In my ongoing
quest obsession to find a decent handheld computer that you can type on, I was intrigued by the latest announcement from Sony for their new Vaio UX180P Micro PC. That is, until I tried it out. The Vaio UX has all the right specs on paper: it weighs just 1.2 pounds, has a 4.5" Super VGA screen with 1024 x 600 resolution, a 1.2 GHZ Intel Solo Core CPU, a 30 gig hard drive, built-in wifi, bluetooth and Cingular EDGE wireless access, a biometric fingerprint reader (no joke!), USB port, headphone / microphone jacks, two --yes, two!-- digital cameras front and back, a slide-out keyboard and an optional docking station. It even looks cool. Unfortunately, after you use it for 30 10 minutes, you're gonna want to hurl this thing across the room. And at $1,800 that's an expensive outburst.
I give Sony props on two fronts. First of all, they really did build something worthy of being called a "Micro PC"; it's a technology tour-de-force cramming so many features into such a small package. Secondly, they didn't call it a UMPC. But from a usability perspective, the Vaio UX is a dud. The mouse-like thing for positioning the cursor is on the right hand side; the mouse buttons are on the left requiring a split brain operation to navigate anything. Because it's got a slide-out keyboard, you can't touch type; instead you have to hold the unit in your hands and type with your thumbs. But since the unit is 5.19 inches wide, that's easier said than done; its certainly harder to do than on a Palm Treo or Blackberry. And while the screen resolution is sharp, it feels like you're reading 6 point mousetype which will have you reaching for the zoom button or Ibuprofen or both. The battery power is an unimpressive 2.5 - 4.5 hours, which means you won't even get a full flight's worth of work flying from San Francisco to Chicago. And because it's running Windows XP, forget about instant-on unless you want to drain the batteries even faster.
While Sony says the Vaio UX 180 will fit in a jacket pocket, I can only imagine what kind of ugly leisure suit from the 1970's they might be talking about. While you can't tell from the pictures, once you pick up the Vaio UX, you notice it has two bulges on the back, presumably holding the battery and the hard drive. But even if you could get this thing into a jacket pocket, it seems unlikely you'd ever get it back out again without ripping the jacket or breaking the antenna, or both. This thing deserves a special design award for ugliness; it should be part of some $18,000 Pentagon pork-barrel catalog or a long lost Star Trek episode. Or both.
My prediction is that there will be a grand total of 50 of these sold, all to Engadget readers who are ready to compromise overall usability in order to surf the web at a decent speed while sitting on the toilet or at a funeral or somewhere else where a laptop doesn't really fit. The browsing experience is considerably faster and better than the Nokia 770 given the extra CPU horsepower and the wider screen. But it's also 5 times more expensive than the Nokia 770 and neither one of these puppies is really ready for a mainstream audience.
The problem here is not really Sony's. Lets call a spade a spade. The problem is Windows. I don't think anyone is going to deliver a usable handheld device that people can surf the web, do email and still get a decent user interface and battery life if it's shackled to Windows. Windows was designed to be a desktop operating system and for those with long memories, it's not even that good for laptops. (Aside: how long did it take Microsoft to get hibernate to work right? It still doesn't work reliably on laptops with more than 1 Gig of memory!)
I hope to God
Apple someone will design a lightweight portable device that's under 1 pound, has a keyboard you can type on and does away completely with the mouse. Include a couple of decent, light weight apps for internet browsing, email, word processing and spreadsheets and I'm happy. How hard can it be? Psion launched the Series 5 PDA with a clamshell design, a good keyboard and ten hours of battery life over nine years ago.