Brighthand Reviews the Sony PEG-UX50

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PEG-UX50 The PEG-UX50 is a very high-end handheld that offers an impressive feature set in a small package. This includes a high-resolution screen, both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, 44 MB of memory, a keyboard, and a camera.

There’s a lot to like in this handheld but if you’re considering buying one you should be aware it has some weaknesses.

Form Factor

The size and shape of the UX50 definitely isn’t one of its weaknesses; it’s one of its greatest strengths. It has a clamshell design with a keyboard on one side and the screen on the other. Unlike Sony’s NX series, this model’s hinge is on its long edge, which means the screen and keyboard have a landscape orientation. This is the best way to set up a handheld with an integrated keyboard.

You don’t have to use it as a clamshell, though. The screen has the twist-and-flip design that we’ve become familiar with on Sony handhelds. This allows it to be used as a tablet, though the screen is still in the landscape orientation.

Even better, the UX50 is a device that’s surprisingly small for all it has to offer. It’s just 4.0 inches by 3.4 inches by .7 inches (103mm x 86.5mm x 17.9mm) and weighs 6.2 ounces (175 grams). This means it rides easily in your pocket, which isn’t something I can say of any other clamshell handheld I’ve used.

Screen

The UX50 is one of the first Palm OS models to offer a high-resolution screen with a landscape orientation. This makes it a great platform for viewing documents, web sites, and almost any content. But the screen isn’t all I would have hoped.

The UX50’s display has the same resolution as Sony’s NX series, 320 by 480 pixels. Unlike the NX series, though, it is oriented so the screen is wider than it is long.

Obviously, with this arrangement its virtual Graffiti area can’t be below the main part of the screen. Instead, it’s on the side. You have the option of putting it on the left or right.

Plus, the UX50 can display 16-bit color, necessary for good-looking images.

Sadly, Sony had to make some compromises with this screen. While the NX series’ screen is 2.15 by 3.1 inches, the UX50’s screen is 1.8 by 2.7 inches. This means the UX50’s screen has only about 70% of the area of the NX80V’s.

After just using this device for a couple days, I did a “first impressions” review in which I said the small screen didn’t bother me. As I’ve had a chance to use it for longer, I’ve changed my mind. The UX50’s screen feels cramped. This is exacerbated by the fact that most third-party applications don’t yet allow you to hide its virtual Graffiti area, which leaves you using a screen that is just 1.8 inches on a side, or 2.5 inches diagonally, with the virtual Graffiti area open.

As useful as the landscape-oriented screen is, when this handheld is in tablet mode the best way to use it would be with the screen in a portrait orientation, taller than it is wide. Sadly, the UX50 doesn’t allow you to do this. The only thing keeping this from being a major flaw is individual applications can support both landscape and portrait modes, and I’ve heard Sony is doing everything it can to help developers add this feature to their software. There have even been some rumors that Sony is going to release an update that will allow portrait support, but this could just be wishful thinking.

Most of the screens on recent Sony models have had a distinct bluish tint. I’m happy to be able to say that this isn’t true of the UX50. However, the backlight isn’t nearly as bright. The UX50’s backlight at maximum brightness is only about 60% as bright as an NX80V’s is.

Still this is bright enough for indoors. But outdoors the UX50 runs into a few problems, especially in direct sunlight. The screen gets washed out. It is good enough to, say, look up a phone number but I had a hard time taking pictures in the sun because the viewfinder was so hard to see.

Sony has taken advantage of the landscape-oriented screen by creating a new interface that serves as an application launcher. This lists applications on what looks like a 3D rotating wheel, and has been compared with a slot machine. It has clearly been designed for new users and is a bit simpler to use, as you don’t have to look through categories for your software. However, I’m sure most long-time Palm OS users will be happy to learn you can switch to the classic interface.

Keyboard

Because the UX50 has a landscape orientation, it has room for a wide keyboard. This makes it the best built-in keyboard Sony has offered so far.

The keys are large and well spaced. They are also on ridges, raising them a bit off the face of the handheld. After a bit of practice, I can enter text faster with a UX50 than I can with Graffiti or the thumboard on an NX80V.

The dedicated row of number keys significantly increases the usefulness of this keyboard.

One of the best things about it is Sony finally realized we need “sticky” keys. This means you no longer have to hold the Shift key down in order to capitalize a letter. It sounds like a small change, but it adds significantly to the keyboard’s usability.

