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Sony Vaio U50 and U70 Handheld Computers

Posted 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.


Sony Vaio U50

Above: small enough to hold with one hand. Yes, that's Age of Empires II on screen!


Sony Vaio U70

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.







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cradle and keyboard

port replicator

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.

size comparison

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 rates.

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 and painting.

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.

Software Bundle

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.


Pro: This 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.

Pricing from iCube:

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



Size: 6.6 x 4.3 x 1.0 inches. Weighs 1.20 pounds with standard battery.

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.

Sound: SoundMAX integrated digital audio controller, PCM 16bit Sound Blaster compatible audio, integrated speaker. 3.5mm standard stereo out jack and connector for included AV remote.

Processor: U70: Centrino technology. Ultra Low Voltage Intel® Pentium® M Processor running at 1 GHz. U50: 900MHz Intel Celeron processor.

Standard RAM: U50: 256 megs, U70: 512 megs, which is max. 266 MHz DDR memory, non-standard DIMM. 1 slot for RAM.

Drive: 20 GB Toshiba MK2004GAL 1.8" hard drive. 100MB/s Ultra DMA Transfer Rate, 15ms average seek time. Intel Ultra ATA controller.

Ports: 1 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.

Modem: None.

Ethernet: Integrated Intel Pro/100 VE wired Ethernet. Sony 802.11g WiFi built-in, supporting both 802.11g and 802.11b wireless.

Battery: 1,800 mAh Lithium Ion standard. High capacity 3,600 mA battery available separately.

Software: U70: 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).


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