It’s rare that a new product causes as much of a buzz as that surrounding Sony’s take on the UMPC that was announced here in Tokyo on May 16. Looking at the VGN-UX50 handheld PC in the flesh, as we have been doing for the last week, makes it easy to understand at least a little of the hype.

Put simply, the UX50 is one very attractive piece of kit - the sleek blacks and silvers it’s made of instantly ask that you pick the thing up and play with it. Realising that there’s a Windows-XP based PC inside with all the functionality of a full-size laptop or desktop simply adds to the “wow” factor.

Throw in a few novelty items, such as the typically Sony IC-card reader, a touch-sensitive screen, a fingerprint scanner and a blue-backlit sliding keyboard for a pretty stunning first impression. In fact, it’s all very reminiscent of previous U series mini Vaios, but that’s another story.

The Japanese Vaio VGN-UX50 model we looked at costs ¥169,800 (US$1,550) and doesn’t include any office software. Adding Microsoft Office 2003 ups that by another ¥40,000. It weighs 520g, measures 15 x 9.5 x 3.2-3.8cm and battery life is rated at 3.5 hours.

Outside Japan, you have to wait
No European shipping date has been announced, but the machine will hit the US in July, with built in EDGE WAN from Cingular, and costing from $1,800.

The 4.5in, 1,024 x 600 pixel screen is obviously going to be the first thing new users will wonder about. It’s slightly smaller than the 7in screen many pundits were talking of prior to launch but it is bright enough to ensure good readability in all but direct sunlight. Still, the glossy XBrite coating can make it difficult to avoid reflections.

Enough about the outside, what about the inside - isn’t this thing just a beefed-up PDA? Half a gig of RAM, a 30 Gbyte SATA HDD with drop protection, a U1300 Intel Core Solo CPU running at 1.06GHz, 802.11a/b/g, Bluetooth, CF and Memory Stick slots and that full-fledged Windows XP Home edition say otherwise.

Impressive stats and gorgeous looks are all very well, but what about the speed? After a week of testing the UX50 in everyday use, it’s safe to say that performance is on a par with a very entry-level laptop: in other words, it’s just about acceptable, but no more.

None of our benchmarking software would run, which may be to do with the Japanese OS, but (battery issues aside; see later) I had no real problems with the tasks I threw at the machine, including word processing, surfing, email and watching a few movies and several episodes of My Name is Earl, which is surely to be expected for over $1,500.

It may be unnecessary to point this out, but anyone wanting to edit their own movies, use Photoshop and host their own website simultaneously had probably better look elsewhere.

How does it connect?
Power users will tell you that the beauty of a device such as this, the OQO (read review) or any UMPC (such as Samsung's Q1 Origami) is that it can be so much more than a handheld PC - hook it up to a screen and a keyboard and you’ve got an office to go. Sony clearly agrees and has supplied everything needed with the UX50.

The port replicator doubles as a cradle and sports three USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire port, a 15-pin D-sub for connecting a monitor and an Ethernet port. For folk not wishing to travel with the full shebang, there’s a mini two-in-one display and LAN adapter that weighs next to nothing.

When attached to my office screen, keyboard and mouse, the UX50 performed fine. It couldn’t drive the external monitor above 1,024 x 768, though why this should be so is a mystery at this time. Given the fact that the Core Solo inside is no speed demon, I can’t see anyone using this setup as more than a stopgap measure.

Great mobile email
So far, I’ve given just general impressions of the UX50, so let’s move on to look at the little things it does really well. Firstly, as a mobile email device it’s unparalleled here in Japan. (Remember, we don’t have any Treos or Blackberries.) Being able to log onto a public hotspot and reply in brief to messages from the office without having to resort to a laptop was a pleasure.

The dual webcams embedded in the front and back of the screen part of the case are most definite plus points and make videoconferencing a breeze. Sony has even preinstalled Skype and a Japanese videophone application. I’ll leave the typically junky startup PC clutter aside (that’s what msconfig is for, right?).

Perhaps tellingly, one of the outstanding features of the UX50 is its fast wake-up from standby. To get up and running from a cold start in around six seconds is both impressive and useful.

Other useful features are the zoom keys on the right of the screen for zooming in on text that’s too small to read, and the fingerprint lock that you can take or leave as is your wont. The IC-card reader is also a handy thing to have if you happen to live in Japan and use SuiCa for train passes or Edy e-money for manga and canned coffee. Naturally, that’s not going to find its way into the US version of the PC.

If you’re particularly interested, the Microsoft way ahead is fully supported, as the UX50 is Vista ready.

As a mobile media player the UX50 is about as good as a PSP with a hard drive - a vibrant, bright screen goes a long way but sitting around holding your movie player (I didn’t test it as a DAP) isn’t a heck of a lot of fun. A stand is available as an option, although it seems more of a must-have to me.

Cramped keyboard
Plenty of plus points so far but you may have noticed up above that I said “reply in brief” in the context of answering emails - that’s deliberate and brings me on to my major criticism.

It’s all too easy to criticise an innovative product like the VGN-UX50 without appreciating the engineering nous that goes into creating something so compact and well equipped, but I have to say that I could not use the UX50 keyboard for more than a few minutes.

I had planned to write this review on it but it’s simply too cramped (mainly by the left and right sides of the keyboard slider mechanism) and unresponsive. There’s almost no tactile feedback from keypresses and typing is a real chore. The onscreen handwriting recognition is no substitute either, as PDA fans will attest.

Then there’s the screen. Yes, it’s clear and bright but it’s pretty obvious that 4.5in is never going to be enough. My eyes really hurt after about 15 minutes of viewing the usual gamut of websites and that’s despite almost constant use of the zoom buttons. Moreover, I don’t use glasses or lenses - yet.

Fortunately, the whole display is touch sensitive, so keeping it zoomed in and dragging the view around with a finger or the stylus is an option, albeit a clunky one. Incidentally, the stylus supplied is practically identical to the one that came with the seminal Clie PEG-UX50 PDA. Coincidence?

On the juice front, the battery life is - as might be expected - not up to scratch. With the Wi-Fi on, two hours was just about all right, but playing a movie with the screen at full brightness and headphones in reduced this to a poor 1.5 hours.

UX50 in a nutshell
In conclusion, the UX50 is clearly a clever product with plenty going for it if - and that’s a big if - you can find a real need for it. At $1,500+ it is far from cheap, which really is the bottom line for anyone wanting an entry-level PC. And realistically, that’s precisely how this performs.

Before you get typing; yes, I’m prepared for a wave of criticism pointing out the multitude of high-end features. All I can say in response is that doubters should try it out and see what they reckon.

Finally, the 520g weight of the UX50 is likely to split opinion down the middle. I found it too heavy to sway me from me 900g Toshiba laptop. Why save just 400g but sacrifice a proper keyboard, much larger screen and great battery life?

Both the UX50 and a laptop need to be carried in a protective bag anway - this Vaio clearly isn’t pocketable - so where’s the need for the handheld in that case?

Having said that, I recognise that many folk will not agree and that the weight saving will make all the difference for some people. My point here is that if you have a need for a very-capable handheld PC, then you’ll probably love the UX50 in a heartbeat; if not, then you’ll simply marvel at the technology it packs in and move on. The choice is yours.

OUR VERDICT

If you really need a full PC in a handheld size, and the price doesn't bother you, look no further. Otherwise, the difficulties with the size should be enough to make you marvel and move on.