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Sony Rolly

June 13th, 2008
A unique music player that can be a novelty but also a true hobby.

Japanese electronics makers once had (and to some degree, still have) a reputation for eccentric but entertaining gadgets -- devices that were fascinating precisely because they didn't make business sense and did something imaginative that no other device would do. For awhile, that creativity seemed to fade away. The Rolly brings that oddness roaring back in a player that can't help but generate smiles. Whether it justifies its feature set and price tag is the real debate.

the design and add-ons

What's immediately apparent about the Rolly is its unusual shape. Whether it looks more like an oversized egg or an undersized football, it's completely unique as far as MP3 players go. The size is also a bit surprising: photos often make it seem larger than it actually is, and in practice it's just small enough to fit in your palm. It's decidedly thicker than just about any portable player, however, and definitely isn't meant for pocket use. It's also fairly heavy due to the motors and speakers, which helps with balance but again makes it a bit unwieldy.

There's little to complain about its ergonomics for its intended role. The switches and ports leave very little guesswork as to what's about to be activated or what plugs in. Thankfully, Sony chose to use a standard mini USB port for syncing and charging with a PC; anyone with a cable from a digital camera (or most other small USB devices) can swap theirs in if they lose the pre-supplied cable.

Sony also bundles in a proprietary cradle, though it curiously only has the option of charging the Rolly. There's no port for a USB cable to sync the player while it's in the cradle, which unfortunately leaves the peripheral to sit in the living room. It's really meant to make the Rolly a conversation piece rather than provide a stable place for the player on your desk.

That there's no earbuds included in the box underscores one of the key limits of the player: there's no headphone jack. While private listening isn't the Rolly's real purpose, no option exists to use it as an ad-hoc personal media player, even while idle at home. Sony's device simply isn't an iPod or Walkman replacement.

There are at least accessories: beyond a surprisingly high-quality carrying pouch, the Rolly can also be outfitted with different-colored arms. They're not especially essential, but they do add a nice accent to a device whose success depends almost entirely on its appearance.

dancing and the control scheme

The Rolly's reason for being is its dance, and in practice the player is quite a sight to see.

With a fully choreographed performance, Sony's device is nearly its own disco. The Rolly is extremely animated: it pulses lights, flaps and spins its arms, and twirls around in a way that is almost uncannily human for a device without any limbs. It's unusually subtle, too, and will actually pitch itself at an angle or make very small movements if the dance routine calls for it.

More importantly, it's extremely entertaining to watch. Especially in front a crowd, the Rolly can't help but make you smile and even laugh; a gathering of friends couldn't help but stop and stare for several tracks at a time. In personal testing, it was just as hard to resist playing music. In that sense, the Rolly truly is ideal as a party trick or as a pick-me-up on a rainy day.

The Rolly in action; audio is removed in this version due to licensing rights.

The speakers themselves aren't especially loud but do a reasonable job of producing clear audio, even while the Rolly is on the move.

Controlling playback at first seems odd, but is actually quite simple and slightly more advanced than other screenless players, like the iPod shuffle. A very conspicuous play button controls either audio only or, with a double-tap, full dancing. Changing tracks is simple and involves either pushing the player forwards or back or twisting the wheels when the device is held on its side; the latter is also used to adjust volume. Sony thoughtfully uses an accelerometer and switches controls so that they're the same no matter which side is right-side up. Songs are also organized into groups for more elaborate routines, which gives the Rolly a rough equivalent of playlists.

The only true gripe with controlling the Rolly itself is the speed; while on the ground, skipping to a specific song or group can take a long time, especially if the 2GB of onboard storage is near full.

Rolly Choreographer

While the Rolly comes preloaded with a handful of songs, the expectation is that owners will ultimately want to add their own; to that end, an Rolly Choreographer is bundled in that both syncs music and helps create dance routines.

On a basic level, there's very little effort required to create a dance for a new track; it can automatically scan a song and create a simple dance with very little intervention. Suffice it to say that this feature alone can be a timesaver for users with large music collections or who simply aren't patient enough to create new routines every time. There's also a website maintained by Sony, named Rolly Go, that hosts user-made routines for those who want more elaborate dances without the extra effort.

Actually creating a routine on one's own isn't especially difficult, but it's here that some casual users might be scared away; a truly impressive routine can take a long time. The same flexibility that makes the dances themselves so interesting to watch can consume much of your free time. Depending on the intricacy of the dance itself, expect under an hour for a basic routine to a few hours for a very elaborate pattern. This unfortunately makes it impractical to create a routine every time and largely limits dance creation to just a few favorite songs.

This does create a sense of community, however. Since it's relatively easy to publish videos online, the Rolly does lend itself well to hobbyists. There was little time to test much of this for the purposes of this review, but it's entirely conceivable that a Rolly could work well as a less complicated substitute to Lego Mindstorms or another robotic kit.

Bluetooth audio

An unusual feature of the Rolly is its built-in Bluetooth. No matter how quickly the novelty of a dancing music player wears thin, the device can always serve as a wireless stereo for cellphones and computers.

Pairing the Rolly with a cellphone is comparatively simple and took just a matter of seconds with a test phone. Sound is clear and largely unaffected by the wireless signal, though the compact size of the speakers stops the Rolly from becoming a full replacement for an audio system.

That, in turn, raises concerns about the usefulness of the feature. Bluetooth speakers are still a niche market outside of in-car speakerphones; the likelihood that someone will use a device with the size and focus of the Rolly to play music from a cellphone or a computer is still quite slim, particularly with the limits put in place by Sony. The Rolly only works with stereo Bluetooth-capable devices and won't dance to any of its existing Choreographer routines in wireless mode.

wrapping up

The ultimate barrier to the Rolly's adoption is its price. At $400 for 2GB of music, the Rolly is most definitely not an impulse buy and is hard to rationally justify compared to the combo of a Bluetooth-equipped player like Sony's A820 series Walkman as well as a basic Bluetooth speaker set. The latter pairing might be less exciting, but it's much more practical.

Irrationally, though, the Rolly is much more appealing than it appears. While it's hard to say how long the dance moves will keep interest, it's indisputable that the Rolly is much more interesting to use than a simple flash player. Those with younger children or who simply have a curiosity about robot-like technology may well get their money's worth -- albeit only if they have a sufficient attention span.

Otherwise, the Rolly's best role is as a project for adults or technically-savvy children, and it actually works quite well in that category; the effort required to match a song step-for-step could reap dividends in the reactions it produces from friends. As much as it relegates the Rolly to a smaller market, it's an important consideration for a product which has to explain itself so often, even with appreciated (if superfluous) features like Bluetooth.

All the same, it's hard to dislike the Rolly. The device is actually very capable for what it does, and the reaction it produces can't entirely be measured with a cost/benefit graph. More importantly, it's valuable almost on principle. It proves that the Japanese, and indeed anyone, aren't afraid to produce electronics simply because they make someone happy. Only the relatively wealthy may buy one for that sole reason, but it can at least be appreciated by many more of us.

- Very fun to watch in action.

- In-depth choreography software, but easy to set on auto mode.

- Simple setup as a Bluetooth speaker.

- Customizable look.

- Expensive for what it does.

- No headphone jack.

- Programming an elaborate dance routine takes a long time.

- Speakers are good for the purpose, but not audiophile-level.

- Windows-only.