Reviewed June 18, 2007 by Lisa Gade, Editor
We reviewed the first Sony Vaio UX series machine almost a year ago, the UX180P. Much has remained unchanged since that model and the UX280P that followed it just a few months later. The UX380N is the Windows Vista version of the UX, with a slightly faster Intel Core Solo CPU (1.3 vs. 1.2 GHz) and a gig of RAM (same as the UX280P).
This handheld computer is larger than the OQO model 2 but still small enough to fit in a quite large pocket, average sized purse or briefcase. More powerful than UMPCs, with a faster CPU and higher resolution display, the UX380N is nonetheless smaller. Though not a speed demon by normal notebook standards, the UX is the most powerful handheld computer on the market as of this writing (the OQO model 2 has a 1.5GHz CPU, but it's a VIA C7M which is significantly slower than the UX processor).
The UX380N measures just 6 x 3.74 x 1.27 - 1.5 inches and weighs 1.2 pounds and has a built-in thumb keyboard (slide up the display panel to reveal it). Unfortunately, the keyboard still has very little travel and tactile feedback, and you'll need long fingers to reach the middle keys easily. Like the older US models, the UX380N still has an AT&T (Cingular) EDGE wireless module with a popsicle antenna that swivels up from the back. We'd hoped by now that the UX would have moved up to a 3G HSDPA AT&T module, or shifted to Sprint's EVDO network, as we've seen on some Vaio TX models. Though AT&T's EDGE network is excellent in terms of coverage area and strength, its 2.5G speeds feel very "last year".
In terms of features, the UX could easily pass for a well-equiped ultra-light notebook. It has WiFi 802.11a/b/g, Bluetooth 2.0 +EDR, integrated Intel 950 graphics, a gig of RAM and a 40 gig hard drive. The $500 more expensive UX390N has a 32 gig solid state hard drive and the keyboard face plate is dark blue-black, but it's otherwise identical to the UX380N. The UX380N sells for approximately $1,799 to $1,899. Both the UX380N and the UX390N ship with Windows Vista Business edition.
In the Box
As with all UX series models, Sony includes a nice selection of accessories; a good thing given the price and the usual cost of Sony add-ons. The UX380N comes with a Lithium Ion battery, one small telescoping metal stylus, two replacement mouse navigator covers, wrist strap, padded nylon carry case with belt clip, a short dongle adapter which has Ethernet, VGA and A/V-out ports, a docking station (with power port, A/V out, three USB 2.0 ports, an unpowered FireWire 400 port, VGA and wired 10/100 Ethernet port) and a small plastic desk stand that slides onto the back of the UX and acts as a desk holder for those times you don't want to hold it and don't have the docking station with you. As with all Vaio notebooks, restore CDs/DVDs are not included, you must burn them yourself using Sony's included utility and an external CD or DVD burner or buy them from Sony for $20, or rely on the hidden restore partition whenever you need to re-install apps or restore the entire drive. Since the UX has no optical drive, that restore partition is a handy thing. We used a Sony 510UL dual layer DVD burner over FireWire with no problems to make backups and install software.
Display and Stylus
The display is simply gorgeous; Sony's XBrite with pen support is a lovely thing. The digitizer is accurate, and you'll want to use the stylus for small on-screen elements (because a finger seems huge compared to that tiny close box) and to place your cursor when entering text. Text is indeed quite small but surprisingly readable. That doesn't mean you won't get eye strain, because you will: at 1024 x 600 resolution on a 4.5" display text is clear but tiny. That's the tradeoff between the Vaio and the OQO or FlipStart which have lower resolution displays with larger fonts but you'll find yourself scrolling side to side frequently and some dialogs or even the Windows Start Menu contents won't fit on screen.
The UX also supports 800 x 600 resolution but that doesn't help much with readability since it letterboxes the sides by default to compensate for the 4:3 resolution 800 x 600 setting on the wide screen LCD. Should you have trouble with tired eyes, your best bet is to increase the font dpi in Windows, though that might increase the need for scrolling. The touch screen is extremely accurate and a pleasure to use. Window Vista Business has Tablet features built-in so you can enable handwriting recognition which works very well on the UX. Windows Journal is included with Vista, and that tablet-friendly application is a great way to take handwritten notes that you can turn into text later.
The left grip incorporates the battery pack. That's the EDGE antenna, raised.
The back and left side have plenty of air vents, and doesn't get uncomfortably hot in hand. It does have a quiet cooling fan which you'll hear from time to time.
