Japan has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to mobile devices, especially computers. Importers such as Dynamism, Kurns & Patrick, iCube, and Kemplar have stepped into the void for these innovative devices that US consumers crave. While Japan has been producing very small laptops for a few years a lot of interest has been sweeping the internet recently about ultra-portable computers. Slightly bigger than a PDA but much smaller than even the smallest laptop, UPCs have been anxiously awaited by consumers. Devices like the OQO and FlipStart have been vaporware for years and yet they stay in the news and anxiously awaited by many prospective buyers. The manufacturers of both device are claiming they will be released late this year.It was into this climate of consumer clamor for ultra-portable devices that Sony entered and surprised everyone with their announcement of their U-50 & U-70 UPCs. Slightly larger than a PDA yet packing an entire Windows XP powered laptop smashed inside it’s small case, the two Sony UPCs were not only announced without prior information leaking but Sony has actually released the devices in Japan. The first units hit the market in Japan months before the other two UPCs mentioned above are expected to be released. Unfortunately, if you don’t happen to live in Japan then you’ll have to obtain one of these little PCs from an importer like the ones mentioned above.I have been using a U-70 for a few weeks now, and I have been totally impressed with the thoughtful design Sony has put into this computer in almost every way. So, can you use one of these UPCs in your everyday mobile lifestyle? Read on to see how it works for me.Photos and screenshots of the Sony U-70
What you get in the boxThe Sony comes in two flavors, the U-50 & U-70. There are three differences between the two models which are otherwise identical. The U-50 comes with a Celeron 900 MHZ processor, 256 MB of RAM, and Windows XP Home Edition. The more powerful U-70 comes with a Pentium M processor running at 1 GHZ, 512 MB of RAM, and Windows XP Pro Edition. Of the three differences noted above the amount of RAM is probably the most significant, as anyone running Windows will certainly attest to. The different processors might exhibit different battery consumption too, but I don’t have two devices to compare. So what do you get in the box? The specs:U-50 / 70Internal:20 GB hard diskCPU (one of the two mentioned above)256/ 512 MB RAMAround the sides:Compact Flash slotMemory Stick Pro slotHold switchStandby buttonCtrl-Alt-Del switch1- USB 2.0DC inDocking connector:Hold switchWiFi on/off switchPower switchHeadphones jackFront of the device:Three mouse buttons (L, M, R)Three indicator lightsZoom buttonRotate button5″ LCD screen (landscape orientation default)Scroll pad with Enter buttonTrack point stick with Enter buttonTools buttonLCD brightness buttonNextText buttonExternal:1800 mAh standard battery Docking cradleI/O connector4 – USB 2.0 ports1- i.Link port (fire wire)DC in Plastic stylusMini surf board style VGA/ Ethernet dongleFontopia style headphones with remote control (LCD display)Sony AC adapterFold-up USB keyboard (Japanese and English) SoftwareUnless you are in Japan the Sony is usually purchased through an importer, such as Kurns & Patrick (who provided my device), Kemplar, Dynamism, iCube, or Sonnibee. The preinstalled software varies slightly from importer to importer because they take a stock U device, which has a Japanese version of Windows XP and Sony software, and then do an English conversion which involves installing an English version of the operating system. Some importers supply the buyer with a hidden partition that contains the original Japanese OS for emergency recovery procedures, and some provide it on a separate CD. The U only has a 20 GB hard disk so I immediately put the recovery partition to CD and removed it from the disk. This freed up 2 GB of space on the U. I will only address the software preinstalled by K&P on my device.Kurns & Patrick installed:English conversion for WinXPIBM Touchboard (on screen keyboard that also appears at boot time for login purposes)PenOffice (demo)- handwriting recognitionritePen (demo)- handwriting recognitionSony installed:Do Vaio (Japanese only- not really useable in English)- multi-media server and player packagePenPlus- on screen sticky noteVaio Launcher (Japanese but useable)- launcher bar for starting programsMemory Stick utilities- formatting, etc.NextText- handwriting recognition. Works in English but designed for Japanese text entry.Vaio Synchronizer (Japanese only)- some sort of utility to synchronize the U with another desktop system by pushing the sync button on the docking cradle.First LookThe operating system on the U-70 is a complete install of Windows XP Professional. When the device is booting you can access the BIOS screen by pressing the ROTATE button on the lower left of the front panel. The BIOS screen is a typical Phoenix BIOS setting screen with the neat feature that lets you use the stylus and touch screen. This makes it easy to change settings by pointing and clicking on the screen, something you can’t even do on your desktop or laptop BIOS screens.The device boots up like any other WinXP device, with the exception of the IBM TouchBoard on-screen keyboard (K&P devices) that lets you tap in your password to login. Once you’re logged in you have a vivid, SVGA (800×600) desktop that looks very familiar and has no surprises. It’s very nice being able to use WinXP with the stylus instead of a mouse, just tapping exactly where you want the cursor to be. The touch screen is just sensitive enough without registering errant touches on the screen. You can easily use your fingertip to select things on the screen, provided your finger is not too big. The included plastic stylus that comes with the U looks like a little surf board and while it’s small and easily carried around I quickly replaced it with a combination pen and stylus. The little Sony stylus just felt too weird for me to use very