Review – Sony Clie UX50

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This is a review of the Sony Clie UX50. The Clie UX40 is very similar, offering no WiFi and minor cosmetic differences.

Sony has made a good habit of pushing the limits with their high-end PDAs. The Sony Clie UX50 is no different, marking the first time a Sony Clie has included built-in WiFi. Not only that, but the UX50 also fits in Bluetooth, a digital camera, landscape screen and a number of other goodies. The only question really, is whether or not these big time features are worth a big time price tag.

Design

The UX50 takes on a clamshell form factor, similar to the popular NR/NX/NZ series Clies. But this model is quite a bit different. Where the others are more elongated, standing tall in a user’s hand, the UX50 is the shape of a laptop. Anyone who is not familiar with the PDA world, may in fact think it is a mini-laptop, and why not? Opening the screen reveals a 50-key keypad and a display that is situated in landscape, much like a laptop. And after using it for the better part of a month, it really feels like a laptop.

Normally a PDA has a front, back and two sides. The UX50 is a bit different in that it has more of a top, bottom, two sides and an inside when the display is open. Looking down on top of the unit, the swivel-mounted camera is in the top left of the PDA. On the other side is a hardware button to launch the camera application. Once the application is launched, the button switches to a capture button to snap pictures should you not want to use the button onscreen. At the foot of the device going left to right is the lanyard holder (pointless for a $700 PDA), microphone, scroll wheel and back, web, mail and contact book hardware buttons. When in tablet mode, the layout is nearly identical, with the addition of WiFi and Bluetooth indicator lights on side of the screen.

UX50 open front view

Sony has been including a scroll wheel for ages it seems. However, this implementation is quite different from those in the past. Normally a thin wheel on the left side of the PDA, this time the wheel is much thicker and mounted on the front. Unfortunately, this scroll wheel is not even close to being as usable as past models. While it could come in handy when viewing web sites or long Word documents, it simply doesn’t scroll fast enough to be effective. Unfortunately there’s no way to adjust this in the preferences. You can move in larger chunks by depressing the button and scrolling at the same time, but I find this to be frustrating and quite ineffective. Worse yet is when the screen is rotated in tablet mode. The base of the screen blocks access to the wheel enough to make its use annoying. I would have much preferred the old style wheel where the power button currently resides, moving the power switch to the lower right side of the device under the Memory Stick slot.

The left side of the unit holds the power switch with hold function. The hold is great if you want to listen to MP3’s without running the screen or want to protect against accidentally powering on the unit. Continuing along the side is the infrared port and mini-USB port used for syncing the PDA with a computer over USB. The mini-USB port is covered by a plastic door attached to the PDA with a rubber connector. I have concerns about the longevity of this connector. While mine appears sturdy enough now, it’s hard to tell if it will hold up under wear and tear and the hardening that affects rubber over time.

The right side of the unit houses the stereo headphone jack, Memory Stick slot and stylus silo. The stylus is actually quite impressive for its size. At 2 ” closed, it telescopes to a touch over 3 ” with a solid locking feeling. It won’t collapse back down unless you want it to. Of course it’s all metal with the exception of each end.

The bottom of the unit contains the speaker, reset pin and connection to the base station. I continue to be frustrated with Sony for placing the speaker on the bottom of their devices. The speaker is almost always covered by the user’s hand, base station or flat surface, like a desk. Sony really needs to find a way to resolve this so the speaker can play a more meaningful role. That said, the speaker quality is very good and one of the loudest I’ve used in recent memory. The reset hole is large enough for a stylus tip, which should be standard on all PDAs, but is not.

The UX50 has four holes on the bottom used for charging in the cradle. Well, two are used for charging and the other two do not appear to have a use, at least with the equipment included with the PDA. I have come to learn that the other can be used to sync the device. So, as I’m sure you have figured out, there’s no way to charge the UX50 without the cradle. I’m not sure this is a huge deal as the cradle is very small and portable, but something buyers should be aware of nonetheless. It is conceivable that an accessory will come out that will allow charging through the mini-USB port, but I’ve not seen anything like this to date.