Design and Ergonomics
(Note: the design is identical to the UX180P, and so this section uses some of the same descriptive information from our 180P review). Even after 9 months on the market, the device is still pure eye candy. It's sleek, innovative and incredibly small. It turns heads. The curvy-back with ergonomic grips make it feel really good in hand though it's thick— the thinnest part at the middle measures 1.27" and the hand-grips areas are 1.5".
The controls are intuitive and easy to use. Par for the course with Sony, you don't get printed guide that tells you what everything is, but you do get a PDF manual. Use this device for 5 minutes and you've figured out what all the buttons do, and you're enjoying how they lay in just the right places to reach easily and how they improve on the device's overall usability.
What do those controls do? On the left you'll see a larger button up top with a smaller button directly below. These are the left and right click buttons, as on a mouse or trackpad. The textured square control on the top right is your mouse control, similar to the IBM eraser stick (two spare textured covers come with the unit). It's pleasant to use, accurate and responsive. Since the device has a touch screen which responds to the stylus and your finger, the mouse button is a secondary control.
Just below the mouse button you'll find zoom buttons which enlarge the on-screen image but don't actually change resolution on the fly (it's a quick-use visual aide only). The power slider is on the side, and it has a hold position so it doesn't accidentally power up in your briefcase or purse. Conversely, you can lock it on so you don't accidentally power it off when watching a movie or listening to MP3s. That said, it's pretty hard to accidentally move the power slider when using the UX. A useful scroll button lives below the right/left click buttons. Hold it down while using the mouse to scroll a page rather than move the cursor. And below that you'll find Sony's launcher button which launches (and dismisses) their Application launcher (more on that later). If you press and hold the launcher button, you'll activate Sony's touch command which allows you to do things using on-screen gestures with the stylus. Alternatively you can turn off gesture commands and use the Windows standard right click feature in its place, You may customize the buttons as you see fit, should you prefer them to do other things.
The power jack, docking port, 3.5mm stereo out and mic in jacks are on the bottom, and the Memory Stick Pro Duo slot is on the top. The UX380P's single USB 2.0 port is on the left side (3more ports are on the docking station), and the camera button (launches the camera app and takes shots) is on the top right side. Given its placement and the device's handheld nature, it feels like a traditional shutter button. Both front and back cameras work in Skype which is handy if you want to show your video-conferencing buddy something that you're looking at.
The Sony UX380P's thumb keyboard is certainly much better than nothing, but we won't claim it's an ergonomic delight. The backlit keyboard has almost no travel and very little tactile feedback. Despite this, I found it fairly easy to type correctly but you don't have the feeling you're getting it right with no feedback. Since the UX is wider than a BlackBerry or Sidekick those with short thumbs or smaller hands may struggle to reach the middle keys. The blue backlighting turns on when you hit a key and remains on for a few seconds after the last key press. It's bright and easy to see in the dark, though the backlight is fainter toward the edges. Despite its small size, the keyboard has a dedicated number row, Control, Alt and Windows Start Menu keys as well as up/down left and right keys (with embedded page up/page down, home and end functions when you press the Fn key). Everything is in its normal place— no swapped period and comma keys, no strangely located tab key. Good. The only thing missing is a right shift key, which is annoying. Soon you'll discover that Sticky Keys (part of the Windows accessibility features) is your best friend. With Sticky Keys on, you don't need to simultaneously hold down the shift (or Alt or Control) keys and a letter key. Press the shift key, then press the letter you desire (very handy for initial caps in a sentence). The Sony has a caps lock key.
Horsepower and Performance
We found the UX180P to be very usable with Windows XP, and the UX280P even more so thanks to the memory bump from 512 megs to 1 gig. The UX3xx series got a modest CPU speed increase from the 1.2GHz Core Solo the the 1.33GHz Intel Core Solo U1500. The SSD (solid state drive) in the UX390N offers a small speed boost in some operations and the Windows Experience score for the SSD hard drive is 5.2 vs. 3.7 on the convention hard disk in the UX380. But Vista Business feels a bit slow on the UX3xx series, albeit faster than the OQO model 2. Our fresh UX380N took 1.5 minutes to boot into Vista (to the point where Windows Sidebar loaded and the machine was actually ready for real use), with the UX390N being faster to boot (though it's slower to resume from hibernation than the UX380N). Waking from sleep takes about 20 seconds on the UX380N, not an instant-on PDA but bearable given the computer's full-blown Vista power. Once Vista completely loads, MS Office 2007 runs fine, as do IE, Firefox and other Net and productivity applications. They aren't blazing fast, but they're certainly usable. Photoshop is a bit sluggish, Dreamweaver runs with reasonable speed and some less demanding games run passably though not admirably. Keep in mind this is a palmtop computer and not a 17" desktop replacement though.
