by Adama D. Brown
Sony’s newest entry into their line of ultra-small PCs blurs the line between laptop and handheld computing, packing desktop processors and 20 GB of storage into a device the size of a paperback book.
Before we get to the meaty part of the review, there are a few things that need to be cleared up. For starters, what exactly is the Sony Vaio U50? It’s not exactly a notebook, it’s not exactly a tablet PC, and it’s not exactly a pocket PC. What the U50, and its sibling the U70, really are is mini-tablets. They are fully equipped PCs, complete with hard drive and Windows XP, shrunk down into a package a little larger than a paperback novel. They lack the traditional clam-shell design and integrated keyboard of true notebook PCs, but still retain most of the functionality.
Item two: technically, the Vaio U series PCs aren’t available for sale, either here in the U.S. or across the rest of North America and Europe. Sony opted not to release them outside Japan, presumably on the (correct) assumption that they wouldn’t be able to sell them in large quantites. Hence, the only way to get them over here is through grey-market importers such as iCube, who supplied our review unit.
For those who don’t know, ‘grey market’ refers to the practice of importing something for sale outside of the channels authorized by the producer. That is to say, buying something that is inexpensive or simply available in one country and reselling it in another where it is expensive or unavailable. The most common applications of this are cigarettes, consumer electronics, and wine–not neccessarily in that order. One example would be buying ultra-light PCs and other specialized electronics in Japan and reselling them for a profit to discriminating buyers in the U.S.. Another would be buying French Champagne at low European prices, importing it to the U.S., and undercutting the much higher prices of authorized resellers. There’s usually nothing illegal about this (some restrictions may apply with regard to cigarettes), and certainly not with regards to electronics. So fear not, the only danger that ‘grey market’ electronics pose to you is an enormous credit-card bill.
Third and finally, while this review is mainly of the U50, it also serves to cover the U70. Both models are physically identical, with differences in hardware noted where appropriate.
The overall shape of the U50 is very rectangular–the only thing saving it from being a perfect cuboid is the fact that it has a slight beveling in the direction of the battery. The construction is almost entirely plastic, the exception being a thin aluminum panel applied to the front bezel around the screen. Almost all the main controls on the unit are placed on the front panel, the sides being reserved for connectors and lesser controls.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Sony’s designs in the handheld world, in part because of what I feel are poor ergonomics, particularly in terms of buttons and directional controls. It was thus somewhat to my surprise that once I’d figured out the control layout on the U50, I found it quite comfortable. When you’re only using the built-in mouse controls, your right thumb would be operating the mouse controller (and the directional pad, when appropriate), and your left thumb would be operating the left and right mouse buttons located in the upper right corner, second row. Despite the pointy corners, the grip feels natural and not forced.
While the overall design is intended for a two-handed grip, the design of the pointer makes the mouse controls usable with just one hand. Described by the documentation as a ‘TouchStyk,’ the mouse controller is very similar to the kind of stick-type controllers featured on many laptops, most notably IBM’s Thinkpad series. It operates something like a miniature joystick, but without the same range of motion. The stick itself stays in the same spot, but exerting pressure on it directs the mouse. The stick also allows for nearly one-handed operation of the machine, since it includes an option for what is known as ‘Press to Select.’ This means that you can use the stick like a mouse button, pressing it directly in to act as a click. Thus, working with a single hand, you can fully operate the mouse. You can even right click by pressing in and holding the pointer.
Continuing down the right hand side, we find the three tiny holes for the Vaio’s internal speaker, just above the Windows XP logo. Below these are a set of buttons which are mainly used for controlling the backlight and the Sony handwriting recognition application. The backlight button brings up a brightness slider, so you can choose your own setting, or you can use the same button to toggle though three default settings: high, low, and off. The last of these is intended for use in direct sun, where the reflective properties of the LCD can take over, making the screen viewable without needing to use power for the backlight.
On the left hand side is buttons, LEDs, and more buttons. The three buttons on top are, clockwise from upper left, the middle mouse button, right mouse button, and left mouse button.
