Thus far the UMPC concept has been just that, a concept. The hardware has been less than compelling, as manufacturers worry more about price point than producing something people want. To be fair, I enjoyed the Samsung Q1 at times and think it has a future with certain niche markets. Now Sony has come out with a second or third attempt at the UMPC market, depending on how you count their machines, and in typical Sony way, paid less attention to price than to features and functionality. Where the Samsung Q1 skimped, Sony splurged, releasing the most full featured UMPC, or Micro PC as they call it, to date. Say hello to the Sony Vaio UX180P.
Form and Design
As is the case with the entirety of Sony's product line, the UX180 is all about style. There's not a person, young or old, that I showed this to, who wasn't blown away. The entire package is tremendously sleek, given all the features that are jammed into this tiny package.
Front of the Sony UX180 (view large image)
Looking at the UX from the top down, the most obvious feature is the 4.5" display, which in traditional Sony fashion, is fantastic. We'll go into more detail later, but they continue to set the standard for small computing devices like this. Down the left side of the face are the, left, right and center mouse buttons, launcher button for Sony's management console and the wireless on/off switch. Across the top of the face are the speaker, biometric scanner and the front camera. Down the right side is the pointer, zoom in/out buttons, power switch (with hold function) and built in microphone.
Of course one of the greatest design features of the UX180, is the fact that the face slides up completely to reveal a 64-key QWERTY keyboard.
The bottom of the display also houses a status panel for the battery, hard drive, number lock, caps lock, scroll lock, Bluetooth, WLAN and WWAN.
Left side (view large image)
The left side of the UX houses a USB port, SIM card slot and an air vent, something this model has a lot of. The SIM card cover can be removed by taking out the screw. The UX comes with a Cingular card already installed, so if you have current data service on another SIM card, you should be able to swap them out without a problem.
Top side (view large image)
The top of the unit features an air vent, focus selection switch for the camera, Memory Stick Duo card slot and the capture button for snapping pictures. Of course the use of the Memory Stick Duo slot is going to rub some buyers the wrong way. Sony has licensed the Secure Digital format for other machines and it would have been nice to see here too, though they probably couldn't fit both and when it comes down to it. They have much more invested in the success of the Memory Stick than SD. It doesn't bother me much since I have a few Duo cards, but I understand the complaint.
Right side (view large image)
The right side is the most plain on the UX, there are two strap loops and a slot for the battery.
Bottom (view large image)
The bottom of the UX contains the DC in port, air vent, I/O connector, headphone jack and microphone jack. Since they're on the bottom you might fear losing the audio jacks when the UX180 is docked, but Sony carved out a slot for those cords, so they can stay connected. Though cords with L tips or other abnormalities might not work that well or may obstruct the keyboard when docked.
Back (view large image)
Odd for most portable computing devices, the back of the Sony UX180 has quite a bit going on. The sliding mechanism reveals a second integrated digital camera. The main area features a stylus silo, additional vents and a swing out antenna for the Cingular data service. The antenna appears to be very durable, but is not accessible while cradled. The back also has a few rubber feet that keep the UX from sliding when sitting on a desk.
In general, the UX180 fits in the hands about right, clearly designed for two-handed use. The materials are strong, there's no bending or creaking when torqued. The slider mechanism for the screen is a potential problem, but early on that seems solid too. We'll get into the details of all the features highlighted above, but in terms of build and design, the UX180 is very solid.
As usual, Sony shines when it comes to the display. The 4.5" LCD is gorgeous; the only real downside is there's no hardware buttons to manage brightness. You have to do this through an application, which is a little bit of a pain for a device like this. The screen performs flawlessly inside, but even does a respectable job outside, in full sun.
Screen in the dark (view large image)
The 1024x600 resolution is a little non-standard, but is welcome nonetheless. At 800x600 the device would have really suffered in terms of web browsing and certain productivity tasks like spreadsheets. At 1024x768, the screen probably gets too tight. So while it might sound weird, the decision to go with 1024x600 ends up being pretty solid in my book. I found it to be perfect for the way I used the device. Others I shared it with also found the resolution to be about right, though if you have troubled eyesight, long-term use of this display is going to result in eye strain.
One of our sites on the UX (view large image)
Of course the LCD panel is touch sensitive, so it works well with stylus input and even the occasional fingernail or fingertip, though both are discouraged throughout the manual. The screen is fully exposed at all times, so you're going to want to use the included case and those who are more nervous about these things definitely need to invest in a good screen protector.
Processor and Performance
The Sony UX180 uses the Intel Core Solo Processor U1400 (1.20 GHz, 2 MB L2 Cache). It's nice to see Sony going with a more powerful processor than Celeron based competing devices. For productivity uses, the processor and the included 512 MB RAM, will be sufficient. In fact, I could see this being a primary machine for those who do little more than use an office suite, the web and email. If you do any heavy work though, like Photoshop and the like, you'll find the UX struggling to keep up.
The included hard drive is a 30 GB 4200 RPM unit. Of course the down side is there's no way to upgrade with a faster unit, one of the compromises with a device this small. Sony did do some good though with what they had to work with. They included disk drive shock protection, which in a nice small droppable unit like this, is much appreciated. They offer three levels of protection, the more protection, the less performance. The default is at the medium level, I dropped mine to low since I plan on cradling it like a baby at all times.
The blue bars indicate drive stress (view large image)
The biggest problem with the hardware is that it's very difficult, it not impossible to upgrade the components. While this capability is expected with traditional notebooks and Tablets, it's not with PDAs and the rest of the UMPC market is about the same. So it's just something that's part of the deal with this type of machine.
We used SuperPI to calculate the number Pi to 2 Million digits in this raw number crunching benchmark. This open source benchmark application allows the user to change the number of digits of Pi that can be calculated from 16 Thousand to 32 Million. The benchmark, which uses 19 iterations in the test, was set to 2 Million digits.
|Machine||Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits|
|Sony Vaio UX180P (U1400 1.2 GHz)||2m 2s|
|Samsung Q1 UMPC (900 MHz ULV Celeron)||3m 6s|
|Fujitsu LifeBook P1500D (1.2 GHz ULV Pentium M||2m 23s|
|Fujitsu ST5000 Tablet PC(1.1 GHz ULV Pentium M)||2m 37s|
Generally we would include results from PC Mark, but more tests failed than succeeded with that software as it had trouble handling the UX. In general terms though, the UX is capable for productivity tasks but should not be expected to do well with gaming, or other high load activities.
Keyboard and Input
The UX180's keyboard is revealed by sliding the display up, or the body down, depending on how you look at it. The keyboard contains 64 keys with 0.15 mm stroke and 8.6 mm pitch. Upon revealing the keyboard a blue backlight comes on, which illuminates it well. When in use the backlight stays on for roughly 15 seconds after the last button press. Sony did a good job getting as many dedicated keys in place as they could. Then they gave secondary functions to almost all of them.
Keyboard revealed (view large image)
In terms of usability, I'm sort of mixed on the keyboard. I generally like it, but would prefer more definition to the keys. They're flat, making it difficult to tell where you are without looking. There's also not enough feedback, so I found at times I didn't know if I actually registered a button press or not. I would often find myself typing, only to stop to peek at the screen and notice I'd left a few letters behind. This issue will get better with usage though, as you train your fingers how to use the keyboard.
Backlit keyboard (view large image)
The UX also includes a very capable analog pointing stick. It works similar to a pointing nub on a notebook, controlling the direction of the mouse. Tapping the pointing stick also acts as a single click. I found the pointer to be very responsive with default settings; of course you can tweak these in the control panel. It's also pressure sensitive, so the harder you push the faster the mouse will move. Coupled with the three mouse buttons on the left, this is actually a really great way to interact with the UX. Sony has executed here where others have stumbled for whatever reason. If you use the pointer as much as I have, you'll be happy to know that Sony includes a few backup nubs should the included one wear out. The only down side is that I noticed it can pop off a little too easily, so be careful when taking the UX out of the included case, I lost mine in there more than once.
Another key interaction mechanism is the touch panel display. While you can poke the screen with your finger, it's ideal to use a stylus since it's more accurate and less messy. If you don't have experience with Tablet PCs or PDAs, it's absolutely critical to use a proper input device here. Anything else may damage the display, making your UX180 very unhappy. The included stylus is pretty good, a telescoping model that reaches 3 5/8" when extended.
Using the touch screen and stylus isn't much different than a mouse. A quick tap is the same as a mouse click and a double tap acts as a double click. Sony has also included something called touch commands, which give you even more control when using the stylus. For example, you can drag the stylus to the left to go back to the previous page in your web browser.
