Sony VAIO VGN-UX50 review

£951
Price when reviewed

Our look at the first UMPC devices left us deflated. There’s no denying their potential, but the current mish-mash of hardware, software and pricing is a long way from the original ultra-mobile dream and, we suspect, many people’s shopping lists.

While some companies are nonetheless forging ahead, others are more cautious. Sony has, thus far, only committed to releasing its UX series in Japan and the US. Thanks to www.uk.dynamism.com, though, they’re also available in the UK via import.

The UX50 is based around a low-voltage Intel Core Solo U1300 CPU, running a single core at 1.06GHz. Our application benchmarks returned an overall score of 0.49 – enough to be getting by with everyday applications. Intel’s GMA 950 integrated graphics looks after the visuals, providing just a pinch of 3D processing power.

This isn’t an official Origami device. Running Windows XP Home rather than XP Tablet Edition, Sony elects to use its own reasonable handwriting recognition and onscreen keyboard applications, as well as spurning Microsoft’s Touch Pack. The Touch Launcher provides a finger-friendly interface for initiating common tasks. But while the dedicated hardware button and swish looks are spot on, it shares the same issue as Microsoft’s version: once the application starts, you’re dumped straight back into the Windows interface, leaving you to prod around with the stylus.

There’s also a trackpoint and a pair of mouse buttons, both of which are eminently usable. Then there’s the integrated sliding keyboard (QWERTY, but with Japanese subtitles), which even includes a Windows key. Sadly, the keys are flush with the casing and far too small to make typing practical. Thumb-typing an email won’t kill you, but forget writing reports. On the plus side, keyboard shortcuts are a boon for navigation, and it’s backlit.

The wide-aspect TFT’s resolution of 1,024 x 600 doesn’t sound much, but on the 4.5in display it’s little short of astounding. Unlike many touchscreens it’s bright and clear and, if your eyes are up to it, it can fit a whole document, web page or email inbox in one. If not, there are dedicated zoom buttons to scale parts of the screen into clearer view.

All those hardware buttons (as well as a user-configurable one) go a long way to making the UX50 more practical. There’s a WLAN switch, and the power slider has a hold position, shutting off the input devices and screen to save power. There’s even a dedicated button for the two 1.3-megapixel cameras on board – one on the front and one on the rear of the screen. The accompanying software is fiddly, but they’re at least capable of some good results, and fine for video calls or recording a meeting.

Around the chassis, there’s a single USB port, CompactFlash/Memory Stick slots and mic in/headphone jacks, as well as a swipe-style fingerprint reader above the screen. Two docking options come as standard. The cradle offers 10/100 Ethernet, three USB 2 ports, FireWire and VGA out, while the smaller breakout box has just VGA and 10/100 Ethernet. Both also feature an A/V out jack, although no breakout cable is supplied.

While there’s 802.11a/b/g and Bluetooth, that’s it for wireless connections – a fatal blow. US versions of the UX series come with EDGE support, but there’s no GPRS or 3G, unless you opt to find a CompactFlash adaptor. It’s the same story with GPS: one or more of these properly integrated would significantly enhance the UX50’s appeal as a do-it-all mobile device. As it is, it’s largely restricted to home and office environments – battery life is barely adequate at 2hrs 37mins too, even under light use. And while the 529g weight isn’t noticeable in a bag, it’s far too big and heavy to make it into a jacket pocket.

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