I really liked my Sony Vaio TR2. It’s got to be the best mix between a full fledge laptop and a small portable computer. Its built-in drive means this is a great entertainment and work machine. The TR series in my opinion is still the laptop to own especially if want travel and its overall design and looks are still amazing.
But, I after having it for nearly 8 months, I started to think about a change. I’ve been looking around now to see what kind of laptop I might want to own. A more powerful machine with a bigger screen; a newer, sub-notebook with just as much fire power? Instead, I looked to go smaller. Sony has just introduced an update to the U-series mini notebooks. I prefer to call them mini because they make sub-notebooks like the TR2 look big in comparison. The first U series notebook was a very cute package but just didn’t do it for me.
The update though was much more interesting. Sony released two different versions, a U50 and U70. The main difference is that the U70 uses a Pentium M chip while the U50 uses a Celeron chip and has half the memory. Decision made. I wanted the U70. Unfortunately, Sony had put up the information well before the product actually launched. I went down to the stores to see if I could see one up close and to my surprise, they actually had a U50 on display. One look and I had to have one right there. But it was not meant to be. The U70 was just not yet shipping. So I pre-ordered one and I waited anxiously for the laptop. What was supposed to be a week took two and then going into the third week, I was almost about to surrender. But then I got the phone call – it had arrived. And the next thing you know, I had a U70 to play with!
Now the U series is a Japanese-only product, which means that almost everything will be in Japanese including the OS. Putting an English OS on top isn’t hard but could render some of the drivers, and worse, some of the features useless. In a laptop like this, that’s pretty significant. I could have left it in Japanese as I can read most of the characters, but I decided against it and the store helped change the OS to English.
This is the most outstanding feature of the U series laptops. Closer to a PDA than to any laptop in the market, the U70 is pretty much a handheld 5″ screen. As the Vaio Japan website shows, the unit is designed to sit in the palm of your hands. As a result, it adopts a rectangular design that allows you to grip onto the sides of the unit.
Initially, the screen looks way too small to really be able to be usable. I have to admit that it took me several days to adjust to get used to it. But you do get used to it. Because of the design in using it in the palm of your hands, the screen is actually much closer and much more user friendly than you would think.
To make the computer friendly, Sony has incorporated buttons on the side of the screen that allow you to navigate the screen and make certain functional adjustments – without the keyboard if necessary. In the top right is a 4-way scrolling pad as well as a tracking point below it that moves the cursor around. At the bottom on the right are a number of buttons to control the settings, contrast, and to launch the writing pad. Yes, the screen is touch sensitive so you can use a stylus (including a funny shaped one that is provided with the Vaio). On the top left side of the screen is the mouse buttons and the lower left side is a zoom button to change the screen resolution and a rotate button to switch between landscape and portrait modes.
The U70 is an incredibly light and wonderful laptop. To make it this small though, Sony has had to do away with the traditional set up of a keyboard attached to the screen. To do so, Sony has created a foldable, detachable keyboard. The idea is similar to keyboards you see for PDAs. The keyboard connects via USB and is extremely compact, light and folds away easily. I am impressed that the keyboard actually feels quite solid despite being so light. It is much better than some of the aftermarket ones you find for PDAs.
The unit itself is designed to be self-contained so you have a USB port on the right and a Memory Stick and a Compact Flash slot at the top. Funny enough, the U70 does lack a PC card slot. But there probably really isn’t a need for one and the CF slot can compensate for some additional features you might want to add-on.
The screen also can be placed on a docking station/cradle where it can charge and/or connect to additional devices via 4 USB ports, a FireWire output, Ethernet, and an external VGA output. The cradle is still the ideal way to position the screen because without the cradle, you do run into the slight problem of how to keep the screen positioned upright without some aid.
The problem is worsened by the fact that Sony decided to place the power cord outlet and the external VGA/Ethernet dongle on the bottom of the unit. As a result, if you are connected, to an electrical outlet and/or broadband via an Ethernet cable (very common for travelers like me), then the screen is extremely difficult to keep upright or at an angle. Of course, if you are using it on the fly with the battery, then it’s relatively easier, especially with an additional case that Sony sells which smartly folds so the screen can be propped up. (I must go buy this.)
All in all, I must say that Sony has done a great job in the design of the U70. Yes, it will arguably have some flaws in that it’s a mini laptop, but hey, what do want from the smallest laptop available today? The metallic outer shell that surrounds the screen gives it a tremendous luster and I just like the way the laptop looks and feels. It’s a very brilliant design overall and I rate it highly. There are supposed to be some other mini laptops on the way, but once again Sony is first out of the blocks and leading the way.
Ok, first and foremost, it’s a laptop. Of course I’m extremely impressed with the size of the unit, but there are actually functional reasons that are equally as impressive. Before I begin, I want to remind everyone that the U70 is a Japanese laptop and came with all the Japanese software and drivers. I don’t know whether or not my changing the OS would have made it slower or faster or if didn’t matter at all.
The U70 comes with a Pentium M 1Ghz which is the same specs as that was in my Sony Vaio TR2. So of course I was curious how something so small would perform. Guess what – its really fast. (There is the slower U50 with a Celeron chip and only 256 MB of RAM but I knew that wasn’t going to be enough so I didn’t even consider that model though it’s nearly US$450 cheaper.)
I was impressed on all fronts. Startup, shutdown, running programs all ran at a very impressive pace. The 512MB of RAM is very helpful to getting things running fast. Some may argue that the 20GB of space is not enough, but given it’s size, I’m happy with that (I’m sure a 40GB version will appear in the next generation). The U70 has built-in WiFi and the 802.11g works very well with my connection. The U70 is capable of running pretty much any and every program I threw at it. Of course, you are limited to the fact that it’s a 5″ screen.