There are a few other buttons that are appropriate to discuss in this section. The launcher button on the left side is mapped to launch the Sony management application by default. This button can be mapped to something else if you like. The magnifying glass buttons on the right let you zoom in and out at any time. There are a few cases where the high resolution might be a strain, so being able to zoom in on a small section of a document or website might be helpful to some.
Sony really delivered where Samsung and others are completely missing the boat. They've offered, scratch that, included a fully functional docking station that makes a huge difference. Instead of being a stand alone computer, the UX180 becomes what can be a base computer for most users. The UX can just drop into the dock and get power, IEEE 1394, VGA, 3 USB, Ethernet, and AV out ports. The cradle is small enough to travel too, which is nice.
Front shot of the UX180 in the docking station (view large image)
Rear shot of the dock (view large image)
Side shot of the dock (view large image)
If the dock is too much though, Sony also tossed in a dongle that ads VGA out, Ethernet and AV out. These two included accessories are critical for this platform. The UMPC as a stand alone device is too niche, accessories like this are point on, expanding the functionality of the device exponentially.
VGA/Ethernet dongle (view large image)
Battery and Power
The battery in the UX180 is small, as it has to be by design, and it has to power a great deal of equipment. So it's not much of a surprise that when we ran Battery Eater Pro we busted through the battery in 95 minutes. The good news though, is that's the minimum effective life of the battery, so no matter how hard you try you shouldn't get much less. The reality is, battery life under normal conditions should be in the 2.5-3 hour range, depending on usage. In addition to the Windows power schemes, Sony includes an application of their own that's fairly robust, and will help you milk the maximum battery life out of this machine.
Power brick (view large image)
There's often a lot of worry about the power brick with units like this. Sony did well with this one, it's reasonably sized. Perhaps the coolest thing about it though, yes, something cool about a power cord, is the tip. It glows bright green when plugged in. It's a small touch, but a very nice one indeed.
Glowing green power cord (view large image)
One of the best things about the UX is the triple threat wireless. They've got the standard Wi-Fi and Bluetooth but also included access to the Cingular data network. The latter is absolutely critical in my mind for a device like this; at least the option is anyway. By design this computer is extremely mobile, so it needs to be able to access the Internet anywhere and sometimes Wi-Fi just isn't enough.
If you're new to the Cingular data network, Sony includes a free 30-day trial for the service if you sign up for a year at $79.99 (for unlimited data). You can cancel any time within those 30 days though at no cost. They also have a discounted rate for those with current Cingular phone service, at $59.99.
The utility of the Cingular service will depend on coverage in your area and how often you find a need to be online where hotspots or other connectivity options don't exist. I would prefer Sony work out a deal with Verizon, but they don't offer this, they have an exclusive arrangement with Cingular at the moment.
The wireless LAN is powered by Intel's 3945 ABG card. One of my major gripes about Intel's card is the included wireless management software, which I think is terrible. I was thrilled to notice that by default Sony uses the Windows zero configuration network manager. They give you the option to switch to Intel's though if you're into pain. As to connections, I found the wireless to be acceptable. It connected easily to a few different access points and the speeds were generally very good. I don't see any downside in terms of performance as a side effect to the tiny size of the UX. Perhaps if you're on the edge of the network range you'll see more significant drop off, but if you're in the main coverage area you'll be in good shape.
The integrated Bluetooth radio uses the Toshiba stack. I was able to pair a few devices with the UX180 with no trouble.
The Sony UX180 comes with an integrated biometric scanner. This of course gives you another layer of security. The fingerprint scanner can be used at both the BIOS and Windows levels. Registering my fingers was very easy, compared to other integrated scanners I've used. I registered four fingers in the time it normally takes to do one with Fujitsu's application. It's also quite fast and generally recognized my finger on the first try.
The biometric scanner also has additional functions. You can use it to log into accounts online, access the encrypted My Safe folder on your system and it can even be assigned to launch a program when you swipe your finger over it. These additional functions are actually significant, given the small size of the UX makes it more prone to loss or theft. I know I'll rest a little easier knowing my information is secure.
The UX180 includes an integrated microphone, mono speaker and jacks for headphones and microphone in. The built-in speaker leaves much to be desired, but given the form factor, it's acceptable. I would like to have a hardware control switch for the volume, since with an ultra portable device like this, it's nice to be able to quickly make it silent. As it is, the volume is controlled on screen, which is a mild hassle. The built-in microphone works well, recorded voice comes out clearly.