much.One of the key tests for an ultra-portable PC like the U is how quickly it enters into Standby mode. When you’re out and about you want to be able to resume from standby quickly, do your work, and then go back into standby quickly. The U doesn’t disappoint here, with a Standby button on the top of the device that puts the U into standby, and also resumes it. It takes maybe two seconds to either enter or resume from standby mode by hitting this button. It’s lightning fast. Hibernation mode only takes a few seconds longer with my unit entering or resuming from hibernation in less than 10 seconds. This makes the U a nice device to use on the run.Since the Sony is a full WinXP device you can plug virtually any peripheral into it you want. I have successfully used a couple of USB keyboards, mice, USB hub, iPod, Pocket PC, and an i.Link DVD-RW drive. All work as advertised and are plug and play. I should point out that I have replaced the Sony included keyboard with a Fellowes Stowaway USB keyboard which works wonderfully. The Sony keyboard is a Japanese keyboard and many of the keys are in a different position than on English keyboards. I am a touch typist and the Sony keyboard drove me crazy looking for some of the keys I wanted to hit. Other than that the Sony keyboard is a nice one and folds up to a small form and fits in a nice little pouch that is included with the U. It even has an integrated trackpoint and two mouse buttons.The U also comes with a pouch-type case that closes with a draw string. This case works very well for carrying the U around and even has a belt loop, if you want to put it on your belt. It’s pretty big though, so you’ll definitely look like a geek if you do. The case doesn’t provide much padding or protection so you’ll have to carry it around inside another bag. There is an optional case that Sony sells that includes a removable stand with a flip-out leg that lets you use the Sony with the keyboard without the dock. It holds the U at the perfect angle for keyboard use and closes with Velcro, and accommodates the U with both the standard (included) battery and the extended (optional) battery. I have both batteries and the case works very well. I recommend this case for the removable stand alone.On-screen Navigation, Video Resolution, and ButtonsThe U is very well designed by Sony to take advantage of multiple input devices and also to provide easy cursor manipulation if you don’t want to pull out a stylus. It has a very accurate and easy to use track point device and 3 buttons on the front of the unit simulating 3 mouse buttons. Augmenting that is a scroll pad just above the track point that lets you scroll in 4 directions without having to get the cursor in a program’s scroll bar. Web browsing and scrolling through long documents with the scroll pad is just a joy. It is very easy to use the U without a stylus at all which surprised me and makes it very easy to play games.There are several very useful buttons on the front panel that enhance the user experience and I should mention these. The most useful for me is the ROTATE button which instantly switches the screen and all the buttons from the default landscape to a portrait orientation. This orientation is very nice for reading ebooks and browsing web pages that are long and narrow. The switch back and forth between the two orientations takes maybe a second, it’s that fast. Another useful button is the ZOOM button, which switches quickly among 5 different screen resolutions, 640×480, 800×600, 1024×768, 1280×1024, and 1600×1200. The native screen resolution for the built-in LCD is 800×600 but if you want to zoom things bigger you can select the smaller 640×480 and everything is bigger. Selecting the other 3 resolution settings without an external monitor connected generates a virtual panning desktop. I have used the U extensively with a 17″ LCD monitor attached to the dock and the U drives it nicely at 1280×1024. The U would drive it at 1600×1200 if the monitor could handle it, but it doesn’t. The 64 MB of video memory (shared) of the Intel integrated graphics has handled everything I’ve thrown at it so far with no hiccups.The three buttons on the lower right of the U provide brightness control (both on-screen setting and it also toggles between full on, full off, and medium), system settings, and access to the included NextText application. NextText is a handwriting entry and recognition program that is predominantly Japanese and I didn’t find it useful at all. Most new U owners are installing either PenOffice or ritePen, both fine handwriting recognition programs. K & P included 30 day trial versions for both programs. I am using a different solution which I’ll touch on later in this review. There is a power slide switch, the afore mentioned standby button, and pin hole Ctrl-Alt-Del button around the sides of the device. There are two buttons on the docking cradle front, one that apparently syncs the U to another computer (it’s all in Japanese) and one that switches between the internal screen and an external monitor. The Sony Notebook Setup program (which is in Japanese but some enterprising U owners have worked together and converted it to English) lets you set the U to always come up in a default screen resolution when you switch to an external monitor which is nice.Fun StuffThe U ships with the Do Vaio multimedia environment which unfortunately is Japanese only. This package is a complete media solution that even offers streaming capabilities. It is not useable unless you read Japanese so some importers are removing it during the English conversion. There is information that Sony is going to release an English version of this package in the near future so stay tuned for more on this. The headphones that come with the U include a remote control with a tiny LCD display that when used with the Do Vaio software will display the name of the song that’s playing, along with providing full volume and music browsing controls right on the remote. The good news for those of us unable to use the