Text Input

Graffiti 2 Of course, the keyboard isn’t your only option. The UX50 allows you to enter text in a virtual Graffiti area. Because the screen has a landscape orientation, the Graffiti area is on the side, rather than on the bottom. (It is normally on the right but can be moved to the left for the convenience of lefties.) As part of its new arrangement, the number area is now above the text area, rather than to its side. After some practice I’m finally getting used to having everything moved around.

This handheld uses Graffiti 2, not the original version. The characters you need to draw to make the letters are now a bit closer to the real letters, but the change is quite an adjustment if you are used to Graffiti.

Decuma In addition, you can use Decuma, which allows you to write more naturally. With Graffiti 2 you enter characters one at a time and you have to use specific strokes to enter each one. With Decuma, on the other hand, you write whole words in an area at the bottom of the screen and you write the letters pretty much as you would if you were writing on paper. You have to print, though.

However, because the UX50 doesn’t support portrait mode, the Decuma input area can’t replace the virtual Graffiti area. Instead, it appears across the bottom of the screen, taking up scarce screen space.

Buttons

The buttons on the UX50 are in a very unusual place: along the very front. This allows them to be accessible when the device is in both tablet and clamshell modes.

Instead of the usual four buttons for launching applications, the UX50 has only three. And it has no Up/Down buttons at all. Instead, you have to use the Jog Dial.

Speaking of which, the Jog Dial and Back button are also along the front edge, where they aren’t tremendously convenient to get to. They would be well placed if this handheld could be used in portrait mode, but it can’t. As it is, the Jog Dial and Back button would be better off where the UX50’s camera is now.

Wireless Networking

One of the best parts of the UX50 is that it offers both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, allowing you to surf the Web or get your email from just about anywhere.

Wi-Fi Wi-Fi is great when you are in range of an access point. You can get one of these for your home for a fairly low cost and there might also be one at your office. In addition, numerous coffee shops and bookstores have them. Wi-Fi offers a data transfer speed comparable to what you are used to on your PC, especially as you will mostly be using it to surf the Web.

The UX50’s Wi-Fi range is quite good. It can connect to my cheapie access point from anywhere in my house and only peters out at the end of my driveway.

Sony has put a lot of effort into making setting up a Wi-Fi connection as easy as possible. The UX50 has a Wi-Fi “sniffer” built into it, which looks for access points in its range and displays them for you on a list. You can then either pick the access point you want to connect to or just choose “Auto Connect” which will take care of this for you.

I had no problems using the UX50 with two different home wireless access points and with the Wi-Fi service provided by T-Mobile at Starbuck’s and Borders.

Bluetooth Wi-Fi isn’t available everywhere, though. That’s where the built-in Bluetooth comes in. You can use it to connect wirelessly to a mobile phone and access the Internet from anywhere you have mobile phone service. Of course, your phone has to be Bluetooth enabled.

Incidentally, if you can’t set a Wi-Fi network up at your office, you still have the option of adding a Bluetooth dongle to your PC and wirelessly connecting to your UX50. Bluetooth’s range isn’t anywhere close to Wi-Fi’s and the data transfer rate is much slower, but it uses less power.

Web Browser Once you are connected, you will enjoy surfing on the UX50’s browser, NetFront 3.0. The version of this application that ships with the UX50 allows you to surf the Web in landscape mode with the Graffiti area hidden. There are still plenty of pages that are wider than the UX50’s screen, but the amount of sideways scrolling I have to do has definitely been reduced.

This is a highly capable browser that handles a long list of Internet standards and, most importantly, allows you to choose between viewing Web pages at their full width or reformatting them to fit on the UX50’s screen.

Clie Mail The email app that comes with this handheld is pretty good. It offers the features most people need, but power users should consider third-party email software.

Clie Mail allows you to check several POP3 accounts. It also supports filters and signatures. You can attach a picture you’ve just taken with the UX50’s digital camera to an email then send it off immediately.

There is one fly in the ointment, though. As Palm OS 5 isn’t fully multitasking, you can’t be downloading your email in the background while you surf.

Unfortunately, Clie Mail doesn’t support HTML-formatted emails.

PicselViewer There’s little point in including an email application that supports attachments if you can’t view the contents of files that are sent you. That’s why Sony included PicselViewer. This app can display files in Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint formats, as well as Adobe Acrobat, TXT, GIF, and JPEG.