Center stage left is a set of three LEDs, giving power status, battery status, and hard drive activity. Beneath these are two buttons marked ‘Zoom’ and ‘Rotate.’ Contrary to the name ‘Zoom,’ what this button actually does is let you change the resolution of the system display. Pressing it brings up a dialog offering choices of screen resolution from 640 x 480 to 1600 x 1200 pixels. However, if you select a resolution higher than the LCD’s native 800 x 600, then you’ll need to scroll around to see the entire screen. I suppose it has some application, but I see no real reason to change from the default. The panning is inconvenient, and 800 x 600 is sufficient for most things.
Rotate, on the other hand, does exactly what it sounds like. One press and the screen switches to a portrait orientation. The left side becomes the top, the mouse buttons are remapped to the same end as the mouse pointer, and away you go. It’s very convenient for carrying in one hand, since the weight is better distributed into the hand. Press the Rotate button again, and you’re back to landscape.
Unfortunately, the system doesn’t allow for is rotating the screen the other direction. Sorry, southpaws, you’re just out of luck. Though you can reconfigure the mouse buttons, the pointer will have to remain under your right thumb.
Along the bottom edge, in the center is the docking connector, where you connect the included docking station or expansion dongle. This is flanked by two air input vents that feed the internal cooling fan–yes, the U series does indeed have an internal fan, despite its size. Off to the right is the DC power jack. The U50/70 takes a 16 volt, 2.2 amp center-positive barrel plug. Barring the possibility that the plug is an off-normal size, you should be able to use universal AC and DC adapters with this.
Top center we have the other end of the cooling system, the hot air exhaust. Off to its right, we see the Suspend button. This fills a role more or less like the power buttons on PDAs–it puts the Vaio into a low-power sleep state while maintaining all your programs exactly as they were. The main difference here is that it uses the standard PC suspend function, meaning that it isn’t instant on/instant off. It takes several seconds to power down, and several seconds to power up again. Possibly more if you’re running programs that hog resources. The action is essentially the same as closing the lid on a laptop. Over on the upper left corner of the case are the Memory Stick Pro and CompactFlash Type 2 slots for adding memory and peripherals to the Vaio. Occupying both upper corners are latches for the Vaio’s battery. Slide these away from each other at the same time, and you’ll release the large silver battery pack from its position on the back of the machine.
The right hand side plays host to the Vaio’s internal USB port, an on/off switch for the wireless LAN module, a lanyard eyelet, and a tiny emergency button that sends the equivalent of a Ctrl-Alt-Delete command to the system. No laughing in the Mac users’ corner, please, Ctrl-Alt-Delete is the command that brings up the Windows XP Task Manager, which is what allows you to kill a crashed program or process without rebooting.
Left side is another lanyard eyelet, headphone and remote control jack, hold switch, and power switch. The headphone jack is a standard 3.5mm plug, with the option of using one of Sony’s clip-on inline remote controls (included) to control music playback. The hold switch functions the way it does on Sony handhelds, turning off the screen and the buttons so that an accidental bump doesn’t change anything. The power switch works like the power button on a desktop or laptop does, turning on or completely shutting down the machine.
I’ll admit that I spent a couple of minutes searching the sides of the device for the stylus silo before coming to the realization that there isn’t one. The U50 includes no built in method of carrying a stylus–to keep one near to the device, you need to attach the wrist strap that holds the included stylus at the end. I suppose that given the extremely packed internals of the U50, the designers couldn’t or didn’t want to waste space on an internal stylus silo.
The included stylus is funky to say the least. It’s about two inches long, and its shape is reminiscent of something between a beech tree leaf and a shoehorn, with maybe a little bit of surfboard somewhere in its lineage. I can’t say that it’s a terribly brilliant design, certainly not for handwriting. Fortunately the U50 has a touch-sensitive display of the same type as a PocketPCs, so you can use any touchscreen stylus you like, including full-size pen types.
