Sony Vaio UX50 Review

Sony Vaio UX50

“The Sony VAIO UX50 trumps the Microsoft Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC) initiative before it even gets off the ground.”
  • Responsive; Beautiful design; 2 cameras; Full keyboard; Bright touch screen
  • Price; Confusing differences between Japanese and US models
MSRP $1,799.99

Summary

The Sony VAIO UX50 trumps the Microsoft Ultra Mobile PC (UMPC) initiative before it even gets off the ground. Not content to just run with the crowd, Sony reminds us all that they were doing UMPC since before UMPC was even an acronym in Intel’s techy little dreams. So, what happens when a seasoned veteran takes on the buzzword heavy world of specialized PCs? Read on to find out…

A big thank you to Dynamism for providing us with the UX50.

Introduction

The recent announcement of the combined Microsoft/Intel venture to support a new breed of ultra mobile PCs was more the subject of many questions regarding the usefulness of such a device rather than excitement over a new class of PCs. Who were these designed for? How powerful would these tiny PCs be? What it even feasible to run Windows XP on a PC with such limited size, power and battery life? These questions were mostly asked out of ignorance, as ultra-portable PCs have been around for more than 5 years; they just were not recognized like they should have by Microsoft or Intel.

The Sony VAIO U line of PCs, first introduced in 2002, has gone through many revisions. From the early U1 through the U70/U50, the ultra-portable U series has had its fair share of innovation and drawbacks. The early models, including the U1, U3 and U101 used the classic clamshell/laptop design. They were largely seen as simply tiny, underpowered laptops for niche vertical markets. But even then, the roots of the modern ultra-portable could be seen. A dedicated zoom button, standing-use pointer layout (with mouse pad on the right of the screen, and buttons on the left) were first seen in the U1. The U3 and U101 provided better performance, but kept the same general design. The U70 was the first major redesign by Sony, with the most marked change the lack of a built in keyboard. Even without a keyboard, Sony stuck with the tried and true non-Tablet version of Windows XP, instead opting for an in house application for text input and quick access to an on screen keyboard. The U70 remains one of the most impressive PCs we have seen in terms of size, power and design.

In March 2006 Microsoft took the wraps off its top secret initiative, developed in part with Intel, which had been referred to under the code name Origami. Now officially dubbed the UMPC, vendors started lining up to fill the niche created by the push for more power and features at the cost of portability. But Sony, who had only released one version of the U series outside of Japan, took the UMPC buzz as the heralding of a mass interest in the ultra-portable PC. The result was the UX50, UX90S, and UX180P. You can compare the three at Dynamism.com.

Sony UX50
Sony UX50

Features and Design

The three new U models use the same design, with some feature tweaks under the hood. The UX50 and UX90S are only available in Japan, but can be imported from companies such as Dynamism, the suppliers of our test unit, who will also install an English version of Windows XP and Sony bundled applications. The UX180P will be available in the US on July 5, 2006, and offers many features similar to the UX90S. The UX90S and UX180P both offer a faster processor, the Core Solo U1400 running at 1.2GHz. The Japanese models both have a CompactFlash slot, which is missing in the US version so that a Cingular EDGE WAN card could fit. Both Japanese models ship with Windows XP Home standard, while the UX180P will run XP Pro.

The UX50 includes everything you could possibly need to get working right in the box. In addition to the PC itself, you get a padded case, AC adapter, docking station, VGA/Ethernet/composite out dongle (or mini-port replicator), rubber accessory securing strap, wrist strap, and instruction manual. The body of the UX50 is so small that we almost mistook the PC for the power supply as we dug through the contents of the box.

We were particularly pleased that Sony took the realistic stance that performing truly productive work on a such a tiny PC is nearly impossible without an external keyboard and mouse. Other UMPC systems typically offer a docking station as an add-on option, or assume the built in ports will be enough for most users. We should be clear about this: a UMPC without a docking station is either a toy or a hassle. There is nothing more annoying than having a device designed to be portable, but requiring an elaborate cable threading process every time it is picked up. The UX50 docking station has A/V out, 3xUSB 2.0, 1xFirewire 400, VGA, Ethernet, and a pop-out, detachable stand.

Sony UX50Port layout on the UX50 shows significant forethought and is undoubtedly the result of Sony’s previous experience with ultra-portables. Along the bottom of the system are the docking station connector, AC, and audio in/out ports. Since the UX50 is designed to be used while standing, with one or two hands, the audio ports on the bottom ensure that cables do not obstruct the screen. The right side of the system sports zero ports and is designed for right handed users that do not want things getting in the way while they hold it. Most users will find that holding the PC by the right side is more comfortable, another quirk of a handheld PC that might not be readily apparent. Along the top edge is the capture button for the two built in cameras, Memory Stick slot, and exhaust port. Also along the top edge of the sliding screen is a switch for the rear camera to allow sharper macro pictures. The left side contains a single USB 2.0 port and Compact Flash slot.