It has a very unusual user interface which takes some getting used to but it does its job very well. It displays the files exactly as they would look on a desktop. Of course, it allows you to zoom in on them until they are readable. However, I want to emphasize that this is a viewer. You can’t edit the files.

In fact, the UX50 doesn’t come with an application for editing Microsoft Office files at all. Fortunately, there are several third-party options to choose from.

Processor

The UX50 uses Palm OS 5.2, which runs on what Sony calls its Handheld Engine. This is made up of an ARM-based processor, a Digital Signal Processor (DSP), and a graphics accelerator chip. Sony says this processor has been optimized for handheld devices, focusing on battery life and speed. Its exact frequency varies between 8 MHz and 123 MHz, depending on the demand being placed on it.

As handhelds go these days, 123 MHz isn’t very fast and the UX50 is sometimes a bit sluggish. This isn’t unbearable but it is noticeable, especially if you are used to a handheld with a faster processor.

Testing the UX50 with a benchmarking application gets the result you’d expect: a much lower score than a 200 MHz NX80V.

This doesn’t affect the handheld’s performance with images and video, though. Its dedicated graphics accelerator handles these. And its DSP takes care of the audio, so don’t have any concerns about the UX50’s ability to handle multimedia.

Memory

One of the more unusual features of the UX series is the arrangement of its memory. In addition to its 16 MB of RAM, these models offer 29 MB of additional Storage that Sony calls Internal Media. This acts like a built-in Memory Stick.

Memory Allocation These models have a total of 104 MB of memory. They have 8 MB of embedded memory in the CPU. They also have 32 MB of DRAM, broken into 16 MB for the user to store applications and files, and 16 MB of heap memory, which is used by applications when they are running.

They also have 64 MB of NAND Flash. Of this, 16 MB is dedicated to backup the user’s RAM, and 29 MB is the Internal Media. The final 19 MB is where the operating system and built-in applications are stored.

While the contents of the 32 MB of DRAM will be lost if the handheld’s battery is completely drained, the NAND Flash is non-volatile. This means that the contents of the Internal Media aren’t erased if the UX50 runs out of power. Of course, this is also true of the files that have been backed up.

While the UX50 has a smaller amount of RAM than other recent Palm OS handhelds — like the Tungsten T2 and the Tapwave Zodiac — its method of splitting its memory into these two sections, RAM and Internal Media, is a more flexible solution. the Palm OS limits what can be stored in RAM to just a few file types, and most video and audio formats — like MP3s and MPEGs — can’t be put in RAM. However, these can be put in the UX50’s Internal Media. This allows the Sony devices to store a wider variety of files internally. Of course, all of these handhelds can store any type of file on external memory cards, but the UX50 is the first model that can do this without requiring the user to buy an additional card.

Internal Media The Internal Media has a big advantage over removable memory cards: it is much faster. Benchmarking tests show that the UX series can access data stored in Internal Media over twice as fast as on a Memory Stick.

The UX50’s camera and voice recorder can save files directly to the Internal Media. It can also be used to store applications and, of course, MP3 files can be played from it. In addition, the Internal Media can be mounted on the user’s PC as a removable drive. Its contents can be viewed with any file manager that supports multiple cards, including the one that comes on the UX50.

Power Save You may not realize this, but your handheld is using power even when it is off. This is because the DRAM chip needs power in order to preserve the applications and files currently in RAM.

Side View Most long-time handheld users have, at one time or another, left their handheld sitting unplugged somewhere for a long time and, on their return, discovered the battery has been totally drained and the device has, in effect, done a hard reset.

If you know your handheld will be off for long time and you would like to save battery power, you can use the UX50’s Power Save feature. This backs the contents of RAM up to non-volatile memory and then completely shuts the handheld down. In this state, the handheld uses no power at all and the battery level will essentially be unchanged even if the handheld is off for days or weeks.

You aren’t going to use this every day because this process is much slower than the regular way of using your handheld. Shutting down takes about 15 seconds and starting up takes about 25 seconds. And let me reiterate that the handheld is completely shut down. Alarms you have set will not go off when it is in this state.

RAM is backed up to a section of the UX50’s memory dedicated to this. It doesn’t require a Memory Stick or cut into the Internal Media’s 29 MB of Storage space.

