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Sony Clie VZ90

(Import model from Japan) Posted April 19, 2005 by Lisa Gade, Editor in Chief

Undeniably, Sony has made some of the hottest Palm OS PDAs over the last few years. Sadly, these were largely high end products with price tags to match, and the US economy has been weak since 2001. This translated into weak sales and Sony pulled out of the US market in 2004. Sony Clie PDAs lived on in Japan, the the Sony Clie VZ90 became their first Japan-only handheld. The features and price far exceed prior Sony offerings, with the exception of the Clie NZ90 which sported a stunning 2 megapixel digital camera and a very high price tag. Other than the camera, the VZ90 knocks the socks off of the NZ90 which has much less memory and a pedestrian transflective display. What's that, you say? How could I belittle the NZ90's excellent display? Because the VZ90 is the first mass production PDA with an OLED (organic LED) screen, and believe me, nothing else you've seen compares. The display is incredibly vivid, shockingly bright, superbly contrasty and it doesn't eat up gobs of precious battery power.

ICUBE, a reputable importer of Japanese gadgets and computers offers the VZ90 for sale in the US, and they sent us a unit for review. Though Sony has announced that they won't be introducing new Clie models in Japan, the device is well worth considering if your budget can accommodate the $999 price. Keep in mind that this is a Japanese PDA and both the handheld and manual ship from the factory in Japanese. ICUBE pre-installs Clie Pet's excellent utility which translates approximately 65% of the interface into English, but the remaining untranslated items mean that you'll want to be familiar with Palm OS PDAs, preferably Sony Clie models to help fill in the blanks. The user interface is very similar to the Clie UX40 and UX50, and you'll likely accommodate reasonably well if you've owned one of those models.

Sony Clie VZ90 PDA
Sony Clie VZ90 slider open


Features at a Glance

The VZ90 is a Palm OS PDA with the usual Palm OS and Sony value-added applications. It has a 480 x 320 landscape touch screen display, plenty of memory, WiFi 802.11b, a Memory Stick Pro slot and a CF type II slot (no hacks required to use CF memory cards). The device is larger than the Sony Clie UX50, being predominantly thicker, and is similar in size to the Sharp Zaurus SL-C3000 and SL-C1000 with which it competes both in Japan and in the US import market.

Sony bills the VZ90 as a multimedia device, and unlike other Clies, the launcher is divided into four tabbed screens: Movie, Music, Photo and the standard Palm OS PDA application launcher (home screen) display. While the functionality isn't terribly different from recent US high-end Clie models, the tabbed interface which emphasizes multimedia makes it feel different. The black background makes it feel like a multimedia device and sets off photos and movies nicely. Like the UX50 and TH55, the VZ90 uses Sony's Handheld Engine CPU with a maximum speed of 123MHz.

Horsepower and Performance

While 123MHz doesn't sound like much, Sony gets very good performance with the help of an additional multimedia DSP and a 2D graphics accelerator. While video playback on a 123MHz Pocket PC or most Palm PDAs would be abysmal, the Handheld Engine handles the job well.

The VZ90's memory is divided into three segments. There's 40 megs of RAM (handheld memory) which serves the same function as RAM on other PDAs: you can store applications and data in RAM and any 3rd party software using conduits for syncing will work fine. Then there's 95.9 megs of flash ROM (confusingly termed internal memory) where you can also store programs and files, though some apps that use HotSync conduits may not sync if installed here. The flash ROM area is non-volatile which means it will survive a complete battery drain or hard reset and it functions much like a permanently installed Memory Stick. Program memory rounds up this trio of memory types and it's where programs actually execute, much like RAM on your PC. Sounds confusing, but it's quite similar to the Sony Clie UX40 and UX50 architecture, and somewhat like the palmOne Tungsten T5's. Why this separation of memory? Palm OS 5 PDAs can't address more than 64 megs of RAM, so in order to offer you more, it must be divided into RAM and an additional flash ROM area.

