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Sony Vaio U50 Review

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Sony Vaio U50 Review

Highs
  • Highly portable; included docking station and accessories; full-fledged PC functions.
Lows
  • Not an 'instant-on' device; Japanese-only product; a bit too bulky for a pocket.
If you find a place for an ultra-portable PC in your life, you cannot find a better option than the Sony Vaio U50/U70.

Summary

While the Vaio U50/U70 sits somewhere between the power of a laptop and the portability of a PDA, it is still considered to be an “accessory PC”, and it suffers from the same usage limbo that plagues other such computers. That being said, if you find a place for an ultra-portable PC in your life, you cannot find a better option than the Sony Vaio U50/U70. The U50 is a definite head turner, and completely capable of most any task that you would do on a regular desktop, laptop or PDA.

Why Sony chose to use standard Windows XP Home and not Tablet Edition is beyond us, since our only major complaint is the lack of a truly usable input method. However, if you plan to use the U50 as a slightly underpowered PDA replacement in your oversized pocket, or as a portable system with several docking stations, you will love the U50.

Introduction

Sony’s Vaio U series consists of nearly full-fledged PCs in a handheld form factor. The system rivals a PDA in size, and a mid-level Centrino notebook in responsiveness and WiFi capabilities. The fourth generation of the U series includes the U70 and the subject of this review, the Vaio U50. None in the series has been available outside of Japan, except through select conversion specialists like Dynamism.com.

The U series has always occupied an odd place in Sony’s overall technotopia vision. They have all been too small to use for truly productive purposes, but handy for use while standing and in cramped quarters. Every Vaio U until the U50/U70 has been a clamshell design.  The U50/U70 breaks this convention and offers a touch screen without an attached keyboard. Both versions have similar features and the same dimensions but the U50 has an Intel Celeron M 900 MHz processor while the U70 has an Intel Pentium M 1GHz processor.


Sony’s Vaio U50 fits in the palm of your hand and offers the power of a laptop computer.

Hardware and Layout

While there aren’t that many similar devices on the market to compare it to, the Vaio U50/U70 is the most aesthetically pleasing micro-pc, hands down. It is encased in a black textured metal, with the front panel sporting a smudge-proof/scratch-proof brushed aluminum finish.

Sony does a great job of cramming a lot of functionality into the 6.57-inch by 4.25-inch by 1.03-inch device. It comes with 256MB of PC2100 DDR memory (max 512), a 20GB hard drive, integrated 802.11b/g, and a 64MB (shared) graphics adapter. Integrated onto the device is a USB 2.0 port, an external speaker, a Compact Flash slot, and a Memory Stick slot.

The unit has buttons for power, hold, standby, and WiFi on/off. There are hardware buttons on the face plate for left-right-center click, zoom, rotate, hardware utilities, brightness, input, directional pad and mouse. Switching the WiFi off saves a considerable amount of battery. The hold button is useful when using the U50 as a hard drive based MP3 player. The zoom button allows for quick resolution changes, from 640 x 480 to 1600 x 1200. Native resolution for the five-inch SVGA TFT display is 800 x 600 but it can handle the higher resolutions when connected via the VGA port. The rotate button rotates the display from landscape to portrait mode, which can come in handy when reading Web pages and e-books. Rotating the display also rotates the mouse buttons, swapping the utility buttons and the mouse buttons.

The ten hard buttons illuminate for two seconds when pressed (except the mouse button). There are indicator lights for power, battery, and hard drive activity, with matching functionless lights on the opposite side. The placement of the buttons allows for easy access while holding both sides, in a similar fashion to the previous Vaio U models.


Standard accessories include a docking station, folding keyboard, and headphones.

Included hardware utilities allow for quick access to mute, volume, brightness, and a couple other indiscernible options labeled in Japanese (they appear to be for bass boost and PC card eject, but don’t hold us to that!) The backlight brightness button toggles between bright, half-bright, and off. Pressing the text input button brings up the onscreen keyboard and handwriting recognition.

