13 February 2007

Sony Mylo review

I've been thinking about getting a truly portable WiFi device. I want something that lets me check email, make VOIP or Skype phone calls, and has great battery life. Chat would be nice too.

When looking for a portable wireless device, I know I'm not going to find everything I want in a single device, because the size and power constraints require a balance of tradeoffs, so the most interesting research is not in the initial checklist of "what can it do," but in the subsequent analysis of how the tradeoffs and features are balanced, and how well the device functions as a tool (reliable, well-suited to the task at hand).

After doing a lot of on-line research, I narrowed my list of candidate devices down to the Nokia N800, Sony Mylo, Sony UX-380N, and OQO 02. I work near the Sony store in the Metreon in San Francisco, so I've been able to spend a lot of time testing the Sony Mylo in a reasonable environment.

I like the physical design of this device. It is fun to hold and opening the device to reveal the keyboard has a good feel. I'm a bit concerned that the display isn't recessed, so is likely to get scratched if I just toss the Mylo in pocket in my courier bag.

The keyboard is not good - the keys are not raised enough and there's very little tactile feedback. So I don't think I'd ever be able to get decent muscle memory for typing - I don't expect to be able to touch type, but my fingers should have at least some idea of where the keys are. The keyboard just doesn't deliver. And since I have to look at the keys, it surprises me that there is no backlight. This makes the device particularly difficult to use in dim or dark rooms.

I really like the Mylo's graphical user interface. I like the elements for displaying menus and the navigation between the elements. I've read that Sony is using Trolltech's Qtopia on the device and I have to say that it feels designed for a small screen. I didn't feel like I had to make unnecessary actions to open Skype or Google Talk, for instance.

I also like Google Talk's user interface. It's clean and makes excellent use of the screen real estate. Similarly, Skype seems to fit well.

However, when things go wrong in an application, the Mylo fails to break gracefully. And a tool should always be reliable, and when failing, be quick and clear in doing so. Here are two different areas where the Mylo fails poorly:

- in Skype, when I entered my login information, the login did not appear to complete. Instead, the application appeared to hang. There was no notification of how the login was progressing, nor was there any indication of an error, even after 6 seconds had passed. This is not good - the user should never be in the dark, especially if the application is not designed to gracefully deal with errors.

- in Google Talk, I had no problems. But when I selected "Google Mail" from within Google Talk, I got a blank white screen (presumably the browser, before it had loaded a page) and nothing else. I even waited for 30 seconds.

The above happened on three different occasions, on three different Mylos, at two different locations, on two different wireless networks, I could never get to Google Mail from within Google Talk.

Now, when it comes to tradeoffs in a handheld, it's the integration between the applications and the OS that is crucial. When done poorly, it results in a device that has the features - on paper - but is frustrating and unusable in practice.

In my experience with the Mylo, it does not find a successful balance between tradeoffs.

Because the Mylo is a closed platform, it seems unlikely that third parties will be able to address these issues. And because the device is $350, $150 more than the current price for the (very well designed and similarly powerful) Sony PSP, I have to wonder whether Sony really thought the Mylo through.

If it had seamless integration, and if I could improve it by installing third party applications, I would strongly consider buying one. But it doesn't, and its other shortcomings outweigh the benefits of what seems to be a decent Google Talk and Skype client.

Summary: Excellent hardware, OS, and GUI marred by very poor application integration, a closed platform, and a high price. 1 star out of 5.

No comments: