by Lisa Gade, Editor in Chief. June 13, 2004 Note: This was a Japanese model available
only from importers in the US.
Update: Nov. 2004: Sony announced
that they'll sell the U70 in the US for ~$2,000 as the U750
It's a rare pleasure to review something that's
so innovative and unique. The Sony Vaio U50 and U70 are full Windows
XP computers in a near-PDA form factor. The U models measure 6.6
x 4.3 x 1.0 inches and weigh 1.2 pounds. While it may look
like an overgrown PDA, it runs Windows XP, has a Celeron 900 MHz
(U50) or Pentium M 1GHz Centrino processor (U70), a 20 gig hard
drive and 256 or 512 megs of RAM. Like a PDA it has a transflective
touch screen, though it does not run Windows XP Tablet Edition.
Fascinating concept, no? While the OQO ultra-personal computer
has made the rounds at various trade shows for a few years, it
has yet to reach production. Like the U series, it looks like a
large PDA but runs Windows XP and has a touch screen. Who'd have
guessed that Sony would beat both OQO and the Vulcan Flipstart
to market? Though the Sony is a bit larger than the OQO and doesn't
have an integrated keyboard, you can buy one now from importers
such as iCube,
who sent us this review unit. And availability certainly counts
for something! iCube converts the unit to English before they send
it to you, and offer 1 year of tech support and warranty coverage.
The U comes in a nice box packed with goodies.
It comes with a docking station/port replicator, and folding USB
keyboard, padded carry case, wrist strap with a strange stylus
attached, earbud stereo headphones, AV remote and a combined VGA-out
and RJ45 Ethernet adapter. Sony isn't a stranger to the concept
of ultra-personal computing, their U1, U3 and U101 models sold
in Japan and via importers in the US were also amazingly small,
though they did have traditional clamshell notebook designs with
keyboards. The U50 sells for $2,199 and the U70 for $2,699. Unlike
PDAs, the U50 and U70 can run Windows applications.
Above: small enough to hold with
one hand. Yes, that's Age of Empires II on screen!
Above, the included padded case
and the back side of the U50. Below: the included cradle and keyboard.
The U is obviously incredibly small for a Windows portable
PC. While it won't fit in your pocket, it's 1/4 of a normal notebook
PC. It's only 1" thick with the included standard battery clipped
on the back. A brushed aluminum bezel is inset on the front and the sides
are black. The battery acts as the back of the unit and is silver with
a large VAIO logo. On the front you'll find a variety of controls and
buttons designed to make the unit easy to use when not connected to a
mouse or keyboard. The design is good for right handed users, with a
round pointing device on the right near the top, and left and right mouse
buttons on the left of the display. Above the left and right mouse buttons
you'll find a third "middle" mouse button. A square rocker
above the pointer acts as page up/down, left and right in most applications
and has a center button that functions as enter key. On the lower left
is a button for zooming and another for screen rotation (the U supports
landscape and portrait orientations). On the right are brightness button,
a tools button that brings up a variety of controls in Japanese, and
a button that brings up the onscreen keyboard and (Japanese) handwriting
recognition input panel. There are also LEDs for power, charging and
hard disk activity. On the left side you'll find the power switch, a
hold button (all Sony Clié PDAs also
have hold buttons to prevent accidental button presses from turning on
the unit when in transit) and a jack for a stereo headset and included
remote (the remote is another Clié feature). A WiFi on/off switch, "reset" (sends
a control-alt-delete to the PC) and USB port are located on the right
side. The docking connector, two vents and a charging port are located
on the bottom, and a vent, CF type II slot, Memory Stick slot and a standby
button are located on the top. There are also small slots on the left
and right ends for connecting the included hand strap with attached stylus.
The included dongle connects to the port replicator connector on the
bottom and provides standard VGA out and an RJ45 Ethernet port.
Above: the back of the cradle/port
replicator with 2 USB, 4 pin FireWire, VGA, another USB, RJ45 Ethernet
and power connector. There's another USB port on the side.
The included carry strap and attached "potato
chip" stylus. You can use any PDA stylus you like, so feel
free to leave the potato chip in the box.
The included docking station/port replicator provides
standard PC ports: there are three USB ports on the rear, an additional
one on the right side, and RJ45 Ethernet, standard VGA and a 4 pin unpowered
FireWire port with a power port for use with Sony iLink peripherals.
On the front edge there are two LEDs that light green when the unit is
in the replicator. These LEDs are also buttons: press the right one to
switch to an external monitor and the left one is supposed to launch
Vaio Video Download Manager, though that doesn't seem to ship with the
US converted U models. While the Vaio doesn't have a plethora of ports,
it has the basics most users will need, and the port replicator adds
all the standard ports you'd find on a notebook PC.
Despite appearances, the Sony Vaio U50 and U70 are
indeed Windows computers. They can run Windows software, and take as
long to boot up or resume from standby as any notebook PC. So if you're
looking for instant-on, quick access to data, and don't need to run Windows
PC software on the device, consider notebook-like PDAs such as the Sharp
Zaurus C860. Like notebooks and unlike PDAs, the U does get pretty
warm but not hot during extended use. You won't burn yourself holding
the unit, but you will have warm hands.
The U50 runs Windows XP Home Edition, has a 900MHz
Celeron processor and 256 megs of RAM. Importers such as iCube will ship
it with XP Pro for an additional fee. The U70 runs Windows XP Pro, has
a 1GHz Pentium M Centrino processor and 512 megs of RAM. Both models
come with US English versions of the operating system, so you won't need
to take lessons in Japanese to use the units.
Both U models use the Intel 855GM graphics chipset
with 64 megs of shared video RAM. This is the same chipset used on most
Centrino notebooks and performs well enough to play some games.
The units use DDR 266 RAM, and have one slot for memory.
If you remove the battery, you'll see a door held in place by a phillips
head screw for the tiny RAM module. 512 megs seems to be the max the
unit can address, and both have a 20 meg 1.8" hard drive. These
nifty drives aren't quite as fast as standard 2.5mm notebook hard drives,
but they do use half the power. The drive has a 2 meg cache (the same
as most notebook and basic desktop hard drives), a 4,200 RPM rotational
speed and has an ATA-5 interface capable of 100MB/sec transfer
How's performance? Don't expect this to be a desktop
replacement, but do expect it to be more than adequate for MS Office,
email and web browsing as well as video playback and light gaming. It's
truly a portable movie player in addition to being a full Windows PC.
I had no qualms using the U50 with the 900MHz Celeron processor for everyday
office tasks. I expected it to be quite slow, but it was a decent performer.
I would upgrade the RAM to 512 megs if you get the U50, since Windows
XP runs faster with 512 megs of RAM. The Centrino 1GHz model should be
a much better performer, and that same processor is used on other decently
fast subnotebooks and Windows XP tablets. If you're thinking of using
this unit for serious high end digital art creation using Corel Painter
or Photoshop, consider a Windows XP Tablet machine
instead. Professional digital art apps like more horsepower and the U's
screen doesn't offer high resolution or pressure sensitivity for drawing
Screen, Sound and Battery Life
The U50 and U70 have a 5" 800 x 600 transflective
touch screen. The screen is on par with the superb Sharp Zaurus C860 and SL-6000 displays,
and better than current PDAs displays by a bit. It definitely is
better than standard notebook displays, with the possible exception
of Sony's own XBrite display technology which may be just as good.
The screen is really gorgeous with great color saturation, brightness
and sharpness. Watching movies is a real treat, as is viewing photos.
The screen is so sharp and contrasty that it's not terribly hard
to read the screen, despite the small 5" size. In case you
do find text hard to read, the U has a hardware zoom button on
the front panel that allows you to zoom down to 640 x 480 resolution
(or up to higher resolutions with virtual desktop panning). Since
it uses the same touch screen technology found on PDAs, you can
use any stylus or even your finger as a pointer. The included stylus
is strange! It's not shaped like a pen or PDA stylus, but rather
it's a 2.5" long, 1/2" wide (at the middle) plastic affair
that's shaped like a curved potato chip or curled leaf. Sony feels
this thing is ergonomic, but I find it very awkward. Thankfully,
you can use any stylus you wish.
The Vaio has another neat and useful feature:
with the press of a button, you can rotate the display from landscape
to portrait. In portrait orientation, the pointing device is at
the bottom. You can not rotate the display into four different
orientations to suit lefties and righties, as you can with a Windows
XP Tablet: there is only one landscape and one portrait orientation
position. You can enable tap and hold emulation for right clicks,
turn on a screen tapping sound, calibrate the display and you can
even disable the touch panel if you wish using the Touch Panel
Properties control panel applet.
The display on both models is driven by an Intel
855GM integrated graphics chipset (a part of the usual Centrino
package) with 64 megs of shared memory. For an integrated graphics
chipset, the 855GM has so far turned out to be a strong performer
that offers fast screen re-draws and even supports current games.
Of course you'll need to plug in an external CD ROM to play games,
and you won't get flying frame rates in units of this class, but
for The SIMs, Rise of Nations and Max Payne you can definitely
make do. The Intel graphics processor and VGA out port can drive
an external monitor up to 1600 x 1200 resolution in 32 bit color.
The U has a single mono speaker that isn't inspiring.
Fortunately the unit's standard 3.5mm stereo out jack does an excellent
job of driving headphones and powered speaker. The unit even comes
with the AV remote found on Walkmen and certain high end Cliés.
This plugs into a port on the U, and allows you to adjust audio
volume, fast forward, rewind and etcetera.
The Vaio U50 and U70 come with an 1,800 mA battery
that snaps onto the back of the unit forming the back plate of
the unit. A 3,600 mA extended battery is available and that looks
the same as the standard battery, only thicker. While 1,800 mA
isn't a lot of power for a notebook, the power-frugal Celeron and
Centrino processors and small display don't crave a lot of juice.
I got 3 hour runtimes with power management and WiFi turned on,
and 3.5 hours with WiFi off. Those are good runtimes for a notebook
and certainly good for a unit with a small battery. Since the U
is a regular Windows XP PC, power management is handled as on any
other notebook, and your data will remain intact if the battery
drains fully. If you don't want to wait for the unit to boot up,
you can press the standby button, putting the unit to sleep. It
should last at least a day on standby, depending on the starting
charge level. Sony includes their own power management software
in English which is full-featured and customizable.
Ports, WiFi and Expandability
Despite its small size, Sony managed to squeeze
integrated WiFi 802.11g into the unit. This is Sony's own WiFi
module and it worked well using Windows' networking management
and had very good range. It played well with 802.11b access points,
so don't worry if you haven't upgraded your network hardware to
the 802.11g standard. You can turn WiFi on and off using the slider
switch on the unit's right side. The Vaio also has Intel Pro 10/100
VE integrated wired Ethernet. To use this, you'll attach the included
dongle to port on the bottom of the unit. This dongle also has
a standard VGA port— a slick way of handling space constraints.
The Sony Vaio X505 uses the same
dongle design. The computer has one USB 2.0 port and there are
four USB 2.0 ports and an IEEE1394 iLink 4 pin (unpowered) Firewire
port which has DC out for Sony's iLink peripherals on the port
replicator. The replicator also has a standard VGA port and an
RJ4510/100 Ethernet port. So you can dock the Vaio and use it as
a desktop replacement with keyboard, mouse, monitor and wired Ethernet
connected to the replicator. Pretty amazing!
You can use USB and FireWire CD/DVD ROM drives
(you'll need one to install applications), external hard drives,
printers and all the peripherals you'd use with a notebook. The
one thing missing is a PCMCIA slot.
ICUBE ships the U50 with Windows XP Home Edition
and the U70 with Windows XP Professional (both in US English).
If you want the U50 with XP Pro, they'll install it for $150 additional.