 

 

 

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Design and Ergonomics

The unit's unique slider-slate design is functional but curious: why do we need two separate slabs attached via a slider mechanism that only moves 1.25" to reveal the application launcher buttons and directional pad? The bottom slab which encases the meat of the gadget: expansion slots, motherboard, battery, ports and buttons is thicker than the display slab which is 3/8". One can only assume that Sony wanted to make the device easy to use as a media player, which means large buttons and a very large d-pad. Of course, one need not worry about accidental button presses waking up the device or changing songs since the controls are covered when the slider is closed.

side view of VZ90

Right side view, with slider open.

Clie case

The unit comes with a leather case, and this is the bottom view. You can see the large screw which holds the case in place.

 

The device is very attractive and modern: the black surround around the display makes the bezel seem small and reduces reflected glare. The back and sides are gloss black and look classy. A silver sliver adds a touch of contrast to the sides and functions as the backdrop for the buttons and d-pad. Stereo speakers surround the display and there are no other ports or controls on the LCD section. On the main slab you'll find the standard 3.5mm headphone jack and stylus on the right side, the sync connector, power switch (with hold function) and reset hole on the bottom. Both the Memory Stick and CF slots are located on the left side. The Clie has a WiFi indicator LED and another LED for charging status and alarms, both of which are on the lower edge below the d-pad and application buttons. The battery is user replaceable, and you'll find its door on the rear, retained by one small phillips head screw.

Display and Sound

Words can't express how amazing the VZ90 is. Case in point: we used some photos and videos to show off the display to quite a few veteran PDA users and those who'd never used a PDA. All were smitten with the display and commented that they'd never seen one so bright, colorful and sharp. The OLED display's near surreal vibrancy, superb brightness and extremely high contrast set it apart from older LCD technologies. Though the display is keenly bright, it's not harsh on the eyes, and the contrast is pleasing rather than a bit tiring when compared to the HP iPAQ hx2750. From a professional photographer or graphic artist's standpoint, the display isn't 100% color accurate because it looks better than real life. Colors are more saturated and intense and appear to show more contrast than any LCD monitor or high quality 35mm photographic print. If nothing else, this review is an ode to OLED display technology. While Sony's final Clie, the VZ90, is an end of the line model, OLED is in its nascence and we can't wait to see it used on mainstream PDAs from other manufacturers.

Like prior Clie models we've reviewed, the VZ90 plays MP4 Quicktime format movies, though you can use 3rd party movie players such as MMPlayer if you wish to play other formats. Sony's included Image Converter 2 converts movies to MP4 for playback on the Clie.

screen shot

The screen is truly vibrant!

comparing screens

Above: Comparing the excellent VGA display on the HP iPAQ hx4700 and the Sony Clie VZ90 (right). You can see the Clie's display is much brighter and has more contrast. The camera overexposed the white portions of the children's shirts because the display is so bright.

 

As you'd expect from Sony, sound quality is excellent, particularly through the included stereo earbud headphones with integrated remote. The device's stereo speakers flank the display and provide good sound volume and quality by PDA standards. Put on a set of headphones and you'll really enjoy listening to MP3s using the including MP3 player application which is similar to that found on other recent Clies. The MP3 player supports MP3 and ATRAC formats, and has basic features like continuous playback and repeat. In addition, the Clie has a Voice Recorder application and mic.

WiFi

WiFi setup and connection management are quite similar to the UX50 and other WiFi-enabled Clies. Some of the Network preferences screens are in English, if you've recently used other WiFi Clies, you can manage setting up a WiFi connection on the VZ90. The WiFi configuration supports auto discovery and listing of available access points (use the SSID "ANY"). 64 and 128 bit WEP encryption, ad hoc and infrastructure modes, DHCP and manual IP address configuration. When WiFi is turned on, the LED glows and the device will automatically turn off the radio to conserve power after a specified period of time. Once we set up our connection, the Clie proved reliable and maintained its IP address even when the radio cycled on and off repeatedly to conserve power. WiFi range is good but not stellar and we got about 40 feet of usable range through walls and floors.