900 MHz Intel Celeron-M (U50) OR 1.0 GHz Intel Pentium-M (U70)
|Operating System:|| |
Windows XP Home with Service Pack 1 (U50) OR XP Professional with Service Pack 1 (U70)
5.0 inch 800 x 600 transmissive/reflective hybrid LCD on Intel 855GM video chipset with 64 MB shared memory
|Memory & Storage:|| |
256 MB (U50) or 512 MB (U70) DDR266 RAM, 20 GB 4200 RPM hard drive with 2 MB cache
|Size & Weight:|| |
6.6 inches long by 4.25 inches wide by 1.0 inches thick, 1.2 pounds (19.2 ounces)
USB 2.0, 4-pin FireWire, One Memory Stick Pro slot, One CompactFlash Type 2 slot
Included port replicator offering VGA-out, 4x USB 2.0, 1x DC-in, 1x 4-pin FireWire/iLink, 1x 10/100 Ethernet; included dongle offers Ethernet & VGA-out
Integrated 802.11G WiFi wireless networking, 10/100 Ethernet
Monaural internal speaker, 3.5mm audio output/headphone jack
11.1 volt 1800 milliamp-hour (20 watt-hour) standard battery; optional 11.1v 3600 mAh (40 watt-hour) extended battery
Touchscreen, 5-way directional pad, TouchStyk mouse pointer; optional USB keyboard
In terms of speed, the 900 MHz Celeron-M in the U50 is good for basics but rather weak for advanced applications. I doubt that many people will be doing digital video editing on the U50, nor playing twitch games, but if you intend to use it as a desktop PC then the processor speed is somewhat less than comfortable.
Technically, the U70 is not a ‘Centrino’ based machine, since that name demands a particular combination of processor, motherboard chipset, and WiFi adapter, which isn’t present in the U70. However, the Pentium-M processor is the same low power, high performance core that is part of the Centrino package. The Pentium-M is a processor designed from the ground up by Intel for better speed and battery life–an approach that yields better results than trying to downsize a desktop processor. A good rule of thumb is that a Pentium-M will have the performance of a Pentium 4M rated about 40% higher–that is to say, a 1.0 GHz Pentium-M would be roughly equivalent to a 1.4 GHz Pentium 4M.
By default, the U50 ships with Windows XP Home edition, but iCube offers to ship the unit with Win XP Pro for an extra $150. I don’t know if the U50 would take an ordinary upgrade install of Windows XP Pro. I think it probably would, but with a $2200 piece of hardware I might be leery of finding out. Besides which, unless you’re using the Vaio in a corporate IT or extreme power-user environment, you’re not likely to miss the added features of Windows XP Pro, which mostly center on high-level networking, access, and authentication. The U70 ships with Windows XP Professional as standard equipment.
Considering the fact that the Windows XP interface was never really designed for a touchscreen-based input, it’s remarkably easy to use with just a stylus and the mouse buttons. I never felt like I was ‘pixel hunting,’ trying to hit something too small for comfort. All the normal dialogs looked good, and despite the comparatively small screen size the text was never too small.
Although the Us are Japanese models, the units that get imported are converted over to English before they’re sold. However, some of the hardware-specific and built-in software remains steadfastly fixed on Japanese characters, since that’s the way it was built. For the most part, these shouldn’t be too noticible in average use, though the Sony configuration applet on the Control Panel is all Japanese to me.
The U50’s display is nothing short of awe-inspiring. The sheer number of pixels packed into such a tiny area make for an exceptional level of clarity, and the colors are as crisp as it gets. Even at minimum brightness, the screen is exceptionally readable, and at maximum it’s almost as brilliant as my desktop CRT. The whites are papery, and the colors are accurate. If I had a complaint it would be that dark colors get washed out by the backlight, but that’s inevitable on any LCD.
