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Summary:

The Sony U70 ultra-portable PC was such a ground-breaking mobile device that it set the tone for all such gadgets to come. I have been taking a trip down memory lane, and it hit me that the Sony U70 is still a viable solution for many.

Sony U70 docked front

While it is true that I’ve been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, my excitement for them didn’t peak until they got quite a bit lighter. In 2004 Sony released a mobile device that changed my mobile world completely. The Sony U70 ultra-portable PC was such a ground-breaking mobile device that it set the tone for all such gadgets to come. Today I have been taking a trip down memory lane, and it hit me that if the Sony U70 was released today it would still be a viable solution for many. The U70 was so advanced for its time that it could probably survive still today.

If I compare the Sony U70 with a device currently available, it would be the Viliv S5. I have tested the S5 extensively, so I can make a good comparison between the two devices. I am comparing the S5 to my memories of using the Sony, so you may have to give me some slack as that was a long time ago. I will admit that the Sony U70 was so revolutionary that the memory is still vivid, so the comparison should be valid.

 

Both devices are slate tablets, designed to be used in the hand. They are roughly the same size: the Sony U70 had a 5 inch screen and the Viliv S5 a 4.8-inch widescreen. Both devices are roughly the same thickness, and memory tells me the U70 was slightly heavier due to the metal bezel; the Viliv is all plastic and thus a bit lighter. The Viliv has a higher resolution screen, 1024×600 vs. the 800×600 of the Sony U70. Both screens are resistive touch screens and both devices shipped with Microsoft Windows XP, although I believe the Viliv may now be shipping with Windows 7.

The Sony U70 had an Intel Pentium M processor running at 1 GHz, and shipped with 512 MB of RAM. It only had a 20 GB hard drive, which was standard at the time. The Viliv S5 has an Intel Atom processor running at 1.33 GHz, and has 1 GB of RAM onboard. There are models of the S5 available with SSDs, or a 60 GB hard drive is available, I believe.

The Sony had a set of controls on the screen bezels that were the best I have ever used on any handheld device. There was a real joystick accompanied by three mouse buttons, along with several other buttons that provided very useful functions. The Viliv has mouse buttons, but the joystick on the left is more of a D-pad in function and not quite as useful. The Sony had a ROTATE button that instantly rotated the screen into any orientation, and also rotated the functions of all the buttons on the bezel. This made it a joy to use as the button functions always matched the current screen orientation. Device makers should always do this if they provide screen rotation. Another very useful control on the Sony was the scroll pad above the joystick. This provided 4-way scrolling in any program, without having to use program scroll bars.

The Sony U70 shipped with a full dock that handled external monitors and peripherals. It was an instant desktop solution with the dock, especially when coupled with the folding USB keyboard that was also included. With the dock, the U70 could drive an external monitor with a resolution up to 1600×1200, a decent desktop solution. The Viliv S5 does not ship with a dock, nor with a keyboard. Of course, the Viliv is about $600 vs the $2,700 for the U70 six years ago.

The price alone shows the biggest change in the handheld tech world over the past 6 years. Gadgets have gotten a lot cheaper. As I take this look back at the Sony U70, I am shocked to find it still capable by today’s standards. Actually, it could give most handheld slates a run for the money even today. That shows how far ahead of its time it was. I wonder how cheaply Sony could produce a device today with all of the functionality of the U70. I’d be first in line.

Related research from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

The State of the Smartbook

  1. borax99 (AlainC.) Wednesday, February 17, 2010

    Thanks for the excellent post JK !

    I remember taking a veeery close look at the U70 when it came out. What stopped me wasn’t the price, though, it was the measly HDD. There was, I believe, a short-lived successor (U71?) that had a 30GB HDD.

    I agree there are a great many similarities between the U-xx and the Viliv. I have been fortunate enough to use a Viliv S5 (60GB HDD), and it has been a liberating experience, to say the least!

    Now if only Sony could apply this type of visionary design to some new product, hmmm?

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  2. Definitely a device that was ahead of its time. Aside from the massive price difference, there’s another that shows how today’s hardware has far surpassed that of yesterday’s: battery life. On the standard battery with that Pentium M, the U70 ran for around 2.5 hours. The Viliv on the standard battery does 5.5 to 6, thanks to the improvements in energy efficiency.