The entire 4.5″ diagonal widescreen display of the UX50 slides up to reveal a full 69-key keyboard, complete with blue backlighting. Keep in mind that imported versions of the UX series use a Japanese keyboard layout, which is the same as the standard US layout with the addition of a few extra buttons and different mapping of the symbols along the number row (e.g.-  Shift+2 will be double quotes, instead of @). Sliding the keyboard up while the unit is asleep will wake it and simultaneously the keyboard backlighting will slowly brighten. The screen slides with a satisfying glide and snaps into a locked position when both fully up and down. Along the bottom edge of the screen bezel is the Bluetooth and WLAN (802.11a/b/g), and general activity lights, with the one of the two built in cameras, a microphone, and fingerprint scanner located at the top. When the UX is in the open position, the back surface of the screen exposes a rear facing camera and microphone. On the main body of the UX50, along the left side, you’ll find the left/right/center click buttons, quick launcher application button, and wireless switch. The right side contains the mouse pad, zoom in/out buttons and power/hold switch.

Sony UX50

Setup and Use

The UX50 feels very solidly built. Even the screen sliding mechanism is tightly constructed, with no wiggling when locked into place. The mouse pad piece is the single best solution we have seen to date. Instead of a pencil eraser or joystick, Sony uses a textured patch of rubber that makes using the mouse a veritable joy compared to other handheld PC options. The accuracy of the touch screen is excellent, as it would need to be at a native resolution of 1024×600. The UX50 is relatively thick, measuring a little over an inch thick, but the added bulk helps the unit fit most sized hands well. The Zoom buttons step through ½ increments from 1x to 3x, unlike previous U series computers, which would switch the resolution of the whole screen. For easy access to nine customizable applications, screen orientation flip, monitor output, volume, and screen brightness. The buttons on the display are big, making for easy access whether using the built in stylus housed in the back, the mouse, or a finger.

Unlike the U70, which is imported into the US lacking an English handwriting application, the UX50 ships with EverNote’s ritePen. The accuracy for the handwriting recognition is very good, and allows for quick access to alternative interpretations of the text entered. Rather than slowly trudging through letter-by-letter entry, ritePen allows the user to enter entire sentences at a time. A bundled Japanese application is also included, but only accessible from the launcher program, which allows the drawing directly on the screen with either an opaque pencil or translucent highlighter. Notes can be assembled into sets and saved, but since the application is entirely in Japanese, it will be of limited use to most users.

For DVD playback, even though the UX50 does not ship with an optical drive, Sony includes PowerDVD 3.0, and bothSony UX50 Roxio Digital Media Home and Drag’n Drop data CD/DVD writing. Fingerprint recognition is done through the Protector Suite QL application, and allows for logging into Windows with a finger swipe instead of a password. We did find a version of SonicStage installed (3.4 for Connect), which is meant for access to Sony’s online music store. This particular SonicStage version was not as painful to use as past versions, and offered a much improved interface, quick loading time, and offered little semblance to the SonicStage of yore, which would induce panic upon every attempted use.

The built in Sony Camera Capture Utility offers a slightly clumsy interface, but allows easy switching between the front and read mounted camera. Switching between the cameras take a couple seconds, and both cameras cannot be accessed at once. The utility uses two separate windows – one for camera control and one for the camera view and capture button – which should have been integrated into a single window. Native resolution for high quality images is 1280×1024 for the rear mounted camera, and 640×480 or the front camera. Movies are confined to 320×240 for both cameras. One very interesting feature, easy to overlook is the built in GPS location feature. Images can be stamped with the GPS location data when a Bluetooth GPS unit is present. All aspects of the camera are user definable including contrast, brightness, backlighting compensation, quality, light source, saturation, and hue. Our only complaint is that Sony should have made better use of the widescreen format, and condensed the interface; and when idle and plugged in, the camera is used for the custom VAIO screen saver, pulling video from the last camera used.

Sony UX50 Back

The touch screen can be calibrated via an included utility, but we found no reason to recalibrate from the default settings. Other bundled programs include the Hardware Diagnostics application, software keyboard, and video download manager. Like all VAIOs, Sony included the VAIO Control Center and Power Management utilities. Adobe Photoshop Album 2 Starter Edition and Microsoft Powerpoint viewer (not a full version of Powerpoint, but capable of running a slide show) round out the media abilities of the UX50. One point worth noting is the relatively weak Wi-Fi performance. Even with all power saving features disabled, we still had trouble even detecting any access point with a signal when our VAIO S480 laptop would register as two bars.

