Sony Dash Review: The Clock Radio, Evolved

Sony calls the Dash a "personal internet viewer". It's more like a $US200 alarm clock with an app store. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

The Dash, if you're unfamiliar, is a glossy, Sony spin on the Chumby. But while the original Chumby was a personable, hackable beanbag; the Dash is a typical black Sony box.

Like the Chumby, the Dash runs widgets, or tiny internet apps - of which there are about 1000 - designed to mostly be viewed at a glance, usually in a looping slideshow. Simplified slices of Facebook, the NYT, Gizmodo, Flickr, Twitter, the weather or whatever, thanks to all those apps - plus, even streaming media, things like Pandora and Netflix Watch Instantly video.

Sony chaffs at the idea of comparing the Dash to the iPad, for obvious reasons. The iPad is $US300 more, but it has a bigger screen; a vastly larger app ecosystem; and you can do many things with it, including leaving it tethered to your desk to spy Twitter, catch New York Times headlines or watch Netflix in small bites. Or, you know, take it with you. The Dash, on the other hand, is not at all portable - unlike the Chumby or the iPad, it has to be plugged in at all times. Conceptually, I can still play along: The Dash is a simpler machine for a simpler time that you wish was still around.

The real problem is that the Dash is mostly horrible to use, so none of its promise sticks. It was pitched to me at one point as something for my dad - Sony polished the Chumby, supposedly, to make it something regular people could use. There is no way my father could deal with this thing.

It's slow. Really, painfully slow. Every. Thing. About. It. Going through the interface - which isn't a mess, but it is kludgy - is mostly a repetition of, "Oh God, I have to dive through another screen. Nevermind." Looking for and installing apps on the Dash itself is kind of like having a root canal on quaaludes but without any of the aesthetic benefits. A major problem, given that one of the key elements of the Dash - and why leveraging the existing Chumby ecosystem was brilliant on Sony's part - are the apps that give it life and character, that make it yours. Some of the headline apps are confusing too, in that you have to enter your login information or customise them via your computer, not on the Dash itself.

It's the little things, too, that add up to a whole lot of suck. If it loses power, not only does it take forever to boot up, but it has to take itself through a good chunk of the setup process again, re-downloading components and re-authorising itself. (It re-downloads a theme whenever you change it, too.) The build quality isn't great, considering it's $US200: Light leaks from the seam between the display's plastic overlay and the speaker. Even as a badass alarm clock it's limited - you can't wake yourself up with the Pandora app blasting Slayer, for instance. Update: Aha, to use an app like Slacker Radio as a custom alarm, you have to make it "available" as a custom alarm from inside the app itself, otherwise it won't show up in the alarms menu. Confusing. (In part because some apps, like blue octy radio, are available by default as alarms).

There are a few things it does surprisingly well, all of which Sony brings to the table exclusive of Chumby. Netflix and Amazon Video, for instance. Browsing is kind of slow, but watching movies and TV shows next to the computer I'm working on is awesome, in no small part because its 7-inch, 800x480 screen is fantastic - it's bright, saturated and it has a nicely wide viewing angle. It's also an ideal medium for internet radio, like Pandora and Slacker, though the speaker delivers muddy, thoroughly mediocre sound.

I really wanted to love the Dash. In this age of convergence, where one thing attempts to assimilate the functions and features of many things - hello, iPad - a device that mostly just sits on my desk or kitchen counter doing basically one thing really well - displaying bits of information - is kind of a wonderful act of defiance. And the tiny shred of a gadget gadget person inside of me loves that idea. I just wish the Dash lived up to it.

Fantastic screen

The full Chumby app ecosystem

A really solid Netflix implementation

Kinda pricey at $US200, given that the Chumby itself is about $US100

Less-than-great interface



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