Specifications

Let’s take a look at the specifications overview; then I’ll go in detail as appropriate for each item.

Operating System:

Palm OS v5.2

Dimensions:

4 1/8″ x 3 1/2″ x 23/32″

Weight:

6 ounces including stylus

Processor:

Sony CXD2230GX 123 MHz (Sony Handheld Engine)

Wireless:

Integrated Bluetooth and WiFi

Memory:

16MB RAM, 29MB Internal Media, 16MB Backup RAM

Expansion Slot:

Memory Stick, USB

Battery Type:

Lithium Ion Polymer

Audio Out:

Mono Speaker, Stereo Jack

Audio In:

Microphone

Display:

Transflective, Flip & Rotate Design

Resolution:

480 x 320 pixels, landscape orientation

Keyboard:

Integrated QWERTY with backlight

Handwriting Recognition:

Yes, Graffiti 2

Digital Camera:

Built-in Digital Camera with 3X Digital Zoom (310K effective pixel resolution, 640 x 480 pixels)

Other Hardware:

USB cradle, hand strap

Processor

Sony has gone with a proprietary chipset in the UX series, this model featuring the CXD2230GA. The chipset is unique in that it features an ARM-based CPU along with an embedded graphics accelerator. The UX50 also features specialized hardware and software for the audio applications. What this means is that even though the processor is only rated at 123 MHz, slow by Palm OS PDA standards, multimedia applications won’t lag. Watching movies on Kinoma was a breeze and the audio player worked flawlessly. Side-by-side, the UX50 is a step slower than other high-powered Palm’s, but I’m not sure the speed will be an obvious problem for most users. However, for the top-end of the scale, I would expect a little more pop from the processor.

Display

The UX series was the first to come out with a unit that leveraged a landscape display with the Palm OS. Since then the Tungsten T3 has been released, making the UX series slightly outmoded in that the display is permanently landscape. I don’t find this to be an issue with the UX though. The only way it would make sense to use the unit in a vertical manner would be when the display is rotated in the tablet mode. Even so, there’s little to be gained. Like other high-end Clies, the UX series leverages the clam shell form factor. That is, the Clie can be used in a laptop mode, or the screen may be swiveled to be used in tablet mode.

One of the benefits of having the wide screen orientation (480 x 320 pixels) is the ability to view office files and web pages in a meaningful way. The end result is quite nice and very usable, especially when you compare the experience to other wireless Palm PDAs. For applications that support full screen, the virtual graffiti area will collapse to give more area to view the application. The virtual graffiti area may also be situated to the left, should the user prefer.

While I find the display to perform well in subjective brightness and clarity tests, it’s not without flaw, largely related to its size. It really comes down to application support. For applications that leverage the entire display (3.25″ diagonal), I think it is fine for the most part. I played a number of games that worked in full screen and browsed the web extensively without problems, although extended use did result in minor eye strain. However, applications that do not use the full screen are very small. Back to the Kinoma Player example, since they do not support full screen, the application display is only a touch over 2.5″ diagonal, which is very small.

Regarding screen quality, in general it’s pretty solid for inside use. The brightness is not nearly as good as other Clies and it can’t hold a candle to the better Tungsten 3 screens. However, the colors are much more true than in older Clies, which is a nice fix. For normal inside use, I find it to be acceptable and completely usable. Outside is another issue though. Few PDA Screen perform well outside, but the problem is worse for PDAs with integrated cameras. In direct sunlight I found it almost impossible to take a decent picture because there is only an onscreen view finder. Again, most PDAs are not used outside, but people expecting to use the camera outdoors might take note.

Operating System

The UX series devices run on Palm OS v5.2. Obviously an adjustment has been made to the OS to allow landscape mode, but other than that there are few enhancements to the core Palm OS and applications.