    As much as I’d like to see Sony “resurrect” the U70 design with updated components, I doubt it will happen. Regardless of what “we” as a niche, mobile tech community may want, nobody has proven that the market wants a full desktop OS in such a small form factor yet. Enthusiasts might want it, but the masses don’t seem to.

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    1. You have the battery life absolutely correct. What Sony did, which is all it could do at the time, was offer an extended battery. While only adding about 1/2 inch in thickness, it extended battery life to near 6 hours. I’m actually tearing up right now thinking about all this.

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      1. Lol, steady! Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be….

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  3. This reminds me of my current tablet. In 2004 I bought an Acer Travelmate C302 tablet pc. Since then, I put in a faster CPU, maxed out the memory, and put in a larger hard drive. But i’ve now got Windows 7 running on it, and still use it at work and home every day. Its definitely a workhorse and after 5 years, still holds its own against newer laptops/tablets.

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  4. There’s definitely something to be said about a handheld that can run a full OS – and do that well. While I do admit the Viliv S5 is impressive, I’d like to see a newer model with an N450/N470.

    I’d have to say my favorite handheld right now is the Fujitsu UH900. It’s barely bigger than my vintage Sharp IQ-8300 organizer. I only wish Fujitsu would quote battery times with the 4-cell and offer the faster Atom.

    You are dead right Kevin – as much as we geeks like small and powerful gadgets like these (and know how to take advantage of their capabilities), it will not be something the masses throng to. Mind you, I’ve never considered myself belonging to the masses when it came to choosing my personal tech.

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    1. Since when do we geeks care what the masses want? :)

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      1. Personally I don’t. But I will say this – I could design one hell of a docking station for that fujitsu UH900 that would make it scream!

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  5. borax99 (AlainC.) Wednesday, February 17, 2010

    Hey, JK, is that an e800/805 in landscape mode next to the U70? If the screen had been just ooone extra inch in diag., it would have been the ultimate killer ebook reader – that rocker switch was a complete blast to use…

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    1. e805, and it was a great e-book reader. I must have read 200 eReader books on it. I need to find it, still have it in a drawer somewhere.

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      1. My e800 is sitting in front of me now. I have to charge the battery every 10 days otherwise I lose all my settings. I only use it occasionally now when stall surfing and my newer gadgets are charging. Was that too much info?

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  6. I can attest that the SONY U71p (as my Model is called) ids a great Unit. It is still operational and James opinions on it are absolutely spot on.

    Oh and BTW, I won my U71p (30GB HD amd Pentium M at 1.1 Ghz) from JK On The Run. Sometimes you get to take home more then just great information from these 2 guys!!

    Thanks agin, 2 years later!! That unit is still used and works great.

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  7. Joshua Blankenship Wednesday, February 17, 2010

    Since we’re walking down memory lane, remember the Samsung Q1UP? ;) I’ve since sold mine, but it’s still amazing how that little thing handled video with the Core Solo (and I believe video was GMA950?). Something the Atom powered devices can only dream of doing. Of course, the battery had to essentially be a large brick to give it the 6 or 7 hrs I used to see. Not sure if I’d ever want one again, but gee wiz did it ruin all Atom powered UMPCs for me!

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  8. I actually installed windows 7 on my sony u…there are a few things not working (e.g.the hardware buttons) but amazingly it runs ok (considering)

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    1. Hey Scottish,
      I would love to hear more about the Windows 7 Upgrade. If youd like to shot me an Email (not sure if James / Kevin would want details here, if so please chime in guys) Id love to hear what works and doesnt and what kind of performance your getting. And most importantly, Would you do it again!!

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  9. I had and loved the U50 way back when. Sold it at one point to ‘upgrade’ to newer gadgets, but always missed the U50. Last year I stumbled upon an UX27 and bought it right away. Using it every day since, it’s truly a great device.

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  10. I’ll just chime in with the rest of the people to toast the greatness of the U70′s design and moan the lost of it at the same time ;)

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