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Sony VAIO VGN-U50 review: Sony VAIO VGN-U50

Not a PDA, not a laptop, this innovative handheld is something in between. The Sony VAIO U50 is a quick performer, and it's surprisingly easy to use. Like Sony's other bleeding-edge designs, however, it's expensive and--for now--an import only.

Jon L. Jacobi
4 min read

Compared with most other laptops, the VAIO U50's specs and features aren't too impressive, but it is remarkable that Sony managed to pack them all into such a tiny box. The machine weighs 1.2 pounds and measures 6.57 inches wide, 4.25 deep, and just about 1 inch thick. Compared with even the most ultraportable laptop, these measurements may not sound unwieldy, but for a device that's meant to be held in your hands, they're right on the edge of uncomfortable; they also make the VAIO U50 noticeably larger than the OQO Model 01.



The Good

Unique handheld design; runs full Windows XP OS; Wi-Fi included; solid processor performance for its size.

The Bad

Lacks a built-in keyboard; bigger than a typical PDA; expensive; minimal documentation in English.

The Bottom Line

Sony's VAIO U50 packs laptop-caliber power into a PDA-size package, but its high price and lack of a keyboard show that the palmtop form still has a ways to go.
If you're looking for a full-on Windows XP system in a truly pocket-size package, even the most high-end PDA won't get the job done. The Sony VAIO VGN-U50 palmtop, at $1,799 (as of October 2004), just might. About twice the size and thickness of an average PDA, the VAIO U50 packs laptop-caliber components, including a 900KHz Celeron CPU, 256MB of 266MHz DDR memory, a 20GB hard drive, and Intel's 855GM chipset, in addition to the Windows XP Home operating system. Still, while this configuration offers enough power for most business apps, it's at the very low end of the general computing performance scale and will frustrate people expecting desktop-level responsiveness or storage capacity. The somewhat beefier VAIO U70 model, equipped with a 1GHz Pentium M, 512MB of memory, and Windows XP Pro, is available for a wallet-straining $2,549 (as of October 2004). Take note that these superhigh prices stem from the fact that neither the VAIO U50 nor the U70 is available in the United States--they're available only in Japan. Connected, as we are, we landed a unit from longtime importer Dynamism.com.

Intended to be held in both hands like a game controller, the brushed-silver and charcoal VAIO U50 has a minijoystick that works as a mouse pointer and a four-way rocker switch (reminiscent of that on the original Nintendo control pad) that also controls the cursor. Both the joystick pointer and the buttons are placed on the right side of the unit, making the VAIO U50 somewhat righty-centric. To select something onscreen, you can press down on the pointer or use the left-click, right-click, and scroll buttons that reside under your left thumb. It's a reasonably intuitive, natural-feeling interface, but the unit's a bit hefty to hold in your hands for long. Perhaps the most significant downside to the VAIO U50's design is the lack of a built-in keyboard--a feature found on the OQO Model 01.

Although the system doesn't come with the tablet edition of Windows XP, the VAIO U50 does offer tabletlike functionality; you can use the stylus that's attached to the VAIO U50's wrist strap to navigate Windows. The folks who loaned us the unit, longtime importer Dynamism.com, bundle Pen & Internet's RitePen and RiteMail 2.5, tablet utilities that do nicely in Tablet XP's stead.

The VAIO U50's unobtrusive front-panel buttons let you adjust parameters such as display brightness, speaker volume, and screen orientation (right-handed Portrait or Landscape). The 5-inch touch screen features a native resolution of 800x600; another front-panel button can toggle this from a magnified 640x480 to a nearly inscrutable 1,600x1.200. The screen is quite readable when you hold it close to your face, but you might experience some eyestrain when it's at rest in the bundled VGP-PRU1 stand/docking tray. Either way, you won't want to do much word processing or spreadsheet work on the VAIO U50's tiny screen.

The docking tray features a handful of connections: a mini-FireWire port, a VGA output, an Ethernet port, and four USB 2.0 ports. Also included is a Sony VGP-KBC1 portable USB keyboard, which offers fairly comfortable keys plus an eraserhead-size pointer control and mouse buttons; the keyboard's fold-in-half design is interesting, but we were frustrated that it doesn't lock in the open position; it folds right up if you try to use it on your lap.

The VAIO U50 itself has a single USB 2.0 port, slots for Memory Stick and CompactFlash, a headphone/remote control jack, and an I/O port that meshes with the docking tray, as well as a more portable dongle, which provides an Ethernet and VGA port. The system also features an 802.11g wireless radio with an on/off switch--handy for conserving battery power. The VAIO U50's small speaker, though weak, is a nice feature; the OQO Model 01 has no speaker at all--just a headphone jack. Other than an optical drive, the VAIO U50 has many features that you'd find on a full-size laptop.

In CNET Labs tests, the VAIO U50 lasted 2 hours, 43 minutes on a single charge of its 11.1V, 1,800mAh lithium-ion battery, which clamps onto and covers the entire back of the unit. That's an OK score and almost 30 minutes longer than the OQO Model 01 lasted, but it's underwhelming compared to most purebred laptops and handhelds, which can last as long as 4 hours and up.

Though it's an import item, the VAIO U50 is still covered by Sony's one-year warranty. Dynamism.com, the supplier of our test unit, covers the cost of shipping the unit back to Japan via FedEx if there's a problem that it can't fix. Dynamism also supplies toll-free telephone support Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. PT, as well as e-mail support and downloads on its Web site.

Mobile application performance  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
BAPCo MobileMark 2002 performance rating  

Battery life  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
BAPCo MobileMark 2002 battery life in minutes  

System configurations:

OQO Model 01
Windows XP Professional; 1GHz Crusoe TM 5800; 256MB DDR SDRAM; Silicon Motion Lynx3DM; Toshiba MK2004GAL 20GB 4,200rpm

Sharp Actius MM20
Windows XP Home; 1GHz Efficeon TM 8600; 512MB SDRAM, Mobility Radeon 16MB; Hitachi DK14FA-40 20GB 4,200rpm

Windows XP Home; 900MHz Celeron; 256MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz; Intel 82852/82855 GM/GME 64MB; Toshiba MK2004GAL 20GB 4,200rpm



Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 7Battery 5Support 7
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