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Switched On: Pretty fly for the WiFi


Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

Neither Sony nor Nokia have Microsoft at the top of their buddy lists, and their product lines don't contain much overlap; but the Japanese electronics giant enlisted the help of Nokia's longtime Scandinavian rival Ericsson when it made its serious push into the mobile phone space. Hence, it's easy to see how convergence often makes for strange competitors, and this year Sony's latest stab at it came in the form of the Mylo, which entered the WiFi-enabled portable connected media device alongside an updated software suite for Nokia's 770 internet tablet. While on their surface the products have many similar capabilities and share a price of $349, their form and philosophy are strikingly different.

To remove any confusion, neither of these devices are cell phones per se; they don't make voice calls using cellular networks and are thus not purchased with calling plans. Also, in contrast to the PDAs of yore, neither of them has an integrated personal information manager. In fact, to its detriment, the 770 comes with no PC software at all.

The appeal of these – forgive me, Webster – WiFliances is plain from the company's perspective. With cell phone carriers moving most of the handsets in the US, companies are hamstrung in terms of the kinds of communications capabilities they can offer to consumers both by bandwidth limits and carrier fiat. However, are these products right for consumers? For one, they certainly have more appeal if you spend most of your days in an extended guest-friendly hotspot network or "hotzone" such as a university campus or a metropolitan WiFi network like the one Google is now offering in Mountain View, CA.

Sony's Mylo is a bulbous device fettered with buttons and slider switches on its front and sides – an amazing 11 controls, and that's counting multi-part buttons like its D-pad or advance/back switch as one control each. Like the 770, it has a microphone and speaker, but the Mylo's shape enables it to be used as a Skype handset. Place it up to the right side of your face and the microphone and speaker are located where they would be on a cell phone. Since the 770 supports Bluetooth, though, it can use compatible headsets for its own VoIP client from the Gizmo Project, included in its recent firmware release.

The Mylo also has a small uncomfortable keyboard that's revealed by sliding its top up, which snaps into place with an addictive, satisfying thunk. The keyboard's wide keys have very little travel and, worse, lack backlighting, but there are dedicated number and symbol keys and the crisp 2.5-inch screen does a great job of reflecting keyboard status modes such as Caps Lock and Shift. In fact, Mylo's user interface is easily one of the best I've ever seen in a Sony device – easy, fluid, inventive and usually snappy. In contrast, the 770, while not frustratingly slow, takes a PC-like approach to launching applications.

While the 770 lacks a keyboard, its on-screen keyboard is very good, facilitated by the device's wide, high-resolution display that enables it to provide the best mobile Web experience in a handheld device. However, even though it supports Bluetooth, 770 users have to jump through a couple of hoops to use it with wireless keyboards that employ the technology. The 770 also has an attractive hard cover that can be attached to the device's back when in use.

When connected to a WiFi network, Mylo, on the other hand, emits a slowly pulsing purple light. Its communications features include several IM networks, but curiously not AOL Instant Messenger, the most popular one in the U.S. This will likely be a deal breaker for many and AIM can't be accessed via the Web site Meebo on Mylo. While less of a surprise, MSN/Live Messenger is also not included, although compatibility between it and the supported Yahoo! Instant Messenger should help bridge this gap in time. Mylo lacks an RSS or Web feed reader.

Like the 770, Mylo includes an Opera browser which renders most pages well, although extended surfing on the device is not a great experience. While Mylo doesn't have or much need an e-mail client, it would better fulfill its potential as a connected media device by being able to send content such as photos to an e-mail address. An RSS or Web feed reader would be another superb addition, and I continue to be surprised at how many portable devices opt for a relatively poor Web surfing experience instead of a great RSS feed one.

That compromise does not need to be made on the Nokia 770, an austere black, stylus-controlled slab that conveys the serious business that is accessing the Web on a portable device. The 770 provides a very good mobile Web experience on its high-resolution wide screen as well as an RSS reader and e-mail client. Nokia categorizes the 770 as a consumer device because it does not integrate enterprise e-mail clients, but the 770 has little personality and getting software for it means wading through the open-source waters. Say what you will of the defunct N-Gage, but distributing its software on memory cards was a pretty consumer-friendly initiative compared to this.

In sum, Mylo is primarily a portable media device that can access the Internet and the 770 is an Internet device that can play back media. Mylo gets the edge for portability and polish while the 770's Bluetooth capabilities greatly improve its connectivity if you have a phone that supports dial-up networking.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at

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