The Good: Videoconferencing camera, built-in cellular data access
The Bad: Expensive, cramped keyboard and small screen; not truly mobile
The Bottom Line: Better designed than most, but cheaper—and more mobile—alternatives abound
Would you pay $2,000 for an exceptional piece of eye candy? After checking out Sony's stylish 1.2-pound Vaio UX series of so-called ultra-mobile PCs, I almost reached for my checkbook. Almost.
Like most of the new ultra-mobile PCs coming to market from the likes of Samsung, OQO, and others, the Vaio UX series looks great. Ultimately, though, it feels like a work in progress more suited to early adopters than mainstream technology users.
That's not to say Sony's engineers didn't put a lot of thought into making the Vaio UX usable. It's one of best designs I've seen in the category, offering a solid feel in your hands and a hideaway keyboard that's revealed when you slide up a bright 4.5-inch touch screen. Sony (SNE) sells two versions of the UX, the 380N ($1,999) that includes a 40GB hard drive and the 390N ($2,500), which offers 32GB of flash memory and is more resistant to damage from dropping.
Every control button seems to be laid out perfectly, with none of the awkwardness of some rivals. On the left front, there's a larger button close to the top, with a smaller button directly below that serves as left- and right-click buttons of a mouse. Depressing the button below while using the mouse control lets you scroll down a page quickly. A fourth button can be programmed as a quick-launch key for music, video, and many other functions. The left side offers a single USB 2.0 slot.
A pointing button to the right of the screen helps you easily navigate around the screen. With my large fingers, I found myself opting more often for these controls over the stylus and touch screen. Below the pointing button are controls for enlarging and shrinking on-screen images and a power switch and hold key to keep the device from accidentally turning on.
On top, Sony includes a slot for Memory Stick duo cards and a button on the right to take still images with the camera that's revealed when you slide up the screen. The bottom of the device offers a microphone and stereo jack and a plug and slot for a docking port. The stylus slot is built into the back of the device, along with an antenna for improving cellular reception.
Sony's screen is a joy to use. The company decided to bypass the typical 800 by 600 resolution of other ultra-mobile PCs with a 1024 x 600 resolution. While the type is smaller than some might find comfortable, you should have no problem when using the device over what I found to be about a three-hour battery life.
The keyboard is another story. Because of its size, you essentially have to hold the micro PC in both hands and use your thumbs to type. While all the keys are where you would normally find them on a traditional QWERTY keyboard, they're flush with face of the device. Just about every time I tried to type, I had to tap certain keys several time before they registered. The reach of your thumbs also might become a problem, particularly if you have smaller hands.
As for horsepower, the Windows Vista-ready UX seems designed mainly for businesspeople who want to use standard productivity applications like Microsoft (MSFT) Outlook and Word without carrying around ultra-portable notebooks that are bulkier and slightly heavier. (The software was included on my test unit.) It sports an Intel (INTC) Core Solo processor with 2MB of Level 2 cache to fetch common files quickly and 512MB of memory, built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, as well as Cingular Wireless' EDGE data service.
The cellular data plan is the UX's Achilles heel. In several areas where I tried the Cingular service, I couldn't get a connection, and in others, it would drop suddenly.
When I did get great reception, I sorely missed the faster connections you get with 3G data service offered by Sprint (S), Verizon (VZ), and even Cingular (T). In one instance, when I tried to call up an actor's bio while watching an historical drama, the Web pages were loading so slowly that I gave up and grabbed a nearby laptop connected to my home network instead.
The deal breaker for me is that in this iteration, the Vaio UX really doesn't appear to be a true ultra-mobile device. To use the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, you essentially have to be sitting somewhere. And the omission of a broadband cellular modem limits the speed with which you can complete tasks while on the road.
Sony may be nodding to this issue by including a dock that can turn the Vaio into a desktop computer. The small, travel-ready dock controls power, has connectors for a separate VGA monitor, three USB ports, and Ethernet and A/V out ports. Alternatively, you can dump the dock and use an included dongle for VGA out, Ethernet, and A/V. An optional $400 optical drive helps round out the feature set.
In terms of design, you can't go wrong with the Vaio UX Series. Other cool goodies include a fingerprint security sensor and 0.3-megapixel motion-sensing camera for videoconferencing with friends and colleagues. But until Sony improves the features for providing a true mobile experience, I would just as soon buy a larger ultra-portable notebook at the same price.