Battery

Bright displays usually mean mediocre battery life, but the VZ90's OLED display is extremely power efficient. Combine this with Sony's Handheld Engine CPU which varies processor speed from 8 to 123MHz. and you've got the Energizer Bunny of handhelds. The VZ90's Lithium Ion battery is physically large and though Sony doesn't disclose its capacity, it looks like an 1,800 mAh or better pack.

Software

The Clie VZ90 runs Palm OS 5.2.1 and includes the usual assortment of Palm OS and Clie applications such as Date Book, Address Book, Memos, To Do, Calculator, Clie Viewer (a photo viewer), Clie Files (file manager), MS Backup (backup the unit to a Memory Stick), Sound Utilities and an MP3/ATRAC music player. Sony includes Clie Mail which handles multiple email accounts and both POP3 and IMAP servers, the excellent NetFront 3.1 web browser (unfortunately not translated into English) for your Internet pleasure. Picsel Viewer, found on many US Clie models is included and the application allows you to view (but not edit) native MS Office documents and PDFs. Like all Palm OS PDAs, the device comes with Graffiti 2 and Sony adds on the very good Decuma handwriting recognition. In addition, Sony includes their absolutely wonderful Clie Organizer which combines a daytimer calendar interface with photos, ink notes and voice notes. This is the same application found on the the Sony Clie TH55. Clie Organizer runs in portrait mode unlike the other applications which run in landscape orientation. The VZ90 comes with Media Launcher which serves as the front end for working with multimedia files (photos, MP3s and videos).

For syncing to PCs (but not Macs) you'll use the Sony version of Palm Desktop 4.1 which is included, as is a PC version of the Clie Organizer application. These applications are in Japanese, but you should be able to use a recent version of Sony's Palm Desktop in English from a US Clie, and supply the CD when your PC says its found new hardware and requests drivers.

Conclusion

Yes, it's incredibly expensive for a PDA and the Sharp Zaurus SL-C3000 and SL-C1000 with which it competes in the import market offer more bang for the buck and is easily translated into English. In fact, many importers pre-translate the Zaurii for you. But if you're a Palm OS fan, a Clie-lover and above all, want a powerful Palm with a truly amazing screen, the VZ90 is tempting.

The device is fast, beautiful, has WiFi and is expandable. It makes a wonderful pocket multimedia player (just get a large CF card). Did I say the screen is to die for? But two further drawbacks dampen the VZ90's attraction: the partial English translation and the fact this is an end of the road model in the departing Clie line.

web sites: www.icube.us, www.sony.jp

Price: $999 in the US from ICUBE

 

Specs:

Display: OLED (organic LED) display. 480 x 320 pixels, 65,000 colors backlit.

Battery: Lithium Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable. Capacity unknown but it's clearly quite high and the battery is relatively large.

Performance: Sony Handheld Engine CPU. 40 megs RAM, 95.9 megs flash ROM available for programs and files.

Size: 109mm x 87mm x 23mm, 4.47 x 2.78 x .53 in. Weight: 270 grams, 4.67 oz.

Audio: Built in stereo speakers, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone jack. Voice Recorder and MP3 player included.

Networking: Integrated WiFi 802.11b.

Software: Japanese version of Palm OS 5.2.1. Includes the usual Palm and Sony applications such as Date Book, Memo Pad, Address Book, To Do, Calculator, Clie Mail, Clie Files, Clie Organizer, Data Import, Clie Viewer, MP3 player, MS Backup, Sound Utilities, Security and Voice Recorder. Media Launcher application is unique to the VZ90. 3rd party applications: Picsel Viewer (viewer for MS Office documents and PDFs), NetFront 3.1 web browser, Graffiti 2 and Decuma Handwriting recognition software.

Expansion: 1 Memory Stick Pro slot compatible with regular and Pro Memory Sticks, 1 CF type II slot compatible with CF memory cards.

 

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