As for general specs, the UX50 ships with a 1.06GHz Intel Core Solo U1300 processor, 512MB memory, and 30 GB shock mounted hard drive. As expected, the UX series uses an integrated Intel 950 graphics card with 128MB of memory (part shared with the main memory). At first glance it might seem obvious to wait for the US version of the UX. But, if you do not intend to use the wireless EDGE capabilities, you might be better off getting one of the Japanese models if your camera uses a CF card (a huge bonus for photgraphers).

Sony UX50

Weighing in at 1.2 lbs, the UX makes an excellent PC for field use in a number of situations. The only potential problem we see is battery life. Sony estimates battery life at 4.5 hours of regular use in battery optimized mode and with the standard battery, and up to 9.5 hours with the optional extended battery. Turn on the wireless and performance power consumption profile, and that time drops to around 3 hours with a standard battery and regular use. We also tested downloading a large file over the Wi-Fi connection with power management turned off. After 15 minutes, Windows reported 80% battery left, which figures out to 1:15 of continuous downloading and full performance use. At first glance this seems remarkably poor, but when taken into account full processor speed, maximum screen brightness, and full-time, full transmit power, wireless transfers all guzzling electricity, the battery performance is not horrible. When we used the same test, but with the “VAIO Optimized” power setting which offers a good balance of power and energy consumption, only 7% of the battery was drained after 15 minutes. That equates to approximately 3.6 hours of full time Wi-Fi use with just this one tweak. The standard battery weighs in at 2600mAh, while the noticeably larger extended battery provides 5600mAh of power. But take into account that the extended battery weighs half a pound alone, costs $350 and many people will probably stick with the provided standard battery.

Sony UX50 and Logitech Mouse Comparison
Sony UX50 and Logitech Mouse Comparison

Performance

To appease the bench markers out there, we ran SiSoft Sandra 2007, 3DMark 2003, and 3D Mark 2005. Results for Sandra were surprisingly good, clocking in at a Dhrystone 3597, Whetstone 2675 Integer 8275, and Floating 11215. Compare that to the 2GHz VAIO S480, a top of the line VAIO with a Geforce Go 6200 just one year ago, the results are right in line with what we might expect. It should also be noted that Sandra crashed twice while taking benchmarks on the UX50, though all other programs we used were stable, which makes us weary of the results presented here. We did run the tests several time to equate an average score. Also, as can be expected, the integrated graphics chip means no modern 3D games will run with any real level of playability. It was downright painful to watch 3DMark 2005 run.

 

VAIO UX50

VAIO S480

Dhrystone

3597

6489

Whetstone

2675

4833

Integer operations

8275

18563

Floating point operations

11215

20962

3DMark03

849

2384

3DMark05

286

809

The big question that most people asked when the wraps were taken off the UMPC concept was, “Who needs a tiny PC?” The short answer is everyone who thinks they need a laptop. Photographers will find that the crisp screen, GPS picture labeling, CompactFlash slot, and one-handed use mean picture cataloguing and backup do not need to wait for the home PC. Doctors do not need to have a separate PC in each patient room, and could instead dock and undock a single unit. Students can scribble notes, take advantage of campus wireless networks, and access their music and videos on the go. Essentially any function a traditional laptop has served, outside of gaming, can be accomplished in this smaller, full-featured, and stylish device. Of course, the screen and keyboard can be tiring if used for extended periods, but most problems can be sidestepped by using some basic logic when making a purchasing decision. If you plan to take extensive notes, get a small, collapsible keyboard. Using the device as a portable PC doesn’t mean it has to be only used on the go. Have a docking station set up with a full keyboard and monitor at both work and home.

There are many intangibles when using the VAIO UX50. This is a fun device to use. The interface feels slick, the possibilities feel endless, and there is a certain pride that comes from showing off a device that no one else has used. Just knowing that you could listen to music, watch videos, participate in video conferences or Skypecasts, browse the web, check your digital camera pictures, compose a paper/presentation, etc from anywhere at anytime without lugging around a large laptop bag is liberating. Being able to interface with the computer in any number of ways, whether handwriting, using the on-screen keyboard, or flip out keyboard forces you think about how to get tasks done in the most elegant and simple ways. Using the UX50 is a different philosophy of computing, making information accessible at anywhere and anytime a realistic prospect.

Sony UX50 Sleeve

Conclusion

The UX50 may not be for everyone, but if you’re looking for a highly portable device that can handle tasks usually requiring a full featured PC, take a serious look at the UX50. Sony has outdone themselves with the combination of software, hardware and aesthetics, resulting in a device unmatched by any ultraportable PC on the market. Forget the UMPC hype. This is what the UMPC was meant to be.

Pros:

    • Responsive
    • Beautiful design
    • 2 integrated cameras
    • Full keyboard
  • Bright touch screen

Cons:

    • Somewhat high price
  • Confusing differences between Japanese and US models

Editors' Recommendations