Speaking of the screen, the LCD is a brilliant laptop screen. Despite its size, it’s extremely sharp and clear. The 800×600 resolution is pretty much as good as you want. Typing a Word document or even viewing an Excel file isn’t too hard or much of a strain. I took the laptop with me on my trips recently and used the CF slot to upload my digital photographs. It was fast and effecient. I then used Photoshop to touch it up and resize them for e-mail and it was no slower than my past experience with the TR2. Watching movies or video clips is superb. I downloaded an episode of West Wing and watched it without a hitch. Color, details, contrast, etc. are all very good. Pretty good considering this is a shared graphic Intel chipset.
As a result of installing an English OS on it, I did lose a few functions. First of all, almost everything works fine. Thus far, I have encountered a few problems. One, the rotation button on the front of the laptop works only once before it crashes. I guess it’s no big deal because you just need to resolve this, you just reboot and then rotate it again, but it’s annoying. I’m not sure why this happens, but it’s probably some driver that needs to be updated. Honestly though, I can’t ever imagine really wanting to run this in portrait mode. Landscape is the most useful layout and I can’t really see a time when I would want to change this.
Secondly, I can’t seem to get my mouse to work with the device. Why? Because the generic driver is conflicting with the tracking point on the keyboard. The U70 is unique in that it has a touchscreen and two tracking points that are active at the same time. In other words, you can use the screen, the tracking point on the right of the screen, or the one of the keyboard at any give time to move the cursor around. That though runs into a problem when I try to plug in a mouse as it doesn’t automatically load up the correct driver and I can see that it still tries to use the same driver as one of the existing tracking points. Probably not a problem if I just install the right driver for the mouse. I also had some problems getting my DVDRW drive to work with the device, but that was a driver issue and besides, I predominantly use WiFi to transfer files over to my main PC so I don’t actually use or need a drive, even to install programs (it’s pain to keep plugging and unplugging it from my main PC) I just use WiFi and share the drive.
Lastly, I’m not sure which program to use for the remote to work. The U70 comes with a remote for the headphones that turns the U70 into an walkman/iPod/MP3 player. I know that you are supposed to be able to use the U70 with the headphones and the screen off for many hours of music entertainment. Unfortunately, I don’t know which Sony program will allow me to control the computer through the included remote. I can’t really say if this is because of the English OS or a driver problem. Anyway, the headphones and the remote work, it’s just that I can’t forward or rewind from the remote. I read somewhere that someone got this to work on an English OS so I’m willing to bet if I tried hard enough, I could fix the problem. Unfortunately, I don’t need it or really care. I’m happy to use Windows Media or even SonicStage to maneuver through songs or make volume adjustments. Included in the package other than the above are a set of earphones to go with the remote and two cases, one for the computer and the other for the keyboard.
Other than that, most everything else works. The problems above are relatively minor and with any new PC, you just need to sort out some of these small issues. The right drivers should fix all of the above issues. I suppose it would bother me slightly but hey the main features work and these are not big issues. Other features specific to the U70 like the handwriting recognition-character box work (called NextText) where you can write on the screen like a Tablet PC/PDA (although by default it pops in Japanese recognition mode but does recognize English characters when you switch modes, and is similar to predictive text like in mobile handsets). You can run other 3rd party software for better English recognition. But that’s hopelessly slow compared to just typing on the keyboard.
Overall, I don’t think you’d treat or think of this as a slow or knocked down version of a full-fledged laptop. I was worried when I got it that it would end up more like a PDA with PPC. Instead, this thing is a full fledged computer. I hooked it up to my Plasma and had the thing running like any other computer.
Ok, so what’s the bad news? Well to me there is one problem with the U70 that is more annoying than anything else. It’s the battery life. The U70 comes with an 1800 mAh battery that for the most part is only average. It gave me about 2 hours and 20 minutes of good use at the full contrast setting with WiFi turned off. Ok, that’s probably quite acceptable but since it was already so small, I guess I just wanted more. Of course you can buy an additional battery, including a double capacity version. But at US$340 for the battery, I think that’s pretty ridiculous (especially given my turnover in laptops). So I’m kind of stuck with 2+ hours of use. I wish Sony would give you better batteries or at least make them more affordable. I think instead of 1800 mAh, the battery should have been a 2400 mAh with a 3600 “extended” battery option. 2400 mAh would at least make it more user friendly (yes I realize you’d be sacrificing some weight and size but please, how much more would it really be? 10mm more thickness? 30+% more juice would about make it perfect.)
I’ve now had the U70 for more than a week. I’ve had the chance to play with all the features as well as use it on two trips. I must say, I’m still impressed. Yeah, I think it’s really cool that I have the smallest laptop in the world with me. Most people dismiss it as a big PDA. But underneath the hood is a beast of a laptop that can do everything I want it to. It’s ultraportable and has more than enough power for my needs.
Other than the battery life, the key issue is probably going to be the price. The U70 is definitely not cheap. It’s the same price (about US$2050 is what I paid) as a brand new Vaio TR laptop (we’re up to version TR5 now) and given that the TR includes a CDRW/DVD drive and a bigger screen, the U70 is a niche product that will probably not suit many people. I can imagine that a lot of people will be squinting at the screen and after a few hours, I’m sure that can be annoying to some.
But to me, I love it. Small is awesome in this case and the U70 gets my pick as the ESSENTIAL laptop gadget to have. Sure, if you’re a businessman that needs a real laptop to do lots of work on the road, this isn’t going to be a real substitute/alternative. It’s also a Japanese only laptop so some may have some issues related to that. In the US, I’ve seen a few websites that sell it with English OS for some pretty hefty prices. That’s definitely a deterrent. But for what I need a PC to do, and for someone that loves to just have a PC with them all the time, the U70 is my current gadget pick and I’m happy that I have one.