Memory

Sony has been knocked for a long time for their miniscule memory specs in the Clie line. Well, they’ve done much better this time, offering a total of 104MB in memory. Here’s the breakdown: 8MB CPU embedded, 16MB heap, 16MB user accessible, 16MB backup, 29MB internal media, 19MB internal applications. I give Sony a ton of credit for creating a unique assortment of memory that ends up giving users a lot of flexibility.

Perhaps the most important segment of the memory is the 29MB internal media. This is used like a memory stick for saving pictures, sounds or other media files. It’s also much faster than accessing files off a memory stick, so sorting through pictures you’ve snapped will be a bit quicker.

16MB of user memory for applications continues to be light, when compared to other high-end Palm PDAs. In this day there’s no way to avoid the need for external memory media, and the UX is no different. You’ll definitely need to pick up a memory stick to hold some applications and multimedia files. The good news is that stick prices have fallen a bit and capacities now stand at 1GB. Sony’s media is now favorably positioned when compared to Secure Digital (for storage), when in the past it has struggled to keep up.

Wireless

If you’re buying the UX50, chances are you want the dual wireless, I know I did. The allure of built-in WiFi for use at home and in the office, coupled with Bluetooth for wireless access on the road was too much to pass up. For the PDA owner who travels frequently, there is no better option. The UX50 marks the first time a Palm OS PDA has featured integrated WiFi, while Pocket PCs have been offering WiFi for over a year. At the moment, the UX50 is one of the few ways to get WiFi in a Palm OS PDA. Drivers should be out before the end of the year to allow SD WiFi cards to work with OS 5 units and later.

WiFi

I’m very happy with how well the UX50 picked up access points at home, work and other unnamed locations. It has sniffer software that will scan for available networks or try to connect to ones it is already aware of. You may also manage the list of known connections so when the device is trying to auto connect, it will start at the top of your list. I’m not sure how to remove access points from this list though, as it can get a bit lengthy if you are active with your WiFi usage.


Data returned after searching for a network to join.


List of access points that don’t want to be removed.

I found the WiFi to react very well to both unprotected access points and those requiring a WEP key. One note, when Bluetooth is turned on, the WiFi cannot be used at the same time. So, if you want to turn on the WiFi manually, the UX50 will prompt you to disable the Bluetooth. Additionally, when you launch a program that requires the WiFi like Net Front, it will seamlessly disable the Bluetooth during the WiFi connection then re-enable it upon closing the browser.

Bluetooth

For times when WiFi isn’t the most suitable wireless option, the UX50 includes integrated Bluetooth. Through the prefs screen the UX50 can be connected to any other Bluetooth enabled device. The most popular uses at the moment seem to be syncing and connection to a Bluetooth phone for internet access. I prefer the latter, which is perfect when I’m out of WiFi range on the road.

The discovery process is simple enough, both finding devices with the UX50 and finding the UX50 with other devices worked as expected. Actually connecting the UX50 through a phone to the internet is a bit troublesome, I would really expect Sony to include their mobile connection wizard software with the UX50. I may have missed it, but I don’t think so. Anyway, you can pick it up here for free to simplify the process of pairing devices and getting things properly set up on the UX50.

http://ciscdb.sel.sony.com/cgi-bin/swu-install.pl?upd_id=1297&PASSVAL2=SMB

Web Browser

The UX50 comes with the latest version of the NetFront browser. It’s getting better, but from what I can tell, there’s still not a great web browser for the Palm OS. The one Palm uses is based on the same technology, but works substantially better. NetFront is by no means terrible, but browsing popular sites often results in content errors and again, there’s no way to manage multiple browser windows.


Get used to this one with more complex sites.


bargainPDA.com after shrinking the window to fit the display.

Size and Weight

The UX50 comes in at a reasonable 6 ounces, measuring 4 1/8″ x 3 1/2″ x 23/32″. Because of the clamshell form factor, it’s one of the most compact PDAs I’ve ever owned. This is certainly a good thing, as I have found the prior clamshell models to be far too elongated. I love how the UX50 sits in my hands and slipping it into a pocket, either pant or shirt, is no problem.