Instead of a built in keyboard, Sony includes a docking station with each unit, complete with every port you could want; VGA, USB 2.0 (4), Firewire, and Ethernet. The dock is designed to accommodate both the standard and the optional extended battery. The dock also has two backlit buttons for spinning down the hard drive, and cycling the external display properties (mirrored, attached, etc.). Also included with the system is a fold away keyboard with ‘eraser nub’ pointing device, VGA dongle (for using an external display without the docking station), earphones with wired remote, a feather shaped stylus, and carrying pouch.

The body of the U50 feels very well built and sturdy, and though the keyboard feels a little flimsy, it appears to be primarily built with weight in mind. We found it strange that Sony would not bundle some sort of screen protector, or cover ala the latest Clie PDAs, so you may want to purchase one or be extra careful when writing onscreen. An optional extended battery is available, boosting operational time to five and a half hours, and retails for around $500. The included battery will last three hours, and cannot be swapped while the unit is in standby mode.

Included Software

As we mentioned, the choice of Windows XP Home and Professional over Tablet Edition seems odd, especially when you consider that the text input would be built into the OS. Perhaps it is an issue with the small screen at a high resolution, or the use of a special stylus, or services used by other Sony proprietary software. Regardless, input on the undocked U50 is a bit cumbersome.

The text input hardware button launches NextText, which is an onscreen keyboard, cell phone keypad, and handwriting recognition application that can be used in horizontal or vertical orientations. We’ll categorize the handwriting recognition as ‘decent’. In our tests, we saw approximately 80% accuracy. We still can’t figure out how to write an “l”. We’ve seen on other sites that NextText does not support English. Thankfully this is untrue as we were able to use it. There are a few Japanese labeled buttons, but English characters are recognized by the interpreter.

The U50 comes with the usual assortment of Sony software: Vaio power management, PictureGear, SonicStage, and Visual Flow to name a few. The applications are a great compliment to this tiny powerhouse, but the included Gigapocket Pico Player adds a great finishing touch. You can organize pictures with PictureGear, play music through SonicStage, present with Visual Flow, and with a Gigapocket server on your network, play TV and movies through the Pico Player. The only annoyance in this setup is that you have to subscribe to Sony’s total media idealism to take full advantage of the bundled software. The Gigapocket server is one aspect, but also SonicStage will not transfer MP3s to an external device or record from CD to MP3. Instead, SonicStage converts them to ATRAC3, ATRAC3+, WAV, or WMA.

Usage

One thing is clear about the Vaio U Series – these micro-PCs are not meant to be used on their own. It is clear to us that the Vaio U50 is meant to be part of a broader technology enabled home or office. The U50 is ideal for any setting where a single computer is assigned to a single user who will use several workstations. For instance, a physician could carry the same PC from patient room to patient room, plugging into a dock at each stop. A student could use the Vaio U50 as an MP3 player between classes, and a notepad at classes. It also makes a great armchair computer, ideal for surfing and remote control of a media PC.

With the discontinuation of the Sony Clie line of Palm OS PDAs in North America, the question has come up “Is the Vaio U series to replace the Clie as a handheld device?” The answer to this is a resounding no, with lack of instant on technology, short battery life, and sheer bulk to name a few reasons. Chances are greater that a line of smart phones (ala the SE P900) will replace the Clie line. While the unit can be put into standby mode, which will extend the battery life, we got around 3 hours of casual usage with the screen at full brightness and the WiFi on.

Conclusion

While the Vaio U50/U70 is quite a remarkable machine it sits somewhere between the power of a laptop and the portability of a PDA, and is still considered to be an “accessory PC.” Because of that, it suffers from the same usage limbo that plagues other such computers. That being said, if you find a place for an ultra-portable PC in your life, you cannot find a better option than the Sony Vaio U50/U70. The U50 is a definite head turner, and completely capable of most any task that you would do on a regular desktop, laptop or PDA.

Why Sony chose to use standard Windows XP Home and not Tablet Edition is beyond us, since our only major complaint is the lack of a truly usable input method. However, if you plan to use the U50 as a slightly underpowered PDA replacement in your oversized pocket, or as a portable system with several docking stations, you will love the U50.

DT
Aaron Colter

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