Memory and Storage
The U series uses specialty modules of 266 MHz Dual Data Rate RAM, in 256 MB or 512 MB sizes. The U70 ships with 512 MB standard, while the U50 ships with only a 256 MB module. You can order the U50 with 512 MB as an add-on option, but doing so is so expensive that you might as well buy the U70 for $50 more. The modules are proprietary, so don’t bank on the idea of picking up cheap RAM somewhere else and sticking it in. 512 MB is the maximum you’re going to get.
The hard drive used in the Vaios is one of Toshiba’s tiny 1.8 inch embedded hard drives, the same kind as used in the Apple iPod. It runs at 4200 RPM on an ATA100 interface, so it won’t provide the performance of larger laptop drives that run at higher rotational speeds on faster interfaces, but what do you expect out of something the size of a paperback book?
Though the hard drive offers lots of space for music, the U50 is far from an iPod replacement. For one thing, the U50’s size and weight make it inconvenient as a all-the-time mobile player. Even in a rather sizable belt pouch or bag the bulge from the U50 would be very noticible. 1.2 pounds isn’t exactly light, at least for continuous carrying. For another thing, the U50 gets quite hot to the touch when it’s been running awhile, and even more so when in an enclosed space like a bag. Then you’ve got the dual worries of dealing with the heat and hoping that your Vaio isn’t cooking itself. The multimedia capabilities of the U50 are far better put to work as a kind of travelling jukebox, for road trips or long flights, or else as a semi-portable media center for lugging your tunes from home, to the car, to your workstation and back. It is more like a laptop, and should be looked at that way rather than as an iPod replacement.
Size & Weight
Size is, as they say, relative. Smaller and lighter than the tiniest laptop, larger and heavier than the biggest Pocket PC, the U series straddles a dividing line in size. In this case, it’s fairest to compare the U series to similarly capable machines, which means comparing it to laptops. At 1.2 pounds, the U50 is less than half the weight of even the lightest of notebooks, and its 6.6 x 4.25 inch footprint places it solidly below them in this arena as well. Its 1.0 inch thickness is not inconsiderable, but it isn’t unreasonable either. The trade-off on the Vaio’s size, however, is the design’s lack of a built-in keyboard. Not to mention the price of tiny components.
Top to bottom: Dell Axim X30 PocketPC, Sony Vaio U50, Dell Inspiron 8200 laptop
Left, Sony Vaio U50. Right, Dell Axim X30.
As for portability, it’s a matter of degrees. Yes, if you carry the U50 with you everywhere you’re going to notice it and have to make accomodations–it doesn’t just disappear like a more compact PDA. At the same time though, it’s a lot less obtrusive than carrying even the lightest of ultralight laptops. It’s all about how much capacity you need versus what you’re willing to put up with to get it.
The main unit includes a side-mounted USB port ideal for plugging in things like mobile phones, flash memory drives, and keyboards. The docking station adds four more USB ports, ideal for hooking up your immobile drives, keyboards, mice, dongles, cradles, chargers, card readers, and any other USB thing under the sun. When it comes to expansion, it’s hard to argue with USB.
Through its docking station, the Vaio also offers a 4-pin unpowered FireWire port, as well as a DC power output for use with Sony peripherals that use the iLink flavor of FireWire. This means more options for external optical and hard drives, digital video cameras, iPods, what have you.
The Vaio treats the Sony Memory Stick slot more or less like an ordinary removable media drive. I doubt that the MS Pro slot would support any of the peripherals that Sony has come out with–those are mostly limited to their Clie line of Palm-based handheld computers and thus probably lack Windows XP drivers. If you also owned a Sony digital camera, you could use the MS slot to dump your camera’s memory card on to the Vaio’s internal hard drive–a very cool, if also very expensive application of mobile technology.
Lacking a PCMCIA slot, the U series offers a CompactFlash slot as an easy and highly mobile way to add peripherals. Any card with Windows XP drivers will work, so Bluetooth, GPS, and cellular modems would all be high on the list of attractive add-ons for the U50.