The included docking station, front and back.
The UX use Intel's 945 chipset (the same chipset used on standard Intel-architecture notebooks), has a gig of DDR2 RAM soldered to its tiny motherboard (the machine can handle 2 gigs max but Sony doesn't offer a UX with this option), and either the 32 gig solid state flash memory drive (on the UX390N) or a 1.8" 40 gig ATA100 conventional hard disk (UX380N). Graphics are handled by Intel's integrated 950GM which uses 224 megs of shared (system) memory (Windows reports 251 megs). Though the UX only manages a 2.0 score for 3D graphics, it gets 3.1 for Aero graphics and so Aero does run just fine. If you plug in an external monitor at 1024 x 768 Aero will continue to run, but up the resolution to 1600 x 1200 or higher and it turns off.
Gaming on the UX isn't the challenge we expected. Newer games that aren't hugely demanding in the 3D department actually did better because they support the computer's native resolution which means the stylus works. We tested the Sims 2 and it ran fine, though not blazingly fast and most visual effects were turned down; Quake 2 and Age of Empires II (though you must use 800 x 600 resolution and forego the stylus).
The UX380N managed a Windows Experience Score of:
Graphics (for Aero): 3.1
3D Graphics: 2.0
Hard Disk: 3.7
We downloaded the latest Intel driver from Intel's web site and the 3D graphics score jumped up to 2.6! Oddly doing the same for our Vaio TX with the same Intel graphics chipset decreased speed, but in the UX's case it's definitely worthwhile.
We ran the PC Mark tests with an external monitor connected, since the graphics test require 1024 x 768 resolution. While these numbers aren't up to today's fast dual core machines, they're surprisingly good for a handtop and comparable to 2 to 3 pound ultralight notebooks (other than the integrated graphics, which are a bit lower than average).
The 40 gig disk drive has about 15 gigs free as shipped with Windows Vista and bundled full and trial versions of software. That's enough to store required apps, but not enough room for those with extensive iTunes video libraries to go wild. You can store movies and data on Memory Stick Duo cards, and we used a 4 gig SanDisk Ultra II Memory Stick Pro Duo with our UX. This card is fast enough for ReadyBoost, though we didn't get a worthwhile performance gain using it (and resuming from hibernation was slower).
We used to love software bundles, but these days you get a lot of bloatware. The tiny UX even gets its share of added software and trialware you'll probably want to remove to conserve precious disk space (we gained 5 gigs by removing Norton, MS Works, a variety of software trials and SQL Server 2005 which is used by the Vaio Media Server-- which most won't use on a palmtop computer). That said, if you don't own MS Office and don't intend on buying it, the full version of MS Works 8.5 might come in handy. There's also a 60 day trial of Microsoft Office 2007 Small Business Edition, WinDVD (DVD playback software), Microsoft Streets and Trips 2006, Sony's Sonic Stage and Image Converter, a basic edition of QuickBooks, Cingular Connection Manager and more.
The well connected UX has WiFi, Bluetooth 2.0 +EDR, the AT&T wide area wireless connection and wired 10/100 Ethernet (which requires either the dongle adapter or the dock). It has an integrated Sony Ericsson GSM radio which supports GPRS and EDGE (WAN), The unit has the Intel Pro/Wireless Intel PRO/Wireless 3945ABG chipset for WiFi 802.11a/b/g, which is a part of Intel's mobile package. It's reliable, comes with good management software and good security support. We found the UX380N had better WiFi range than the UX180P, though the hardware is the same (the software seems to provide more power to the radio when in low signal areas). . Bluetooth behaves well (if such a thing can ever be said) and the Sony uses Toshiba's Bluetooth stack. You can use it with Bluetooth stereo headphones, GPS, mobile phones and PDAs among other things.
