Sony's mylo Personal Communicator rates high on the "neat gadget" scale but somewhat lower on the "what do I do with it?" scale.

The mylo is a compact device with a slide-out QWERTY "thumb" keyboard that lets users stay in touch with friends via instant messaging (IM) and Skype voice-over-IP calls. As a bonus, the device includes a Web browser and will play MP3 audio and MPEG4 video files.

A drawback for some is that the system uses Wi-Fi, not cellular data systems, to connect to the Internet, which means if you're out and about, you'll need to find a wireless hotspot in a coffee shop or other public place. To help facilitate this, Sony is offering complimentary access to the T-Mobile HotSpot service until the end of next year.

Sony Mylo held in a models hand

Perhaps understanding the limits of its Wi-Fi-only approach, Sony's target audience seems to be college students. The mylo would be in its element on a campus with ubiquitous wireless access. However, because of those narrow demographics and because it is missing capabilities that some users would find important, its appeal to the rest of us is probably limited despite its attractive form factor and other virtues.

A quick tour

The mylo comes in two colours: white and black. The slide-out keyboard works well for regular text but entering punctuation and symbols can be a challenge since the keypad doesn't have a row of number keys. So, for instance, you enter "#" by holding down the Num button and pressing the period key, and "@" is entered by holding down the Sym button and hitting the W key. All characters are printed on the keyboard, but they are in a tiny typeface that is very hard to read in low-light situations.

Controls are laid out nicely; you won't hit them by accident but can find them easily. On the face of the unit is a circular navigation button (left, right, up, and down with "Select" in the center) in addition to "Home," "Info," "Option" and "Back" buttons. The power and wireless buttons are hidden as "trim" along the edges of the unit.

There are USB and headset ports, volume controls, a hold button and forward/reverse/play/pause buttons scattered around the back of the unit. There is a slot for a Memory Stick Pro DUO card to increase storage space beyond the 1GB of onboard memory.

IM and voice

As an instant messaging device, the mylo has its drawbacks. Most notably, while there is support for Google Talk and Yahoo Messenger, there is no support for the widely used AOL Instant Messaging and MSN Messenger services.

Google Talk worked well, but there were problems text-chatting with Yahoo Messenger. For instance, while chatting over Yahoo with a friend on a PC, all incoming messages were bracketed with font tags because my friend sent colored text. This wasn't a show-stopper, but it was annoying.

Skype support is probably the mylo's strongest feature. The unit has a built-in microphone and speaker and also comes with a headphone cable with a built-in microphone. Skype-out, which enables phone calls to normal telephone numbers, is supported and worked easily with one exception: You are required to enter the country code of the person you are calling. It would be easier to be able to set that as a default somewhere.

Browsing, listening and watching

Browsing is via the well-established Opera browser and worked well, but the size of the screen limits the functionality of the mylo as a "Web tablet." It feels about the same as browsing the Web on a cell phone; it'll do in a pinch but isn't really comfortable for more than occasional use. Downloading is not supported; I couldn't even save an image locally.

The "face buttons" and the arrow keys all tab from link to link on a Web page by default. You must hold down a function button in order to get the controls to scroll a page smoothly. A better approach would have been for the buttons to tab between links and the arrows to scroll smoothly (or vice versa).

The mylo worked well, with no surprises, as an MP3 player (WMA and ATRAC formats are also supported.) Included software allows syncing music with Windows Media Player. Another application allows you to manually move audio and images files to the device. One neat bonus feature is the ability to stream audio from another mylo within ad-hoc wireless range. You cannot transfer the files, but you can listen to tracks on a friend's unit.

Video is a mixed bag. The mylo's 2.4-inch screen is bright and sharp, making watching video surprisingly pleasant. The catch is getting your content onto the device. The documentation says to convert video into the only format (MPEG4) that the mylo can read by using Sony's Image Converter 2 software, which is not included. In fact, as far as I could ascertain, that software is no longer available for sale anywhere. The good news is that the Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP) gaming device uses the same video format, and there are a variety of options available, free and otherwise, for converting video for use on a PSP.

Speaking of the Sony PSP, the format of the memory stick is the same for the mylo and the handheld gaming system. You can pop a stick out of a PSP and insert it in the mylo, and all the audio, video and picture files are automatically available.

On the downside, there are no personal information functions available, such as a contact list or calendar. There is a text application for jotting quick notes, but that's about it.

The Sony mylo is an interesting gadget for a very targeted audience. It works well as a Skype phone and acceptably as an instant messaging device -- if you use the supported IM services.

However, there are cheaper devices that provide these capabilities as well as or better than the mylo (including Sony's own PSP). As it stands, $350 seems to be a premium price for the features currently supported.

Find out more at www.learningcenter.sony.us/assets/itpd/mylo/prod/index.html