Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sony's mylo: No Match for iTouch

It's a sight that anyone who has recently been to Tokyo can't miss: Japanese mobile-phone users fixated on their handsets' tiny screens. Take a closer look and you will see that they're furiously tapping out e-mails, playing video games, listening to music or podcasts, watching TV, updating blogs, or searching the Internet. It hardly seems to matter that they have just 13 keys to surf the Web.

Personally, I prefer a PC with a standard QWERTY keyboard and a touchpad or mouse. So when Sony (SNE) agreed to lend me its new mylo (short for "my life online"), I couldn't wait to test it. I imagined a mobile, wireless device rivaling Japan's cell phones in size and features yet also boasting a touchscreen and a PC-like Web browser. And since it relies on standard WiFi technology instead of cellular networks to gain access to the Net, mylo will work when you travel between, say, the U.S. and Japan, which have incompatible cellular technology standards.

A week with the mylo, I figured, and I'll be saying sayonara to my mobile phone€and perhaps even my laptop. But it didn't work out that way: The mylo was more of a disappointment than a delight.
Weighed Twice as Much as My Mobile Phone

Like its predecessor, introduced in 2006, the second-generation mylo is for online junkies who want Web communication tools but can't be bothered booting up a computer. The latest version, which has been available in the U.S. since February and in Japan since Mar. 1, has a cleaner, more tapered design than the rounded, toy-like appearance of its predecessor. It slides open to reveal a backlit QWERTY keyboard.

But while Sony has made vast improvements to the mylo, it's still far from ideal. My biggest gripe was with Net connectivity. It took so long to open Web sites that, after a frustrating hour with the mylo, I gave up and switched to my laptop. (I could have plugged the mylo into my laptop, but then what's the point of having a wireless device?) I also wished the 200-gram mylo was lighter; it weighed twice as much as my mobile phone and was several times thicker.

At home, where I did most of the testing, I have high-speed broadband service and a WiFi router. My connection speeds are consistently between 60 and 100 megabits per second. (To give you an idea of how fast that is, it's more than 12 times the average U.S. broadband speed, according to a 2007 report by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a Washington (D.C.) think tank.) On my laptop, YouTube (GOOG) videos load in seconds, as do most Web sites.
Not Enough Memory for My Liking

But using the mylo was like rewinding to a time before broadband. It took more than two minutes to play a YouTube video of African-American enka singer Jerome White, a top-selling musician in Japan's homegrown blues scene. I got an error message when I tried Boing Boing, The Onion, and (WPO). Ditto when I attempted to download a BusinessWeek (MHP) podcast. I got impatient and gave up trying to read The New York Times (NYT). With other sites, such as Google (GOOG) and Yahoo! (YHOO), I fared a bit better, as I did when I played user-generated videos on Sony's eyevio site.

The most glaring hole in the mylo's features: the ability to rent and download full-length movies or TV shows from an online store, a service available on the Touch through Apple's iTunes store. If you happen to own a Sony digital video recorder, laptop, or video camera, you might be able download and save clips, TV shows, and movies on a memory stick and view them on the mylo. But nowhere did any of the Sony online manuals and tutorials mention such a possibility. You would also have to buy a memory stick. The mylo only comes with 1 gigabyte of memory, which seems small when you consider that Apple's (APPL) iPod Touch—priced at $299 like the mylo—has 8GB of memory.

Overall, Sony has made its software easier to use than ever before, but Apple's is still the gold standard. That's not to say there weren't things I liked about the mylo. The first step of establishing a WiFi link was simple and intuitive. A new 3.5-inch touchscreen makes menus and Web pages easier to view and navigate, and six spots along the edge of display act like the pulldown menus at the top of a PC Web browser. Zooming in and out of Web pages and double-tapping hyperlinks took some getting used to, but it was better than trying to click my way around. (One downside: You can't toggle between pages by flicking your finger across the screen as you would do on the Touch.)
Voice Calls Via Skype

Like the iPod Touch, the mylo can download and play music and get RSS feeds. There's also a starting screen that can be customized with 20 widgets, or shortcuts, for maps, Web-based instant messaging or e-mail services or social networking sites. Once I was online, I was firing off e-mails and instant messages with the mylo's QWERTY keyboard nearly quickly as I might from a laptop.

The mylo has a few traits that distinguish it from the Touch. You can snap photos with the camera, add messages or draw on the photos, and attach them to e-mails. The mylo also has Adobe (ADBE) Flash for Web pages and animation clips. You can even make voice calls with Skype's (EBAY) online phone service, holding the mylo to your ear as you would a phone. Still, taking advantage of these goodies depends on being online. I hope Sony deals with the mylo's glacially slow connectivity issues soon.

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