Audio

Output

The UX50 has the loudest speaker I’ve ever experienced with a PDA. I’ve been complaining for years, and again in this review, about Sony placing the speaker on the back of the PDA, where it’s often blocked by a hand or the screen if it’s in tablet mode. However, they’ve managed to make the little thing damned loud. Now, the quality is nothing special, you’re not going to replace headphones for MP3’s, but it’s more than adequate for system sounds, alarms, games and the like. It should be noted that the MP3 player can run in the background.

Sony has shipped headphones with most other high-end Clies, but they opted not to this time around. I can’t say that this saddens me, as the quality was usually sub-par. In the end I’d rather not pay for crumby headphones that I’ll never use. I have to think most other buyers of a $700 device have the headphones covered already.

Input

The UX series has a built-in microphone as you would expect. I recorded a few conference calls on it and found the playback to be quite acceptable. A 41 minute call recorded on the highest quality setting took up about 26MB. The recorder is easy to use and can also allow the recording of an alarm to be used elsewhere on the Clie.

Video

Output

The UX50 handles video playback quite well. I watched a number of videos in Kinoma format and found them to be good enough quality to continue watching. Sony has recently launched a special digital video recorder for the Clie series that saves television programming or DVD for that matter straight to a memory stick. I think this tool will substantially aid the UX50 in becoming the multimedia device it wants to be. By taking the compression hassle out of the equation, it will be almost plug and play easy for anyone to watch video on their Clies.


Sample of the Kinoma movie used to test the battery.

Input

The video camera in the UX50 captures video along with still shots. It’s fun, but not very usable. The end result is so small that watching it on anything other than the UX50 is senseless. This is a fun tool though when a friend or coworker is on the verge of doing something really stupid that you just can’t afford to miss.

Battery

The UX50 battery, simply put, is bad. There’s a reason that Sony offers an extended battery. I ran a few tests to give you a feel for how the battery responds under certain conditions. Times quoted are how long it takes to get the battery to 10%, where it shuts off the wireless radios.

Situation #1 — Bluetooth on, brightness set to full, sound on low. Kinoma Player looping the high resolution airplane demo video. 2 hours 50 minutes.

Situation #2 — All wireless off, brightness set to full, sound on medium. Constant playing of Warfare Incorporated, which is a very hardware intense game. 1 hour 45 minutes.

Situation #3 — Web browsing via WiFi, brightness set to three quarters, no sound. 1 hour 30 minutes.

In general, intense usage of any kind will kill the battery very quickly. Even recreational users will find the battery will drain within a day or two, even with little or no use. Just get in the habit of charging overnight or invest in the high capacity battery Sony offers.

Input

Software

One of the odd idiosyncrasies of the virtual graffiti (VG) area is that the entry blocks for numbers and letters are stacked, with the numbers on top and the letters on the bottom. The ghost function is still there, which shows a trail of the input you’ve made. I actually like this feature while some don’t. At any rate, there’s no conventional way to turn it off.

Decuma is another route to enter data into the UX50. You can create shortcuts for words or phrases you use a lot, or it can act as a graffiti 2 replacement. It does not, however, take over the same spot as the graffiti area, so a cramped screen gets much worse when Decuma is used. I’m not a big fan of it, although I’m sure some people will. Even with the goofy data entry that results from using graffiti 2, I’ve adjusted by now, so it’s not a big deal. There are other third party handwriting recognition applications that I would prefer over Decuma.


You may set up 10 shortcuts.

Hardware

Anyone looking at the UX50 is probably looking because of the keyboard. It might not be tops on the list, but a good keyboard can make a PDA so much more useful. As much as I can’t stand the keyboard of the Clie TG50, I’m happy to say that I’m a big fan of this one. Sure, I can’t type without looking, but that folds true for me with any mini-keypad, keyboard, or whatever you like to call it. Sony made further improvements by reducing the number of functions any one key has, clearing out a lot of clutter. The backlight is also quite pleasant. Overall, I find the keyboard to be one of the best out there in the PDA world. I still think the Tungsten C offers the best one, but it’s a raised design, which wouldn’t really work here. Sony has done a great job with the space they had to work with.