The built-in EDGE radio supports both EDGE and the slower GPRS standard. It's strictly for data and there's no software for making voice calls. There's a SIM card slot under a tiny hump on the left side, affixed with a single tiny phillips head screw (the door must be closed securely or the Vaio will complain that the SIM door is open). So yes, you could pop your phone's SIM in there, but by the time you take out your phone's battery, remove the SIM, unscrew the door on the Vaio and pop the SIM in there you could've already checked your email with your BlackBerry or Treo. Life is easier if you can leave the SIM in there, should you plan on frequent EDGE network use. Or use your 3G Bluetooth phone as a wireless modem for better speeds (assuming the phone has Bluetooth 2.0, older versions can be a bottleneck-- the Samsung BlackJack would be a good choice). The UX is sold locked to Cingular, but we're told you can still call Sony support to get an unlock code should you wish to use another carrier's SIM card in the Vaio. Cingular's connection manager software is pre-installed and is easy to use (though it's an older version than that currently available on Cingular's web site). The UX has very good reception on Cingular's network and we got around 140k. Do raise the antenna, it gets you two bars more reception. The UX380N comes with a 30 day Cingular trial.
The UX ships with a 2600 mAh battery that slides onto the back comprising the right grip. An extended battery approximately doubles runtimes and makes for a humpy grip that's actually easier to grip than the standard battery. The UX will not lie flat on its back with the extended battery, though it will still fit in the docking station. The standard battery lasted us 2.5 to 3 hours on a charge using the Vaio Optimized power setting with WiFi and Bluetooth on. Lowering the display brightness has a surprisingly small impact on battery life, unlike most notebooks.
The UX comes with a very compact charger, that's about the same size as the PSP's and doesn't add much weight or bulk to a travel bag.
Given the full power of Vista and the UX380N's incredibly small size, it could be far too easy to leave sensitive data behind in a cab or at a cafe. Thankfully the UX series has biometric fingerprint reader and Protector Suite QL for Windows. You can use this to log into Windows, enter application login and passwords and web logins: instead of typing in your password, swipe your finger and you're in. The software reads fingerprints quickly and well and you can enroll several fingers (they need not be from the same person). Security is managed at the hardware level by a TouchChip Fingerprint Coprocessor.
We loved the original Sony Vaio UX180P for its daring step into the world of full-featured handheld computing. The UX380N is still compelling and amazing, but the so-so keyboard, slow EDGE connection and sluggish Vista performance hold it back from another Editor's Choice award. That said, if you need Vista in your (roomy) pocket, nothing beats the UX.
Pro: Beautiful design with excellent build quality and very good ergonomics. The UX has everything you'd expect from a normal notebook, including a standard Intel chipset, WiFi, Bluetooth 2.0 +EDR, a Memory Stick Pro Duo slot, and a USB 2.0 port-- quite amazing and powerful. We like that the dock and travel dongle are included, along with a padded soft case. The front and rear facing cameras are perfect for Skype and vertical market use.
Con: Keyboard lacks travel and good tactile feedback. EDGE connection is dated now that many notebooks come with embedded EVDO or HSDPA. Vista runs fine, but the machine can just barely keep up.
Display:1024 x 600 resolution, 32 million colors, 4.5" display. XBrite technology with touch screen. Intel 945GM integrated graphics with 128 megs shared video memory. Can drive an external monitor.
Battery:2600 mAh Lithium
Ion rechargeable. Battery is user replaceable.
Extended battery available for purchase.
Core Solo U1500 ULV processor running at 1.33GHz with 2 megs level 2 cache and 533MHz front side bus. 1 gig of DDR2 PC-3200 RAM soldered on motherboard (2 gigs max, but we know of no way to upgrade it). 40 gig, 4200 rpm hard drive (32 gig SSD on the UX390N).
Size:5.91 x 3.74 x 1.27 - 1.5 inches. Weight: 1.2 pounds.
Camera:1.3MP rear facing camera and front VGA camera. Both can take still shots and video with audio.
Audio:Realtek HD Audio, mono speakers, built-in mic, stereo 3.5mm headphone jack and mono mic-in jack.
WiFi 802.11a/b/g (Intel PRO/Wireless 3945ABG) and Bluetooth 2.0 +EDR.
Vista Business. Full versions of MS Works 8.5, Microsoft Streets and Trips 2006, Quick Books, WinDVD, Norton Internet Security, Sony Image Converter 2 Plus, Vaio Recovery, Sony's SonicStage, Vaio Media, Sony wireless management utility, Protector Suite QL (for the biometric security feature), PenPlus, Vaio Launcher. Trial versions of MS Office 2007 Small Business Edition (60 day trial).
Memory Stick Pro Duo slot. One USB 2.0 port, one FireWire 4 pin port, 3.5mm mic and headphone jacks. Docking station has 3 USB 2.0 ports, 4 pin FireWire, VGA, Ethernet and AV. Dongle has VGA, Ethernet and AV connectors.
Security:Biometric fingerprint scanner. Protector Suite QL software and TouchChip Fingerprint Coprocessor.