The ultramobile PC, or UMPC, is still largely a concept in search of a purpose. While the idea of a palm-size computer running Microsoft Windows and including most of the features you'd find on a full-size desktop or laptop is an engaging one, these devices are still not exactly practical. The first generation of these handheld PCs, including the Samsung Q1 and the Sony VAIO UX50, were addled by poor performance and battery life. Representing the second wave of UMPCs, the $2,500 Sony VAIO UX390 offers
It would be easy to describe the Sony VAIO UX390, with its two-hand design and slide-out keyboard, as a $2,500 Sidekick. The UX390 is actually slightly larger, thicker, and heavier than the T-Mobile phone--measuring 5.9 inches wide by 3.7 inches deep by 1.5 inches thick. Slide the 4.5-inch screen up, exposing the keyboard, and the system is 5.25 inches deep. The VAIO UX390 is only 1.1 pounds (1.6 with the AC adapter), which is lighter than the smallest ultraportable laptop, but for such a tiny device, it feels somewhat heavy.
The 4.5-inch display's 1,024x600 native resolution is clear and bright, but Web sites and onscreen icons can be hard to read at arm's length. Two zoom keys are located on the right side of the device, but they're slow and the zoomed-in image is blocky and hard to see. You'd be better off just changing to a lower resolution if visibility is a problem.
Interfacing with the UX390 is easy, thanks to the multiple input options. Sliding up the screen reveals a full, backlit keyboard, made up of flat, miniaturized keys. For two-thumb BlackBerry-style typing, the keyboard is somewhat hard to use. Slightly raised or rubberized keys would have given a welcome tactile response. The keyboard also lacks a few common keys, including a shift key on the right side, making it hard to hit the @ symbol when sending e-mail.
Reading Web pages on the 600-pixel-high screen requires a lot of scrolling. Unfortunately, the page-up and page-down keys can be accessed only by holding down the function key and hitting the up and down arrow keys. We'd much rather have the page-up and page-down keys easily accessible--perhaps in place of the zoom buttons that sit directly under your right thumb.
Besides the keyboard, there is a pencil-eraser-style nub on the right side of the chassis, used for moving the mouse pointer, and there are left and right mouse buttons to the left of the screen. It takes a little getting used to, but it's pretty easy to get pinpoint control of the cursor.
If mastering a thumb stick doesn't appeal to you, the UX390 is also a tablet PC, and its touch-sensitive screen works with both the included stylus or your fingertip (or any similar object). The responsiveness was good, although the stylus worked much better than our fingers when we tried to hit tiny buttons on the small screen.
You'll find a slim but useful collection of ports and connections on the VAIO UX390. The system has a single USB 2.0 port, headphone and mic jacks, a memory card reader, and a built-in Webcam. An included docking station adds three more USB ports, one mini FireWire port, an Ethernet connection, and an A/V out for connecting to an external monitor. Networking options include 802.11a/b/g wireless, Bluetooth, and EV-DO, via a small antenna that swings out from behind the system.
The default specs for the VAIO UX390 wouldn't be out of place in a low-end ultraportable laptop; they include a 1.3GHz Intel Core Solo U1500 CPU, 1GB of DDR2 RAM, and Intel 945GM graphics. The only surprising component is the 32GB solid-state hard drive, which means no moving parts, better battery life, less heat, and faster access to your data (or at least to 32GBs' worth of your data). Flash memory-based hard drives have increased in capacity and come down in price over the last several months, making them a more viable storage medium. But the 32GB capacity doesn't leave much room for your files, especially after a full Windows Vista Business install, and we quickly found ourselves filling up the hard drive.
The UX390's Intel Core Solo can't come close to the latest dual-core CPUs, but it certainly puts this UMPC in the same ballpark as similar processors used in ultraportable laptops, such as Sony's own 11.1-inch VAIO TXN17. The solid-state hard drive fared well in CNET Lab's hard drive-intensive Photoshop CS2 test, coming in ahead of several systems with traditional hard drives (but not the surprisingly snappy TX17, which has only a 4,200rpm drive).
Battery life has always been one of the big downfalls of UMPCs. For a device that shares a lot in common with PDA-style cell phones, getting only a couple of hours of use makes it of questionable value for those who expect a handheld device to easily last through an eight-hour work day. The solid-state drive in the UX390 offers some improvement in that area, giving us 3 hours, 32 minutes in our DVD battery-drain test, using an external DVD drive powered by the UX390's USB port. In anecdotal use for Web surfing and document editing, we got closer to 3 hours of use, but that's still an improvement over earlier UMPC models.
Sony backs all VAIO UX models with an industry-standard warranty: one year of free service, including free shipping both ways, and 24/7, toll-free telephone tech support; after the year expires, support calls cost $20 per incident. Sony offers an array of warranty extensions; a three-year plan costs $299. The company's Web site provides a good knowledge base and e-mail support from Sony technicians.