The UX180 comes with two, yes, two integrated digital cameras, one in front, and one in the back. The one in front is a .3 megapixel sensor that is designed to be used for video in chat clients and the like. The rear camera is 1.3 megapixel and exposed by sliding up the screen. It's designed for taking stills or video. Sony also includes a nice application for handling the cameras and taking shots and video.
Of course the camera quality leaves a lot to be desired, but that's true in almost every case for computers or PDAs that use low resolution digital cameras. On the upside, stills are snapped very quickly, with no lag. On the downside image quality is poor and there are no manual controls to handle white balance, zoom or the like, something we're seeing in even basic smartphones at this point. Following are image samples to give you a better idea of what the UX camera is capable of. These are all from the rear camera as the front camera is designed for instant messaging.
Camera sample shots
Regular shot inside with good natural light (view large image)
Close with macro (view large image)
Close without macro (view large image)
The flower samples show that the white balance is pretty bad on the camera. The couch in the background is beige but comes out almost green and the painted trim should be white. The flowers are also noisy, which means they appear grainy.
Regular shot outside in full sun (view large image)
Close with macro (view large image)
The truck example shows the colors to be over-saturated, the truck should be red and yellow, with the mulch a deep brown. The camera also appears to be pretty soft in the non-macro shots, notice the right side of of the full truck shot.
Regular shot inside, good light (view large image)
Close with macro (view large image)
These shots came out pretty well, the macro image being the best of the three.
The UX also shoots video at up to 320x240. If you crank the quality up to the maximum, one minute of recorded video will take 2.23 MB, using WMV encoding at 30 FPS. The UX supports taking up to 2 hours of continuous video, though the default is set at one minute.
Software and Documentation
The UX180 comes with a moderate amount of garbage software and a bunch of included Sony software tools. The latter are actually pretty useful, especially since the interface of the UX is somewhat limited. Their extra power profiles, camera management software, security software, backup software and the rest are welcome additions. On the documentation side, Sony did a pretty poor job. There is no paper manual, which is a shame, since the PDF manual is actually very helpful and a must read for any buyer of this device. At only 190 pages, it seems like something that should be included in the box.
Of course it depends on what you're after, but I really have enjoyed the Sony UX180. It's the first of the new batch of UMPCs that makes me think the platform has any chance of success. Sony did a bunch of things others aren't, most notably including a real processor, access to Cingular's data network, a fully functional docking station and an integrated keyboard. Sure, the $1,800 MSRP is going to scare many away, and comes in at several hundred more than the competition, all with a smaller screen. At the end of the day though it's about a machine addressing a specific computing need, and I think this Sony has more flexibility and more potential than anything else in the class.
Hard core PDA buyers are going to be pretty excited about all the hardware The UX brings to the table. You have to lug a little more weight than a PDA, but the terrific screen, keyboard, bevy of wireless options, capability for a full Office suite and a fantastic browsing experience will be surefire winners. Of course the cost is three times more than the highest end PDA, but that's part of the balancing act.
Notebook buyers looking for something in the ultra ultra-portable category will have to give the UX serious consideration. This is largely due to the docking solution Sony provided and the fact that the hardware is good enough to keep up with most productivity related tasks. Sony is even calling the UX180 Vista ready, so you've got that going for you too. In this case cost isn't much of an issue; in fact the UX180 comes in less than other ultra-portable machines and includes accessories that generally cost $150 or more. As a user of an ultra portable machine, I would have to give this strong consideration as a permanent solution. Of course there's no optical drive, but many ultra ports don't offer this anyway and such a drive can easily be added via USB or 1394.
Tablet PC buyers won't get the full Tablet PC experience since the UX comes with Windows XP and there is no option for the Tablet PC flavor. While there is stylus interface, it's more about navigation and manipulation than input. Still, if you're looking for something tiny that you can use a stylus and small keyboard with, this might be worth consideration.
Sony did a ton right with the VAIO UX180 and little wrong. I've been pessimistic about the commercial viability of the UMPC, but this gives me reason to think there's still some bubbles left in the soda. If Microsoft were wise, they'd tout this machine as the prototypical UMPC, and not it's under-performing, lackluster, $1,000 rivals.
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