Every time a technology product breaks new ground, it has to answer the question on most consumers’ minds: Do they really need this product? Most recently, Apple (AAPL) encountered this at the launch of the iPad, which confused some consumers who weren’t sure how it would fit in with their laptops and smartphones.
This week, I tested a product that represents Sony’s (SNE) attempt to wade into a new category: the $200 Dash (sony.com/dash). This gadget, labeled by the company as a Personal Internet Viewer, is like a digital photo frame on steroids. It’s meant to run in the background of your life, cycling through on-screen data, slide-show style, while sitting on a kitchen counter, desk or nightstand.
The Dash’s content includes more than 1,000 apps, the majority of which came out of Sony’s partnership with Chumby Industries, maker of its own similar devices. These apps connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi and display frequently refreshed data like Facebook photos and statuses, tweets from Twitter.com, quiz-game questions, recipe tips, email snippets and news updates. The Dash can play videos from services like Netflix (NFLX) and Amazon’s (AMZN) Video on Demand.
But aside from some faults, Sony’s biggest challenge will be convincing people that they actually need a Dash. I used it for a week, both at my office desk and at home, and I’m not convinced I need to spend $200 to watch bursts of data appear onscreen like a slow stock ticker. I already use a smartphone, laptop or iPad to check things like social-network updates, news and email—and using these never requires waiting for the right information to cycle through a screen. There were times when I glanced at my Dash in passing and read snippets of mildly entertaining information, but these moments were few and far between.
To me, the most interesting information to pass through the Dash is that which comes from personalized apps—those that the user sets up with credentials to access content aimed specifically at him or her, like messages in email and social networks. But if the Dash is set up in a kitchen, who in the family gets to set up their account on this gadget? And is all of that content acceptable for all family members to see and read in passing? I can’t imagine teens wanting parents reading their content or vice versa.
The $200 Sony Dash is designed to offer running glances of data—some personalized—throughout the day.
Some people might like the Dash for its fancy alarm-clock capabilities. It shows weather and time information in a handsome display and can play specially chosen videos or podcasts when an alarm goes off. But smartphones like Motorola’s Backflip display time and weather information in tabletop or docked mode.
The Dash has a bright, seven-inch touch screen and an accelerometer, so it can be used vertically or flipped around and laid flat, which is better for things like typing with an on-screen keyboard that appears for certain apps. It lacks a Web browser, word-processing program and a full email program. Accessories like keyboards and mouses can’t be attached to the Dash.
Most Dash apps can be browsed directly from the Dash and added to the device, though users can load apps and adjust more app settings by going to the sony.com/mydash website, where the product must be registered, on their computer. People also can use the website to set up their Amazon and Netflix accounts so videos can play on the Dash. Pandora accounts can be set up here, too, but the Pandora app never worked correctly on my Dash.
The Facebook app lets people read friends’ status messages and comments about those status messages. They can touch an on-screen thumbs up icon to like someone’s status, and can type their own comments about someone’s status. The Twitter app let me write my own tweets, but I couldn’t retweet or direct-message other users. A Sony representative said the Dash is intended to be more of a “glanceable” product with less interaction, but that doesn’t explain why the Facebook app has interactive capabilities. The representative said they may consider improving the Twitter app in the future. Both Twitter and Facebook were slow to load on the screen, taking about four seconds each for content to appear.
Sony’s representative said my office Wi-Fi could be to blame for the Dash’s slow performance. The office Wi-Fi, however, isn’t behind firewalls and never gives me trouble for other tests. A check of my home’s Wi-Fi network showed I had a similar low 42% “link quality” on the Dash there. But my nearby MacBook and iPad showed full signal strength and worked perfectly.
The Dash has several geeky qualities. Setting it up to work with a password-protected Wi-Fi network prompts users to choose the correct key encoding—either HEX or ASCII—neither of which are familiar to most people and the Help button doesn’t clarify matters. Apps with email envelope icons in them, like Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food app, don’t let users email content (in this case, a recipe) to friends. Instead, selecting this icon sends the recipe to the person’s own email address—the one with which the device was registered—and the email says it’s from “chumby.” This name is completely confusing to people who know nothing about Chumby and its connection with Sony.
Sony is planning to fix a few flaws of the Dash and add more functions, including a way to jump directly to an app rather than cycling through the entire list of apps, through an over-the-air software update at the end of May. This fix also will enable the Dash’s USB port to play photos and music on the device. It currently isn’t functional.
Even if all bugs are fixed on the Sony Dash, I still have trouble seeing how this type of product would be worth $200 for most average users, given the way they already use other devices.
Write to Katherine Boehret at firstname.lastname@example.org