The keyboard backlight is very usefull on the UX50.

Software

The UX50 ships with a ton of software. All the standard Palm applications are included. To supplement those Sony includes the following: Audio Player, Clie Album, Clie Camera, Clie Demo, Clie Files, Clie 3D Launcher, Clie Mail, Clie Viewer, Data Import, Movie Player, Movie Recorder, PhotoStand, Photo Editor, Remote Camera, Sound Utility, Voice Recorder, Picsel Viewer and World Alarm Clock. Also shipped are a number of evaluation applications including games and productivity software.

Rather than go in-depth on all these applications (that’s been done), I’ll call out a few important ones. Those not familiar with the Clie line, should note that they are the only Palm OS PDA to ship with a utility to easily and quickly transfer files form the PDA, including memory stick, to and from the PC. I wish Palm would follow suit as sending files to the PDA during a sync is extremely painful. This also mitigates the need to have an external card reader, although it’s always nice to have one of those handy.

The Clie 3D launcher is Sony’s latest effort to “enhance” the way you interact with application selection. I find the launcher to be cluttered and difficult to use and quickly reverted to the Palm standard. Others will install one of the many very good third party launchers. Just know that if you see this launcher while demoing a unit at a store, you are not stuck with it.


The 3D launcher is difficult to use.


You may easily change to the traditional launcher.

Sony has always underperformed in the email application arena. This time is no different as Clie Mail falls well short of competing programs. I’m greatly disappointed by this as I use the UX50 for email and web access more than any other functions. Fortunately I have access to a stable of software to meet the need, however I think many users will have to buy a third party application when they realize how limiting Clie Mail is.

Sony once again includes Picsel Viewer instead of  Documents To Go or one of the other popular MS Office file handlers. Picsel falls well short in functionality meaning that most buyers will end up shelling out more money for software to meet this need. I can’t understand how Palm continues to find a way to offer Docs To Go and Sony can’t, especially at the $700 price point.

Camera

The UX50 comes with a 310,000 pixel camera that is capable of taking both stills and live video. It’s built on a swivel but provides no zoom or flash. The camera ends up being a gimmick again, as most low resolution cameras are. Until they push over 1MP, like the NZ90, I won’t find much of a need for the camera.

Here are a number of shots from the camera:


High amount of light.


Average light, don’t worry, the dog’s too fat anyway.


Direct overhead light, just a few items from the pantry.

Docking

I’ve talked a bit about the cradle or as I refer to it, the base station. It really isn’t a cradle in the traditional sense. I’m very impressed with the design and the best part of the design is its miniscule size. It ads nothing to the footprint of the UX50 and is quite slim. The docking process is a little awkward at first, but after a few weeks I find it easy to both dock and remove the UX50 with one hand quite easily.

Expansion

The UX50 does not include any of Sony’s standard connectors. This means none of the prior accessories will work. In fact, there’s not going to be an easy way to add accessories that have a physical connection with the device, so it will be interesting to see what add-on’s come out, if any. Of course the UX50 will connect with keyboards via IR and can leverage Bluetooth to connect to GPS devices or other peripherals.

The UX50 also features a Memory Stick Pro slot that can accommodate cards up to 1GB (larger sizes are in the words) or any accessory in that form factor. There are a number of options including a VGA out card, GPS, etc.

Conclusion

Pros:

Dual wireless built in
Small form factor
Extra on-board memory is nice
Quick processor
Reasonable keyboard 

Cons:

Expensive
Small screen real estate

Bottom Line:

My coverage of the UX50 has not exactly been glowing, but for what it’s worth, I really enjoy it. I think the size of the package is excellent, and having integrated Bluetooth and WiFi is a must for me. Simply put, there are no other options for my needs, but even if there were, the UX50 does an admirable job. Sure the price tag is steep, but that’s the cost for having a device that offers as much as the UX50 does.

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