The docking station for the U series, included as standard equipment, makes it possible to use the Vaio as an entire desktop computer. It adds an additional four USB 2.0 ports, three on the back and one on the right hand side. The USB port built in to the right side of the U remains accessible as well. The dock has a pass-through for the 16 volt AC adapter shipped with the Vaio. This has to be connected to the dock in order for the dock’s USB ports to recieve power. It also features a 10/100 megabit wired ethernet port for connecting to wired networks or broadband internet connections, and a 15-pin VGA monitor port allowing an external display up to 1600 x 1200 pixels. Both the ethernet and VGA connectors are also available through an included dongle that attaches directly to the docking connector of the Vaio, which when paired with the internal hardware and the USB keyboard make the Vaio into a fast and easy network terminal, presentation base, or a lot of other things.
Something that I’ve found to be lacking on the docking station is an audio output. The internal speaker is so anemic that for any kind of real sound usage you’ll want headphones or external speakers, and having to continually reconnect them to the headphone port would be inconvenient. After all, reconnecting cables is what the dock is intended to prevent. It would also make it easier to integrate the Vaio into a media center or car stereo.
The integrated 802.11g wireless module provides for wireless networking at theoretical speeds of up to 54 Mbits per second, while maintaining backward compatibility to the 11 Mbit 802.11b standard. In practice, it will deliver speeds in the range of 20 Mbits/second on a G network, and about 5 on a B network.. Sony made a very wise move integrating 802.11g into the U series. Besides the fact that anyone who has the money and technical inclination to get the Vaio is also likely to have the money and tech for a G-only network, there’s the fact that the WiFi on the U50/70 isn’t going anywhere. While you could theoretically upgrade it in the future using a WiFi-G CompactFlash card, it would be a silly kludge on a unit that you should be able to expect more out of. Wise choice by Sony.
Also in the communication stable is 10/100 ethernet, either via the docking station or the dongle, both included with the unit. While it’s useful to others, this definitely plays well to network engineers who need mobile terminals.
To be blunt, the internal speaker on the U50 is bad. Really bad. Volume is low, bass is entirely absent, sound definition is poor, suffers from fuzz, quality is tinny, and it’s got no power behind it. For any kind of audio use, you’ll want to use external speakers or head phones, trust me.
On the flip side, sound over headphones is pretty good–perhaps not audiophile level, but good. Sound is crisp, true to source, and volume is good.
Nothing says ‘mobility’ like battery life. On that note, let us proceed with the tests.
Backlight at maximum, wireless on, light web surfing: 1 hour, 49 minutes.
Backlight at minimum, wireless on, light web surfing: 2 hours, 21 minutes
I can’t say I’m terribly impressed with the U50’s battery life. Granted, it has a comparatively tiny battery, but it’s a real shame that such a highly mobile device would be tethered by its power cable. You can also get an extended battery that offers double the standard capacity, a more reasonable four and a half hours of runtime, but it’s price is a whopping $400. Then again, owning a U series Vaio is already tantamount to saying ‘price is no object,’ so adding a $400 battery probably wouldn’t be out of the question.
The U50 actually comes with two sets of handwriting recognition programs. The first is the set supplied by Sony. While this program can handle western characters, I get the distinct feeling that it was designed for Japanese, not least among the reasons the fact that it requires you to put in characters one at a time, which would be very annoying. Fortunately, iCube includes a second handwriting recognition program that lets you write anywhere on the screen without limitation–cursive, script, or mixed–and is extremely accurate even on the first try. My only complaint with it is that since the touchscreen input and the mouse are treated as the same thing, sometimes it interprets mouse movement via the track stick as writing. Fortunately though, the HWR can easily be toggled on and off. Also, as an option of the original Sony software, you can have an on-screen keyboard for use by either mouse or stylus, if you’re not into handwriting.
