Will pocket-size Sony PC take on iPod?

Consumers can take music, photos and movies on the road when Sony's Vaio U hits the United States next month. Photos: Mini-PCs

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
3 min read
Consumers in the United States are about to get a crack at a 1-pound Sony PC that doubles as a personal media player.

The consumer electronics giant unveiled the Vaio U for U.S. customers on Tuesday, touting a machine that's designed to be as much an entertainment hub as it is a full-fledged portable PC.


The nearly pocketable machine, which weighs 1.2 pounds, is already on sale as the Vaio Type U in Japan.

The Vaio U's 5-inch SVGA, or 800-by-600-pixel resolution, touch screen stretches over a 6.6-inch wide, 4.3-inch high frame and can be used to display videos and pictures. The mini machine can also play music, and to that end, the company will bundle it with headphones and a remote control, as well as its SonicStage music software and photo and DVD-viewing applications. Buttons at one corner of the machine will enable users to rotate the screen's orientation and to zoom in and out.

Given that it boasts fairly typical notebook PC components--including a 1.1GHz Intel Pentium M 733 processor, 512MB of RAM, a 20GB, 1.8-inch hard drive, Wi-Fi and Microsoft's Windows XP Professional operating system--the Vaio U can also perform standard PC duties, such as sending e-mail. Consumers can also use it like a tablet, operating via its stylus, and taking down handwritten notes. Sony includes a fold-up keyboard for typing longer documents.

"The versatility (of the Vaio U) is that it has all the capabilities of a hard disk-based audio player, PDA-like functionality as well as full-fledged capability as a highly mobile PC," said Mike Abary, general manager for Vaio product marketing at Sony.

Thus, a buyer could treat it like a music player, a category that proved its popularity with the arrival of Apple Computer's iPod. Sony acknowledges that possibility, though Abary said "we are more primarily positioning it as a PC that's highly versatile and highly mobile."

The tiny machine will go on sale in December for about $2,000. That's a good deal more than any MP3 player, but it's competitive with other pint-size PCs, such as OQO's model 01.

Despite its meager weight, the Vaio U isn't likely to set sales records, according to analysts. Consumers typically opt for larger machines with bigger screens and price tags less than $1,500. Corporations are likely to show interest. Although they are often willing to spend more for lighter notebooks, they can be choosy as well. So-called ultraportable notebooks--machines weighing about 4 pounds or less--have historically constituted only a small percentage of overall notebook shipments.

Still, some of the same factors that could limit the Vaio U--size and weight--also give it cachet, which might rub off on other Sony products, said Stephen Baker, an analyst at The NPD Group. He said that in the past, Sony has gotten away from its focus on innovative products and "tried to go for (unit sales) volume" instead.

The Vaio U is "Sony doing what Sony does very well--coming out with something unique, different and pretty cool," Baker said. "The market for products like that is pretty limited, but Sony's ability to come out with products like (it) is important. It has to continue to show how cool and cutting-edge it can be...especially in notebooks."