- Compact yet feature-packed
- Fingerprint recognition
- Dual digital cameras
- Bright, clear touch-screen
- Solid-state hard disk
- Flash drive is only 32GB
- Keyboard is unergonomic
- Screen's small pixel size makes text hard to read
- Moderate battery life
- No wide-area wireless connectivity
- Very expensive
When is an Ultra Mobile PC not an Ultra Mobile PC? Answer: when it's Sony’s VAIO VGN-UX1XN. Microsoft may have coined the term Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC for short) and companies like Samsung, ASUS, Gigabyte and Medion are happy to work with it, but Sony, for one, is ploughing an independent furrow. Although the company is pointedly not calling the VAIO VGN-UX1XN an 'official' UMPC, its web site states clearly that the system is a ‘high-end Ultra-Mobile revolutionary concept representing a new generation of devices’. Whatever you want to call it, this is a very small and compact computer running Windows Vista — but is it any good?
Anyone looking for a very small, very portable mobile computer is likely to put usability first among their buying criteria. The good news in this respect is that the VAIO VGN-UX1XN has a keyboard. The bad news is that the keyboard is cramped and difficult to use, and the hardware generally somewhat chunky. At its maximum points, the system measures 10cm high, 15cm wide and 3.82cm deep. We say ‘at its maximum points’ because this is not a device with a uniform shape.
The hardware has curved sides that house a number of buttons. You can hold the VAIO VGN-UX1XN in both hands and access these buttons easily enough by prodding them with your thumbs. However, it's pretty much impossible to use the device one-handed. The total weight is 486g, which is pretty light — but you'll be lucky to find a pocket that can stow it.
The screen measures 4.5in. from corner to corner and has a startling native resolution of 1,024 by 600 pixels. It's also a passive touch screen — a slim, lightweight and telescopic metal stylus sits in a housing on the back of the device, but you can interact with it simply by prodding at the screen with a fingertip.
The display looks absolutely stunning, and benefits from Sony’s X-black technology. We often find this distracting in notebooks because of the reflective coating, but because this device is so small it's easy to position it away from any light sources.
The display occupies much of the front of the device, and to access the keyboard you slide it upwards. The keyboard tiny, occupying less space than the one of the Windows Mobile-based clamshell devices (the Orange SPV M5000, for example): there's no way you will be able to use it for input at anything approaching normal notebook typing speeds.
Partly this is because individual keys are small (7mm wide, 5mm tall), but it's also because the keys sit almost flush and deliver no tactile return or audible click when pressed. Furthermore, the keys are cluttered, many carrying out three functions. There's a number row at the top, an embedded number pad (picked out in orange) and a series of Fn key functions (picked out in blue).
On the upper right edge is a small joypad-like cursor controller. Beneath this are buttons for zooming the display in and out. These can come in very handy, as the screen's combination of small size and high resolution means that text can sometimes be hard to read. Beneath this is the power on/off switch which doubles as a Hold button that disables the touch screen and puts the device into power-saving mode.
The left-hand side houses a pair of vertically stacked mouse buttons and a button that brings up a screenful of large tappable icons for accessing a range of features, from web browsing and music to the My Documents folder and screen brightness and volume controls. There's also an on/off switch for the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios.
The build quality feels pretty solid, but the outward-facing screen is vulnerable to scratching, and even breakage if mistreated. Sony provides a pouch-style carrying case that includes a belt clip. This is well padded and should provide plenty of protection.
Above the screen, next to the forward-facing Motion Eye webcam (see below) is a fingerprint sensor. This is one of several features that betray Sony's business ambitions for the VAIO VGN-UX1XN. Another is the fact that it runs Windows Vista Business. In fact, this is the only operating system available on the device.
The system is powered by an Intel Core Solo U1500 processor with 2MB of Level 2 cache, running at 1.33GHz. There is 1GB of RAM on-board, which is the maximum that can be fitted. The processor, incidentally, is the same as found in Sony’s conventional VGN-TX5XN/B ultraportable, which we recently reviewed. We make the point to illustrate the fact that, if you're in any doubt having read this far, the VAIO VGN-UX1XN is a serious computer.
The graphics are driven by Intel’s integrated GMA 950 chipset, which has access to up to 224MB of system memory on demand. There is only 32GB of fixed storage — and on our review sample a mere 9.7GB was free. However, the hard drive uses solid-state flash memory which is faster, more power-efficient and better resistant to shocks than conventional mechanical drives with their multitude of moving parts. Unfortunately solid-state drives are currently very expensive, and the inclusion of this technology is undoubtedly part of the reason for the VAIO VGN-UX1XN's eye-watering £1,999 (inc. VAT) price tag (£1,701 ex. VAT).
Bluetooth (2.0+EDR), Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g) and Ethernet (10/100Mbps) are all present, although the latter is only accessible via the provided docking station. Connections on the system unit run to a single USB 2.0 port, a Memory Stick slot and a CompactFlash card slot, plus microphone and headphone connectors. Noticeable by its absence is any wide-area wireless connectivity such as HSDPA, 3G or even GPRS. You'll need to add this via an external USB add-on if you want to maximise your internet connectivity options.
The docking station connects to a slot on the bottom edge of the VAIOVGN-UX1XN and holds it at an angle approaching 45 degrees, which makes the screen easy to see. You can slide the screen up to reveal the keyboard when the device is docked and there's a pass-through for the mains power adapter. The docking station has been carefully designed so that all the ports on the system unit remain accessible when it's docked.
As well as the Ethernet connector, the docking station has three further USB 2.0 ports, an external monitor connector, a FireWire port and a 3.5mm AV-out port.
There are two digital cameras on the VAIO VGN-UX1XN. Sitting above the screen is a 0.3 megapixel webcam that's primarily designed for video calling. On the back, revealed only when the screen is raised to access the keyboard, is a second 1.3 megapixel camera for higher-resolution stills and video capture. Neither camera is particularly impressive, but to fit two onto such a small device is quite an achievement.
The VAIO VGN-UX1XN packs in plenty of features, including business-oriented ones like a fingerprint reader and Windows Vista. But it's just not ergonomic enough. The keyboard, in particular, is too small and the PgUp and PgDn keys, for example, are only accessible via an awkward Fn key combination. The screen, while wonderfully bright and sharp, suffers from its small pixel size, so that text is often small and on-screen buttons fiddly to tap or hit accurately with the cursor. Its unusual 1,204 by 600 resolution also means that 'OK' boxes, for example, often fall off the bottom of the screen. In most situations you're likely to find an ultraportable notebook more comfortable and easier to use.
Since we're currently lacking an effective benchmarking suite for Windows Vista systems, we must rely on Microsoft’s own Windows Experience Index for some performance pointers. On this measure, the VAIO VGN-UX1XN delivers a disappointing 2.0 out of a maximum 5.9. The overall rating is determined by the lowest-scoring component rather than being an average, and it's the processor that gets the 2.0 rating. Other components perform better, with the solid-state hard disk scoring best — an impressive 5.2 — for its data transfer rate.
Sony claims just 2 hours and 40 minutes of battery life for the VAIO VGN-UX1XN, which is disappointing for a device that's meant to live away from mains power for much of the time.
Despite its faults, we can’t help liking the VAIO VGN-UX1XN. It's cleverly designed, packs in the features and runs the latest Windows operating system. It certainly delivers a different order of magnitude of computing than any Windows Mobile handheld can hope to. Sony deserves credit for choosing a solid-state hard drive too (despite the extra cost), and for building fingerprint recognition into the device.
But in the end the VAIO VGN-UX1XN's small size makes it difficult to use effectively as a fully fledged computer. It's also short on free storage capacity (Vista and the software bundle take care of most of the system's 32GB), and is prohibitively expensive.