Sony has achieved something very exciting by squeezing a full version ofon to a tiny computer that's much smaller than even the teeniest ultra-portable laptop. With a full Qwerty keyboard and the first instance of flash memory being used rather than a hard drive, the Vaio UX1XN sounds like it could be one of this year's biggest products.
But the thrill of seeing Vista running on such a small machine soon wears off. The compromises Sony has made to squeeze everything into such a small space makes this ultra-mobile PC incredibly difficult to use, and the £2,000 price tag is the final nail in the coffin. A laptop may be larger, but it remains the best option for most people.
The UX1XN sports a clever and attractive design. It's perhaps best described as a handheld tablet PC with a screen that slides up to reveal a Qwerty keyboard. The unit feels good in the hand; it measures 95 by 150 by 32mm and weighs just 480g, which is a minor miracle considering its specification.
The front of the unit is littered with buttons and switches. The most important of these are the mouse controls -- a nubbin at the top right, and selector buttons at the top left.
The mouse is reminiscent of the TrackPoint 'nipples' found on IBM laptops, and while this may not sound like good news for trackpad fans, it's worth pointing out this allows for very precise input. Our only gripe would be that the mouse is clad in a cloth-like material that's prone to picking up fluff. It's not something to worry about too much though, as you'll end up using the touchscreen most of the time.
Below the mouse nubbin is a set of magnification buttons that allow magnification of the screen by 1.5x, 2.0x, 2.5x and 3x zoom. The remaining buttons include a power switch at the bottom right, a wireless switch at the bottom left, plus scroll lock and 'Vaio Touch Launcher' buttons below the mouse selector buttons.
The latter launches a task-based interface that gives access to commonly used applications such as Internet Explorer or Windows Media Player. Each of these shortcuts is represented by large, highly visible icons that give respite from squinting. The default applications can be swapped for programs of your choice, which is a nice touch.
Towards the top of the unit you'll find a fingerprint reader for secure logins, plus forward-facing and rear-facing cameras. The shutter button lurks just above the mouse nubbin, which is an unfortunate position as it's prone to being accidentally pressed -- we've lost count of the number of times we've activated the camera without meaning to. Also near the shutter is a macro photo switch for taking close-up photos, and a Memory Stick Duo card reader.
The Vaio UX1XN is a fully fledged PC, though you wouldn't think so to look at it. Sony has somehow managed to incorporate an Intel Core Solo U1500 CPU running at 1.33GHz and 1GB of memory. 32MB of RAM is dedicated to running the on-board graphics provided by the Intel 945GMS chipset.
Squishing these components into a cramped space raises the issue of overheating. Sony hasn't been able to go the fanless route, so it instead relies on a small internal fan to cool the CPU and chipset. Hot air is expelled from a vent at the top of the unit, and although there's a fairly constant hum, the unit doesn't get too hot or noisy.
A cursory glance at the spec sheet might cause you to balk at its 32GB hard drive, but closer inspection shows it's a solid-state drive (SSD). It's essentially an enormous memory card that brings several benefits. The SSD has no moving parts, which means the UX1XN is quite resilient to bumps and shocks. It's also allows faster file-access times -- Windows Vista Business boots up in just 48 seconds, as opposed to the 90 seconds or so we'd expect from standard hard disks.
The 4.5-inch touch-sensitive display runs at a widescreen resolution of 1,024x600-pixels, which looks gorgeous when displaying images or video. Unfortunately, it's fairly poor during everyday Windows use as icons in the Start menu are tiny and text can be difficult to read.
This brings us to our next usability gripe -- the UX1XN1's awful keyboard. It's a full Qwerty model with all the buttons you'd expect to find on a standard laptop, but the keys are far too cramped. Pressing one key can result in three or four adjacent keys being pressed by accident.
Even if you do manage to contort your thumbs on to the right key, there's virtually no travel on the buttons, so it's difficult to tell when you've pressed a key. It's infuriating, especially since there are several smart phones -- all smaller than the UX1XN -- with better Qwerty keyboards. It's bad enough to put you off buying one entirely. Certainly, if you need to do a lot of typing, you should forget it.
There are other input methods: Vista has good voice-recognition software, and it is possible to enter characters via the stylus and a virtual on-screen keyboard.
Your best bet, however, is to use Vista's excellent handwriting recognition feature -- but even this has drawbacks. The stylus is 'passive', which means the UX1XN can't tell whether you're using your finger or the stylus. If a knuckle or stray finger touches the screen, it can be misinterpreted as deliberate stylus input and ruin what you've just written.
There are a decent number of options for expansion. There's a single USB port, an ExpressCard slot and the aforementioned Memory Stick Duo card reader. You also get integrated Wi-Fi, but the machine doesn't have mobile phone connectivity, so you can't go online outside of the boundaries of a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Ethernet, S-Video and D-Sub outputs are provided via a dongle, or via the bundled port replicator, which provides a further three USBs and a four-pin FireWire port.
Sony hasn't been stingy with the bundled software. You get Microsoft Works, Microsoft Word, Norton Internet Security, Roxio Easy Media Creator, SonicStage and a range of Sony software for tweaking performance, making on-screen notes and so on.
The UX1XN offers a remarkable level of application performance for a device of its size. We can't think of another machine of similar dimensions that lets you run the same range of applications. It feels smooth when running everyday tasks, though it does occasionally stutter if several applications run simultaneously. For no apparent reason though, it failed to return a result in PCMark 2006.
Despite it having the looks of a handheld games console, the UX1XN is useless for most games. It returned a low 133 in 3DMark 2006, which shows it's not up to running 3D games, although there's enough processing grunt for it to cope with Vista's Aero graphics effects.
Battery life is disappointing. It lasted two hours 53 minutes during everyday desktop use and one hour 20 minutes when watching a DivX movie. This is an enormous flaw -- the whole ultra-mobile PC concept doesn't make sense if you can't be mobile for a full day.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Nick Hide