Do Vaio software is that the remote works perfectly with both Windows Media Player and iTunes for controlling the player. The only feature you lose is the ability to see the song title. Not a bad tradeoff overall as I’m able to use my favorite player- iTunes.The small form factor of the U-50/70 makes it perfect for playing games anywhere. Since you don’t have a CD drive built-in (the U is smaller than the drive) you can install most games with a virtual CD program like Virtual CD. These programs create an exact image of the CD on the hard disk and then simulate a CD drive. Most games require the game CD to be in the drive to run as a form of copy protection but this requirement vanishes with the virtual CD.A list of games that I have run successfully on the U-70:Warcraft 3 (both versions)Starcraft (all of them)Allied AssaultCall of Duty- (turn graphics realism way down and it runs but has trouble during intense scenes)MAME gamesRise of Nations- this game runs fine on an external monitor but will not run on just the U’s internal screen. My guess is that RON requires at least a 1024×768 resolution to run.Traveling with the SonyThe U-70 is so small it’s a joy to travel with. Using just a small bag I carried the U, keyboard, and A/C adapter. The built-in WiFi lets you take full advantage of available hot spots (802.11g), and when WiFi isn’t available I can use my cell phone as a USB modem to tap Verizon’s Express Network. I’ve taken the U-70 on two trips so far, including a week long trip to Vegas, and the U was just so nice to have. Slightly bigger than the PDA I usually carry, I could keep it on me at all times and never lost unexpected free time to write, check email, or read ebooks.Smallest Tablet PCIt seemed to me the U-70 would be perfect to install the Tablet OS on and convert it into a true Tablet PC. The Tablet OS has been designed from the ground up for mobile pen and ink devices and the U certainly fits that bill. The only way you can obtain the Tablet OS to install on the U is through an MSDN subscription. I have a membership so obtaining it was no problem. The Tablet OS is a superset of the Windows XP OS and the installation is just like a typical OS install. Microsoft has released a public RC of Windows XP SP2 which included a major enhancement to the Tablet OS for those devices that have the Tablet OS installed so after installing the basic Tablet OS I installed SP2. Once that finished I installed all the Sony drivers and programs that are specific to the U-70 and everything works like a charm. The only caveat for anyone installing a clean OS on the U- Sony includes drivers for the Synaptics track point that take over the USB ports for any device you try to install after the Synaptics. The workaround is to install all USB devices you want prior to installing the Synaptics ones. If you want to install other USB devices later you can uninstall the Synaptics drivers from the ADD/REMOVE PROGRAMS utility, install your USB device (and driver), and then reinstall the Synaptics driver.My U is now a genuine Tablet PC with a 5″ screen and I must say the work that MS had done on the Tablet OS is quite nice. The Text Input Panel (TIP) works well on the U and the handwriting recognition is so accurate it’s scary. The Windows Journal is a very good way to capture information and printing from any application to a Journal page is just super. The Tablet extensions make OneNote come alive by adding handwriting recognition to that program, thus allowing you to take full advantage of OneNote’s inking capabilities. There are a number of Power Toys for the Tablet PC available from the MS web site that further extend the usefulness of the OS. Without a doubt the most used for me is the Snipping Tool which lets you “snip” pieces of the screen and save them for inclusion elsewhere.The Tablet OS has turned the U into an extremely powerful and mobile tool for my hectic lifestyle. Since I’ve installed the Tablet OS I rarely take the keyboard on short excursions as the handwriting recognition is so good.Battery LifeI switch between the standard and extended battery all the time, depending on how long I expect to be out and about. Sony has a nice power management utility that is in English and let’s the user customize the power management for virtually everything. There are several preset configurations and I usually leave the U set for “Ultimate Battery” with the LCD set to level 4 while on battery. With this setting I get around 3 – 3 1/2 hours with the standard battery and almost 6 hours with the extended. This is far better than my big laptop and I haven’t run out of juice yet. The batteries are rated at 1800 and 3600 mAh.Online ResourcesThe user community has sprung up for U owners and there are several key sites for information, help, and utility downloads that you should not miss:Vaio U-70 User’s GroupBeyond The TechKemplar U Support ForumTabletPC Buzz (if you install the Tablet OS)There is a lot of useful information on these sites and some enterprising U owners are even converting some of the Japanese only programs into English and posting them on the Beyond The Tech site.ConclusionsSony beat everyone to the punch by sneaking this machine out to market long before the competition. The small size and weight of the U make it an ideal device to carry around all the time. While some feel it’s a PDA killer, I believe it’s really a laptop killer. Since I have been using the U-70 I have not carried my laptop with me once. It’s that good at what it does. The U is expensive as imported devices usually are, but if it replaces a laptop for the consumer then it’s not so expensive in the end. When docked and connected to a monitor, keyboard, mouse, etc., the U can even be used on the desktop like any other PC, which gives it a utility that most sub-notebooks lack. I have used the U instead of my desktop fully 95% of the time at my desk. That makes the price much easier to swallow. The prices vary among the importers but the U-50 is currently around US$1850 and the U-70 around $2450.