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PenLab: Sony CLIE UX50

Superb design and fine hardware execution with two wireless standards (Pen Computing issue #51)

The most astonishing revolution in PDA design this decade is a return to PDA design of the last decade. Two companies in 2003 came out with a small clamshell design PDA. One is from Sharp, and runs Linux, and the other is from Sony, running Palm OS. Both are a look back to the first Windows CE units. Microsoft, for its part, has abandoned this form factor in favor of the Palm model of a portrait-oriented PDA with no keyboard. But the last two years has seen a resurgence of the keyboard in the form of thumb boards. One HP model in particular is a little overly tall, to make room for the full size portrait screen plus a keyboard. So it's no surprise that the clamshell has come back. Sony actually brought it back long ago, with the NR70V vertical clamshell, but it was clear that much of the keyboard space was wasted. The solution? Go back to a horizontal clamshell, but make it about the size of the smallest PDA: the Palm Tungsten T.

First of all, the UX-50 embodies the finest of Sony design. I think I've said that a few times, and it gets more true every time. Nearly every aspect is refined and leading edge. As advanced as it is, however, I'm not sure this is the model to spend US$650 on. It's an amazing design, but the software integration and interface on the UX50 is not up to the standard that is currently on the NX80V. Sony gradually made that interface better with each new model in the line, starting with an NR70V that promised more than it delivered; it will probably take at least two more revs to bring the same level of refinement to the UX line.


Closed, the UX50 is something out of a sci-fi movie. Words can't well describe the nuance and attention to detail Sony has put into this device. Each element has its own personality. While they are unified, the screen, keyboard, hinge, and front control area are boldly different, even as they meld together. Curves, waves, hard edges, and bevels combine to make one stylish unit. All of these elements peek out even when the device is closed. It's no basic clamshell device whose personality is hidden until the shell opens: its obvious personality begs to be opened and appreciated.

Closed you can see the camera swivel, mounted on the left of the hinge, with the shutter release on the right. On the left we see the power slider, which you pull down to activate, and slide up to hold. It may be one of their better power slider arrangements, part of a slowly curving bulge at the top left of the unit. The switch is underneath a matching curved plate that minimizes accidental activation. A power light glows green when the unit is on, amber when charging, and off when fully charged. I've always disliked PDA charge indicators that don't at least verify that the unit has reliable contact with the power source.

Right of that is the IrDA window and a bona fide USB socket. It is covered by a matching silver plastic door that pulls straight out, retained by a rubber hinge. This is the only way you can HotSync the device, by the way. The charging dock has no connectivity for anything but power.

The front starts with a rather prominent aluminum lanyard loop, a nice design accent. The entire front sticks out from under the closed screen for easy use when the swivel screen is laid flat. Continuing from left, there are three microphone holes, the jog dial (which is now better called a scroll barrel), the back button for backing out of menus and programs, and three application buttons: Browser, Mail, and Date Book. Three great choices, but I miss the Address Book button, the application I use most. Finally, on the right, concealed beneath what looks like just another spiffy design accent, is the stylus silo. Just put an index finger underneath this matte silver dome and feel the knurl that will release the same collapsible stylus that is found on the NX80V. Thank goodness they didn't reinvent the stylus for this model. It's not spring loaded, but it does lock lightly at its fully open position.

On the right of the unit is the Memory Stick slot, complete with LED access indicator, something missing from palmOne designs to this day; because removing a memory card with an operation in progress can often damage the card, this is an important feature. The headphone jack is located on the hinge. On the bottom we find the charging pads, the stylus-size reset hole, and the speaker. Why it's not on the top so I can hear the music and excellent Sony sounds better, I just don't understand. Also down here are four excellent little rubber feet that keep the UX50 in place on most surfaces.


Finally we get to see the keyboard and screen. One is great, the other a little disappointing. The keyboard is big. I'm sure it's just what many customers have been waiting for. Though loads of people love thumb boards, just like Graffiti, it's not for everyone. Still, this is small enough that it's best used as a thumb board; unlike the old Windows CE clamshells, I doubt anyone will even try home row-style typing on the UX50. My two-month old wouldn't be able to manage even if he had the dexterity. Most of my complaints about past Sony thumb boards have been answered with this design. I have a hard time typing on the NX80V, because the soft dome keys are so smooth I'm not always sure when I'm over the right key. They've solved the problem with a design element from past clamshells: a wave rolls across the keyboard, evocative of the waves in the pavement of a drive-in theater. The keys are about where the cars would be, right on the crest of each wave. Sony has used this wave on other clamshells, but not for keyboards. I have a Sony travel radio from the early 1990's that has the same design element, only here it's put to very good use. The keys are backlit, and thank goodness: there's a separate row of numbers across the top. With all the space they had on the NX models, they embedded the numbers in the Qwerty row, so that every time you had to enter a phone number into your PDA, you had to hold down the bloody function key. No more. And both that function key and shift key are finally sticky. Not to the touch, but when you press them, they remember that you've pressed them and apply their magic to the next key pressed. This is new on CLIE, and welcome. A double press on each of these keys also locks them.

What is still missing from the CLIE is keyboard activation of programs and buttons. CLIE's are not the only PDAs missing some of these items, and in their defense, the jog dial does activate programs with a press. They've included they keyboard, but they haven't fully integrated it into the software. The sticky keys mentioned above are a good first step, but I'd like to see the enter key or spacebar activating menus and onscreen "OK" buttons, as we're seeing on the Treo 600.

Before I get to the screen, I'll mention the two little lights on the right of the screen. One is for WiFi, and the other for Bluetooth. The UX50 smartly integrates both, giving its user access to the two 2.4 GHz wireless standards you need today: one for the office and for hot spots, and the other for using with your cell phone while out and about. The UX40, incidentally, has only Bluetooth.


There are a number of possible reasons, but the screen on the UX50 is just too small. Diagonally it measures 3 3/8 inch, while its nearest competitors, the NX80V and Tungsten T3 are 3 3/4 inch, giving them 31 percent more screen area than the UX50. Reasons could be the need to have antenna left and right of the screen (I'm only speculating as to their presence), or that because of the need to have the front protrusion for the jog dial and application buttons, they could only make the screen so tall. Regardless the reason, the resulting screen is smaller in every dimension than the keyboard, making the principle interface with this unique handheld too small for any but the very nearsighted.

Which brings me to the new CLIE 3D Launcher, derived from the launcher on the NX series--only totally different. I put it that way because to understand the 3D launcher at all, you have to realize that program icons are arranged into categories, the main feature that made it over from the NX launcher. Unlike the vertically scrolling design of the NX launcher, however, these icons read left to right and their categories are separated by double dotted lines. You can use a pull up menu at the bottom of the screen to jump to categories, but it's very illogical and unintuitive. Entering a character on the keyboard as one would do in the traditional Palm launcher takes you not to all the programs that start with that letter, but to the first category with a title starting with that letter. It's has hard to explain as it is to do. It's silly, and doesn't help the user navigate at all. The NX launcher had this problem as well, but it was at least beautiful in execution.

The 3D launcher gets its name from the fact that its icons can be displayed flat, or by sliding a handle across the screen, they turn into a scrolling barrel that rolls around as you move the jog dial. Little dots arranged in a cube shape circle the selected icon like electrons around a nucleus. It's cute, but a little distracting. The barrel idea looks neat, but offers no real value from an interface standpoint. Add that it looks a little sloppy, and I wonder why it was cleared for inclusion on such an otherwise slick device. This is one CLIE on which the standard Palm OS launcher is far more appealing.

The virtual Graffiti area can be slid out of the way on most screens, and can be switched from right to left hand use. The screen would be better used in vertical or portrait format when the screen is flipped over, but it's just not possible. The vertical mode Graffiti area is opposite the one on the Tungsten T3. Letters are written on the bottom portion, and numbers at the top. This works better when the keyboard is present, because you can rest your wrist, but when the screen is flipped, it's harder to write letters with such a small rest area.

I like that the brightness controls and calculator are accessible from the top of the graffiti area, regardless of the application, as are the battery level and clock.