No need to worry about converting the unit to English yourself.
The only time you'll run into Japanese is when you use a few of
the control panels such as the SoundMAX audio control panel applet
and Sony Notebook Setup (allows you to change BIOS settings when
in Windows). The Sony Tools menu which comes up when you press
the tools button is in Japanese (I believe this utility is built
into the BIOS and isn't a software app running under Windows).
The unit ships with English versions of standard Sony notebook
software such as Memory Stick utilities, DVgate Plus (video capturing
and editing), PictureGear Studio (create photo albums), Network
Smart Capture (capture still and moving cameras by controlling
an optional Sony Handycam), Vaio Media (allows Vaio computers to
create, serve or join Vaio multimedia networks in your home or
office) and Sony's excellent power management application.
For handwriting recognition, the Vaio comes with
NextText, which supports Japanese only. That said, it does also
provide a handy on-screen English keyboard. iCube recommends PhatWare's
Pen Office which worked quite well on our unit. You can buy PenOffice
from iCube or direct from PhatWare.
This software allows you to use handwriting recognition as well
as mark up documents.
The unit comes with a thick printed manual, though
it's in Japanese. iCube provides an English quick start guide and
an intro to NextText. In addition you'll get the restore CDs.
unique machine combines the strengths of a PDA with a Windows PC.
It has a touch screen that works with any PDA stylus, is incredibly
small and portable yet runs Windows XP. Despite its small size,
it offers plenty of expansion and ports: It has VGA, USB 2.0 and
Firewire ports, wired Ethernet and a Memory Stick slot and a CF
slot. Integrated 802.11g WiFi works well and will keep you connected.
Lots of goodies come with it: docking station/port replicator,
folding USB keyboard, VGA/Ethernet dongle, carry case, AV remote,
earbud headphones and a carry strap. Cons: Price!
No included internal or external optical drive means you'll have
to provide your own CD or DVD drive. 800 x 600 resolution seems
low by today's standards, but is certainly usable. Not exactly
a desktop replacement in terms of performance but that would be
a lot to ask of such a small unit. No PCMCIA slot.
Sony Vaio U50: (Windows XP Home, 900MHz Celeron
processor, 256 megs RAM) $2,199
Sony Vaio U70: (Windows XP Pro, Pentium M 1GHz, 512 megs RAM) $2,699
x 4.3 x 1.0 inches. Weighs 1.20 pounds with standard
Display: 5" 800
x 600 transflective color touch screen. Intel® 855GM
Chipset Integrated Graphics with 64 megs shared video
memory supporting 16 bit and 32 bit color. Can drive
an external monitor at resolutions up to 1600 x 1200.
integrated digital audio controller, PCM 16bit Sound
Blaster compatible audio, integrated speaker. 3.5mm
standard stereo out jack and connector for included
Centrino technology. Ultra Low Voltage Intel® Pentium® M
Processor running at 1 GHz. U50: 900MHz Intel Celeron
RAM: U50: 256 megs, U70: 512 megs,
which is max. 266 MHz DDR memory, non-standard
DIMM. 1 slot for RAM.
GB Toshiba MK2004GAL 1.8" hard drive. 100MB/s
Ultra DMA Transfer Rate, 15ms average seek time.
Intel Ultra ATA controller.
CF slot (supports type I & II cards), 1 Memory
Stick slot support all forms of Memory Stick including
Pro, 1 FireWire (IEE 1394) 4 pin non-powered 400
Mpbs, 1 USB 2.0 port on computer (4 on port replicator),
RJ45 Ethernet 10/100, VGA. You
must use the included dongle for the VGA and RJ45
jacks or the port replicator.
Intel Pro/100 VE wired Ethernet. Sony 802.11g WiFi
built-in, supporting both 802.11g and 802.11b wireless.
mAh Lithium Ion standard. High capacity 3,600 mA
battery available separately.
US version of Windows XP Professional. U50: US version
of Windows XP Home (you can pay an additional fee
to upgrade the U50 to Pro).