I wish this feature acted like we originally thought it did. If the battery reaches the point where it is dangerously low, I would like the contents of RAM to be automatically backed up before the handheld shuts itself down. This way there’s no risk of losing the contents if the battery is completely drained. Currently, you have to take care of this yourself, which I highly recommend you do.

Multimedia

I’ve already mentioned that the Handheld Engine includes a Digital Signal Processor (DSP) and a CXD2230GA graphics accelerator chip.

The UX50 comes with Clie Viewer, an application that organizes all your images, videos, and voice memos into one list. You can play any of them from here. Earlier versions of this app were excruciatingly slow when building its list of these files with thumbnails. The current one isn’t lightning fast, but it’s finally become quick enough to be useful.

Video Thanks to its graphics accelerator chip, the UX50 can play video at 30 fps at 320 by 240 pixels. Watching video on a 3.2 inch screen isn’t exactly home theater, but aside from that, movies look great on the UX50. I converted a couple and they were perfectly worth watching. At the high frame rate, there was no jerkiness at all.

The UX50 comes with a Windows application for converting AVI, QuickTime, and MPEG files into files it can play. These are actually QuickTime files that have been shrunk down and given an .mqv extension.

If you are going to want to do this, invest in a 1 GB Memory Stick, though. At 320 by 240 pixels and 30 fps, one minute of video takes about 6.7 MB. That will allow a 1 GB Memory Stick to hold over two hours of video, but it won’t be able to hold much else. Of course, you can significantly reduce the amount of space needed by reducing the size or frame rate of the video. At minimal settings, one minute of video takes less than a megabyte.

Audio The UX50’s DSP is easily up to the job of playing MP3s. This handheld has an external speaker but I doubt many people are going to want to listen to music with it. Fortunately, there’s a headphone jack on the hinge. The internal speaker, however, is perfectly up to the job of handling alarms.

Though the Palm OS isn’t fully multitasking, it is up to the job of playing songs in the background while you use other applications. Or, if you want to just listen to music, you can turn off the screen and extend the life of the battery.

Previous Sony handhelds did not handle audio the same way other Palm OS 5 devices did. This is why audio players written for Palm’s Tungsten T or Zire 71 don’t work on most Clies. However, the UX series includes the Palm OS Sound API, so these third-party applications now work. This means that Sony users will have access to Ogg files and variable bit rate MP3s.

Any handheld with the multimedia capabilities of the UX50 really should come with a pair of headphones. Sadly, it does not.

Voice Recorder Like Sony’s other OS 5 devices, the UX50 can record voice memos. These are saved in WAV format and can also be converted into alarms right on the handheld. This makes it easy for you to have your handheld say “It’s time for your next meeting” rather than just beeping at you.

Flash The UX50 also includes a Macromedia Flash player. Flash is something that started out as a way to make small, animated movies and has grown to the point where full-blown applications and whole web sites are written in it. I downloaded several Flash files designed for handhelds and all of them worked beautifully. I’ve heard a few people say the Flash Player ran slowly on their UX50s. This wasn’t my experience.

However, this application isn’t integrated into the web browser so you can’t view Flash-based web sites.

Photo Editor This isn’t exactly Photoshop for the Palm OS but you can do some actual photo editing on it. Still, I think Sony included it mostly so you can snap a picture with the UX50’s camera, write a caption on the picture, and then email it to your friends.

Camera

Click for full-size image The camera in the UX50 is a 0.3-megapixel type, which means it can take pictures at a maximum resolution of 640 by 480 pixels. This is adequate for images you are going to put on web sites or email your friends, but not if you intend to print them out.

I’ve attached a couple of pictures I took with the UX50 and, as you can tell, image quality isn’t bad, but it isn’t great either.

Click for full-size image And there’s no flash, so forget taking pictures in anything but fairly bright light.

Still, it’s nice to have a camera with you all the time. And this handheld’s combination of camera, keyboard, and wireless networking makes it an almost perfect device for blogging.

If you haven’t used a handheld with a built-in camera before, the screen acts as the viewfinder. There is a button on the UX50’s hinge that can launch the application or take a picture. And you can view your images as soon as you take them.

I’ve mentioned this before, but pictures can be saved to RAM, the Internal Media, or Memory Stick.