Most of the special Sony CLIE applications work as expected, but some fall a little short.

The Netfront browser is good, offering wide screen mode with the Graffiti area minimized. In one of the zoom modes, pages are stripped down and made to fit left to right. It works for people like me, but the font is devilishly small in this mode, so while it works, it's not what I'd call a good experience.

CLIE Mail is very fast, whether using WiFi or Bluetooth with my Bluetooth access point. PhotoStand sets have to be modified by rotating each picture. I rotate all of mine so that they take advantage of the full screen, so they all have to be rotated. The video player is disappointing, because though the wide screen would be ideal for playing video clips, the Graffiti area cannot be minimized to take advantage of that wide screen. It's a holdover from the NX80V, which, because the screen could not be rotated, did not need to move the Graffiti area. This is the kind of opportunity that has been missed. Perhaps it's because the hardware team is so much faster than the software side. I can't be sure, but it is starting to add up to a need for a blanket warning that unless you like seeing US$700 products evolve unit by unit, avoid the first version of any new CLIE.


Internally, the UX50 is impressive leap. Sony has shown its commitment to the hardware side of the CLIE line in a big way with the UX50 in a couple of ways. First, they built a new ARM-based processor just for the CLIE line. Called the Handheld Engine CXD2230GA and running at 123 MHz, it uses something akin to Intel's speed step technology, but which Sony says is more sensitive, slowing down and speeding up to just the right speed depending on application, all the way down to 8MHz. My informal tests seem to show that the UX50 has just the right speed almost all the time. I do hope it saves the unit battery, because it needs the extra life. The two radios both drain the battery in a New York minute, I'm afraid. I can start fully charged, browse for about fifteen minutes, and the battery drops to less than 50%. It will run for a little at that level, but it does shake confidence. Users who intend to do a lot of wireless work with the UX50 will want to spend the additional US$120 for the extended battery. It's supposed to give up to three times the battery life, and is shaped much like the charger tray thingie that stands in for a cradle.

The new processor includes a digital signal processor and a graphics accelerator chip. Though the resolution of the NX80V's camera is higher, I notice a big difference in the refresh rate of live video between the two models. The UX50 is more like live TV, while the NX80V is slow and shadowy. You'd thing the NX80V's 200MHz processor would be able to best the 123MHz UX50, but DSP's are excellent at such tasks, so I wouldn't be surprised if this is the reason.

The other improvement is also a bit confusing. The site says that the UX50 has a total of 104MB RAM. Sounds good. But it's split up. 16MB is for users to load files and programs. Another 16MB is for built-in backup of those files. They've also added 29MB RAM as a non-removable storage card, . That doesn't add up, though. It actually breaks down like this: 8MB is in the CPU. Another 32MB chip is split into two: 16MB for users to store files, and 16MB for the computer to use as "heap" space. Put simply, it loads and runs programs in this space. Then there's a 64MB NAND Flash chip. As usual, Flash is non-volatile, so Sony uses this for that 16MB of backup RAM, 29MB for that internal storage, and 19MB is used for the computer's internal programs, pre-installed so that they're always available to the user. So 61MB is available to the user, with 104MB total. The problem with the arrangement is that most users won't understand it well enough to appreciate or even use it.

It's a shame that I've had to be so critical of the UX50, but I have to be honest. The UX50 is a bold step forward in hardware design, giving users an impressive array of features that have long been missing, but the software side of the equation is lacking the same kind of punch. I really look forward to the next model in the UX line, because I think that model--provided it includes a screen that is 31 percent larger--will have all these software inconsistencies fixed. Sony representatives assure me that they're committed to the UX concept, so I'm sure we'll see something soon. UX is an amazing piece of hardware design, proving Sony's prowess once again. I just love how thin it is, and I get a kick out of working its fine mechanisms. Nothing is so satisfying as flipping and snapping the screen down over the keyboard. Everything about the hardware is pristine. Sony designers are always good for exceeding their best at hardware design. Something like a UX80 might find a place in my shirt pocket. US$649.

-Shawn Barnett

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