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Here’s the Dash... Hold On, What’s a Dash?

As the barrage of advertising should make quite clear, the new Sony Dash is here.

What is it? That depends on whether you want to know what it does — or what it represents.

First, what it does. The Dash ($200) is a sleeked-up, scaled-up, grown-up Chumby.

Sony Dash
Source:
Sony Dash

If that name doesn’t ring a bell, here’s a refresher: the Chumby, from Chumby Industries, is a cute little gadget that looks like a beanbag with a 3.5-inch touch screen. You put it on your bedside table, desk or kitchen counter.

There, using a wireless network connection, it spends the day spooling through a parade of Internet widgets, like headlines, stock prices, weather, photos, Twitter or Facebook feeds, top 10 lists, e-mail, sports scores and jokes.

You can choose from more than 1,000 of these free apps. The result: an appealing, quirky cross of an alarm clock, picture frame, Internet radio and Web viewer. (A second Chumby model is now available for $120 with built-in FM radio and optional battery — minus the beanbag.)

The Sony Dash is a bigger, nicer-looking update of this bizarre little gadget. That’s what it does. What it represents, though, is rather eyebrow-raising: apparently, the Dash is the foundation of Sony’s new design pipeline. The Dash, in fact, is so important to Sony that reviewers were not permitted to see it without first enjoying a conference call with company managers.

“Sony has missed a lot of transitions — from the Walkman to the iPod and so on,” conceded one. “We have recently struggled to be fast and innovate in such a big company.”

The Dash is supposed to represent the new Sony Way. It was designed in California, not Japan. It didn’t meander through years of hidebound committee meetings. Instead, it was fast-tracked by a nimble, independent team of “very young executives, as a skunkworks project,” says the company. More products like it are on the way.

The Chumby seems a peculiar poster child for this new way of doing things, but hey — whatever floats Sony’s boat. The real question is: How is it?

It looks great. It’s a glossy black wedge with a much bigger touch screen (seven inches) than the Chumby. If you lay the Dash on its back, the picture flips around to remain upright even in this new mode. The big rubber Menu button on top doubles as a Snooze button when the Dash is your alarm clock.

(Sony, it should be noted, winces when you describe the Dash as a repackaged Chumby product, even though the two companies worked together on it. Sony sees the Dash instead as a brilliant re-imagining of the Dream Machine alarm clock, one of Sony’s big hits. “You can actually wake up to a video!” points out one of the reps. Well, sure, if you sleep with your eyes open.)

The Chumby requires that you choose your preferred widgets on your computer, from a Web site; but you can also do that right on the Dash’s screen, which is terrific. Tap through the widget categories like Animals, Clocks, Dating, Employment, Finance, Horoscopes, Shopping, Sports,Webcams; read a blurb and scope out the customer rating; and tap Add to download instantly.

Sony has added some great new audio and video widgets, too. If you’re a Netflix member, you can watch all your Instant movies right on the Dash. The screen is not exactly akin to the plasma screen over your fireplace. But it looks great, and it’s fun to breeze through an episode of “30 Rock” over breakfast. Music from Pandora and Slacker, Amazon Video on Demand, YouTube and others are available, too.

The Dash also offers a couple of exclusive widgets, like a tip of the day from Martha Stewart or Dr. Oz (“Protect yourself from the sun! Use sunscreen” said one).

Your instinct may say, “But why do I need this? Don’t I already have a TV, a phone and a computer?”

But as Sony points out, people said the same thing about the Apple iPad (first-month sales: one million units). And if the Dash were that quick and satisfying to use, it, too, might change your mind about having a fourth screen in your house.

Unfortunately, the Dash is not quick or satisfying. Actually, “unfortunately” isn’t the word. Considering how much of Sony’s future is riding on the Dash’s puny shoulders, “tragically” might be more apropos.

Apparently, electronics companies still haven’t realized that Slow Chip + Balky Touch Screen = Consumer Buzzkill. You touch the screen, but there’s no immediate response and no progress indicator, so you’re not sure if the thing “heard” you. It’s not a recipe for delight in your new purchase.

Software problems haunt the Dash in other ways. The Dash’s screen huffily directed me to the Dash’s poorly designed Web site to register, an hour after I had done so. When you try Pandora, the Dash screen directs you to sign up at a Web address that doesn’t exist.

Repeatedly, you run into places where Sony apparently forgot that the Dash has a touch screen. The alarm clock module is generally excellent — you can, for example, set up a pattern of alarms like 7:30 a.m. on Monday and Wednesday, 7:45 the other weekdays. But you adjust those times by tapping up/down buttons, just as we’ve done on plastic alarm clocks since the Pleistocene Era. C’mon, Sony. How about letting us tap out 7, 3, 0 on a number pad?

When you have to enter text (for Twitter, for example), an on-screen keyboard appears. Incredibly, though, you can’t tap to make an insertion at a typo or to edit. You have to backspace over everything you’ve typed.

In scrolling lists, you see three items at a time, even though there’s plenty of room to fit more. It’s like operating through a keyhole. When there’s a list of podcasts, how do you suppose you start playing one? Tap its name? No — too obvious. You have to tap the name and then tap a Play button.

The Dash would be terrific as a picture frame, if it weren’t so mediocre as a picture frame. It can play your Flickr photos, for example, but not full screen — only in a small window surrounded by other clutter. It can play full-screen photos from PhotoBucket.com — but you can’t adjust the speed of the slide show, which is too fast.

That’s a universal problem, in fact. The Dash’s processor runs faster than the Chumby, so some Chumby apps play too fast. The panels of the daily Dilbert strip or the Chuck Norris Facts widget flash by too quickly to read.

Finally, the Dash is complicated. On the Web site, the Chumby apps are in one place, and the Sony specials (Dr. Oz, Pandora and so on) are in another. You assemble widgets into channels, and put the channels into playlists — or maybe it’s playlists into channels — and then choose a theme. It’s confusing.

Sony is well aware of the Dash’s problems. “The experience, to be completely frank with you, is good,” says a product manager, “but it needs to be much better. That’s a 24/7 commitment from this company to make that happen.” He swears that software fixes will come early and often. If he’s right, the Dash could be great someday.

But is this really the New Sony Way? Release something it knows perfectly well isn’t ready for prime time, and then fix it later — after the poor reviews, the bad customer feedback and the potentially fatal blow to the product’s image?

It doesn’t bode well.

In any case, the Dash is a promising concept with disappointingly half-baked execution. Sony probably intended the name to connote “dashboard,” or maybe “50-yard dash.” For now, what it mostly suggests is “dashed expectations.”

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.