One place that the software keyboard and handwriting recognition come up strikingly deficient is while running full-screen applications. Overlays, games, specialty applications–anything that takes over the entire display and doesn’t allow for windowing will render the soft input programs useless. I learned this the hard way when I fired up Homeworld Cataclysm and discovered that it’s really, really hard to play without keyboard commands. Alternatively, you could attach the included USB keyboard, but this seriously compromises the Vaio’s mobility and elegance, since you’ve now got to deal with both items and the wire connecting them.
The 5-way directional pad isn’t exactly gaming material, but it’s great for scrolling through web pages with one hand. The four main directions act just like the arrow keys on a full-size keyboard, and the tiny center button is the equivalent of ‘enter.’
Also to be found in that wonderful pile of add-ons that comes with the Vaio is an extremely nifty dual function USB keyboard. It’s a folding design, about 6.5 x 4.25 inches square when closed, folding out to a size of 13 x 4.25 inches. When in use, it gives you not just an ordinary keyboard but also built-in mouse control via another track stick and mouse buttons. Thus, you don’t have to reach for the stylus or built-in track stick when you’re using the Vaio as a laptop or desktop. I could be happier with the keys themselves, though, as well as the software implementation of the keyboard. The key travel just doesn’t feel quite right, and like most folding keyboards the keys are a bit deformed, made smaller and sometimes strangely shaped by the engineering of the case.
Furthermore, like the U50 itself, the Sony KBC1 keyboard was never intended for sale outside Japan. The Japanese characters printed alongsize the western characters on the keys can be ignored, but the mapping of the western characters are a little more annoying. When you plug in the keyboard, the computer automatically loads the standard QWERTY layout, as it should. However, the characters that are printed on the actual keys are not always in a QWERTY layout. On a standard keyboard, Shift+7 will produce an ampersand. The same action will give the same result on the Sony keyboard: Shift+7 creates an ampersand. But according to the markings on the Sony keys, Shift+7 should produce an apostrophe. What I am getting at is that the keyboard itself behaves more or less correctly, but the key markings are all screwed up, particularly when it comes to punctuation. You’re going to have to expend some time in trial and error on the keyboard to get used to it, as well as learning not to pay heed to the labels on the keys. This shouldn’t be a vast problem for pure touch-typists, but could confuse the hell out of you until you figure it out.
Any way you slice it, the Vaio U series would be a very expensive habit–a unit and peripherals could easily run you $3500. It is very much limited to the upper eschelon of potential customers: hard core gadget freaks, expense-account buyers, and other people who don’t care about the price of their new love. And believe me, for those who can afford it, love it shall be. With the right amount of money, the U50 and U70 could do just about anything. You could make it a stereo component, a media center, mobile office, anything–and with its docking system, you could make it many different things. That kind of total flexibility comes at a price, though.
Let’s assume for a second that you’re willing to pay that price. The way I see it, if you’re already willing to shell through the nose for the U50, there are a bunch of good reasons to go the rest of the way and upgrade to the U70. The Pentium-M processor alone is worth the difference, since it would mean both a big boost in performance and a decrease in power draw, making for cooler running and more battery life. Add to this equation the extra 256 MB of RAM, an upgrade which costs $450 all by itself from iCube, and it’s rather apparent that the U70 is a better machine, dollar for dollar, than the U50. This shouldn’t be taken as a disparagment of the U50–it’s just a matter of value.
In the end, the Vaio U series is an exercise in what is really neccessary for you. For the same amount as a decently-equipped Vaio, you could get an ultra-portable notebook or sub-notebook that would offer an optical drive, more hard disk space, and an integrated keyboard, plus a top-of-the-line Pocket PC for added mobility. And you’d still have money left over for peripherals. Still, there’s a tremendous amount of appeal in such an incredibly compact PC.
- Smaller and lighter than a laptop
- Immense power and flexibility
- Elegant mouse controls
- Insanely expensive
- No integrated keyboard
- Marginal battery life
If you looked up “price is no object” in the encyclopedia of tech, you could find a picture of the Sony Vaio U series, right there next to the $20,000 laptops. It’s an incredible machine with an incredible pricetag.