while they're pretty good, we almost always found ourselves wondering why we'd be doing some of this stuff on the Dash instead of a phone or a laptop. It's a question that invites immediate comparison to two very different devices -- the HP DreamScreen and the iPad.
Every time we left the Dash sitting around, we loved it and thought of it as being better than the DreamScreen, but every time we picked it up and used it more intensely, we wished we'd reached for a phone, laptop, or the iPad instead.
We probably could have saved everyone a lot of time by just putting that up top, right?
So, should you buy the world's most complicated alarm clock? It all depends on what you want to do with the Dash. If you're looking for something that can sit by your bed, play some internet radio at you, and ambiently display some Engadget headlines and photos from Facebook, the Dash is perfect. If you're looking for something to really pick up and use to browse through photos, or pick songs, or even watch movies, we'd go a different way. Despite its name, the Dash is too stationary and too slow to be valuable in those situations.
All that said, our verdict might change dramatically if the Dash 2 has a faster processor, that promised battery, and a slick-looking charging dock, especially if the price stays at $199. We'd love to love this thing, Sony -- let's make it happen.