Memory Stick Slot

As it is a Sony product, of course the UX50 has a Memory Stick slot. The hinge and camera take up just about all the space at the top of this handheld, so this is on the right side. It can take any form of Memory Stick, including the Pro and Select ones.

Unlike Sony’s other high-end handhelds, this is the only card slot the UX50 has.

Accessories

Cradle Sony took everything it had learned about how to properly design a handheld so it can be recharged and HotSynced… and threw it out the window. Instead, the UX50 uses an arrangement that has all the mistakes of a company making its first handheld.

This model doesn’t use the HotSync port that has been a part of every Clie for almost two years. Instead, it uses a mini USB port. In order to HotSync, you are supposed to connect a cable from your PC to the UX50, not put the device in its cradle.

The UX50’s cradle is used only for power. And you have to bring this cradle with you on a trip if you want to recharge your handheld. The mini USB port can’t be used to recharge.

There is one thing that makes this process less cumbersome than it otherwise would be: you can HotSync via Wi-Fi. I’ve only ever hooked the UX50’s USB cord up a few times. Instead, I put the device in its cradle and do a wireless HotSync.

Sadly, the mini USB port can’t be used with peripherals like keyboards because the UX50 can’t act as a USB host. This isn’t a question of just needing drivers; the USB port doesn’t supply power to the peripherals, as USB hosts need to do.

UX50 in Palm IR Keyboard Because this handheld doesn’t have a HotSync port, there’s no way to hook up any of the peripherals that have been created to connect to Sony handhelds through it. Fortunately, Palm has saved Sony’s bacon, at least partially. Palm’s latest keyboard — which was actually developed by Think Outside — uses infrared to communicate with the handheld. This means it can be used with almost any Palm OS handheld, including this one. The UX50’s built-in keyboard is good, but you can’t touch type with it. This new IR keyboard allows you to. It’s $70, which is a pretty good price for an external keyboard of this quality.

Stylus I complained for a long time that Sony’s regular stylus was too thin to be comfortable to use. I never imagined it would come up with one that is even smaller. This latest stylus telescopes, and when it is closed it is just over 2.5 inches. It opens up to be 3.7 inches long but the upper portion is ridiculously thin. I’ve been referring to the previous stylus as the coffee stirrer; the new one is like a coffee stirrer with a toothpick stuck in it.

Battery Life

There’s just no other way to say it: the UX50’s battery life is a disappointment. With my regular usage pattern, which includes fairly frequent Wi-Fi and Bluetooth usage, I get between two and three hours of use on a charge. While that’s enough to get me though a normal day, it isn’t nearly enough for two days, so I have to remember to recharge the UX50 every night.

As a comparison, the battery life of an NX80V with a Wi-Fi card is over five hours when used the same way.

Wi-Fi takes a lot of power, so I tested the UX50 with absolutely no wireless networking at all. The UX50 only gave me four hours of use before the battery was empty. And I don’t think this is a very realistic test. There’s little point in having a Wi-Fi-enabled handheld if you don’t use the Wi-Fi.

These numbers aren’t from torture tests where I keep the device on until the battery is dead. I’m using the UX50 normally and tracking the amount of time it takes to empty the battery with Jeroen Witteman’s BatteryGraph.

I can understand why Sony offers an external battery pack for this handheld that is supposed to triple its battery life. It’s $120, though.

Value

Like with a lot of things, value is in the eye of the beholder. If you really need a very portable handheld with both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, the UX50 might be worth $700 to you. The number of people who already have one of these and love it is evidence of that. But its high price, small screen, and meager battery life mean that most people will find it over-priced.

If Sony releases an update that brings portrait support to the UX50, its value will go up considerably.

You also have the option of getting the UX50’s sister model, the UX40. There are two significant differences between these two: the UX40 doesn’t have Wi-Fi and it costs $100 less.

Conclusion

I give Sony credit for making a device that isn’t your typical handheld. The combination of a high-resolution screen, roomy keyboard, lots of memory, and two kinds of wireless networking in a clamshell design could be a winner. But I think Sony’s reach exceeded its grasp.

Almost all of what Sony wants to do is possible but it needs to go back to the drawing board. The next version of this should include a screen the same size as the one in its NX series. This will increase the size of the whole handheld but that’s a price worth paying. Because one side of the clamshell will need to be larger, there will be room on the other side for a larger battery and maybe even a CompactFlash slot. If Sony makes a handheld with this design, it will have something definitely worth $700.


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