Price: $599.99 (after a $50 mail-in rebate)
Pros: built-in Wi-Fi; nice keyboard, feature-packed
Cons: can’t switch to portrait mode; battery dies quickly with heavy Wi-Fi use; expensive
Sony has been pushing the handheld design envelope since it first introduced its Clié personal entertainment organizer three years ago. With the head-turning UX50, Sony has again raised the bar.
The UX50 is Sony’s top-of-the-line model, and the first Palm OS PDA to offer both 802.11b and Bluetooth wireless networking built in. The sleek, lightweight (6.2 ounces) device resembles a miniature laptop, complete with a backlit QWERTY keyboard that’s surprisingly comfortable to use. (You’ll still have to type with your thumbs, but the keys are good-sized and very responsive.)
Like its NX series cousin, the UX50 features a “flip and rotate” display; you can swivel the screen around 180 degrees and fold it down over the keyboard to form a miniature tablet. The display is a sharp 65,000-color screen that is highly readable both indoors and out. Unfortunately, you can’t switch from the standard landscape mode to portrait, which would be a nice option for when you’re using the tablet form factor.
The Clié’s signature Jog Dial is found on the bottom of the keyboard, along with three customizable quick launch buttons that by default take you to the device’s Web browser, e-mail client and calendar application, respectively, as well as a Back button. An expandable stylus is tucked in the front-right corner.
Along the unit’s left side, you’ll find the power/hold button, an IR port, a mini-USB jack (for synching; you can also sync via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth), and a loop for the included wrist strap (at this price, a case would be nice); on the right is the Memory Stick slot and a headphone jack (headphones are not included).
When it comes to features, the UX50 is loaded. It runs Palm OS 5.2 and packs 104 MB of total memory, 29 of which is reserved for media storage. Another 16MB is available for files and programs, with an additional 16MB set aside for system backup. A low-resolution (310,000 pixels) digital camera — built into the display’s hinge — takes still pictures as well as video. A voice recorder and audio player, which can play both MP3 and Sony’s ATRAC3 files, are also included. The main attraction, though, is the Wi-Fi.
Connecting to a wireless LAN from the Clié is a breeze. I used the Auto Connect option in the Wireless LAN Setup (found in Preferences), which found my home network immediately. This also worked flawlessly at several free hotspots. If you’re within range of multiple wireless networks, you can scan for all available access points (AP), and then select the one you want to connect to. You can also manually enter the SSID and WEP Key for a WLAN.
Once an SSID appears in the list of available networks, you can edit the settings to enable ad hoc mode, which allows you to connect directly to other Wi-Fi devices without an AP, and Power Save, which helps cut down battery drain when you’re using the wireless connection (and battery drain is definitely an issue; more on that later). You can also disable DHCP and manually enter settings for the IP Address, Netmask, Router, Primary DNS and Secondary DNS.
A green light to the right of the screen lets you know that you’ve successfully connected to a WLAN. Signal strength is indicated by three bars on the display itself; you can also find a more exact measurement in the WLAN Setup area. The Clié’s range was a little disappointing, but not bad considering there’s no external antenna. My signal strength dropped to around 50 percent just 15 feet from the AP in my home office, and cut out altogether at around 40 feet. It did perform better in the more open hotspot environments I tried it in, however. For example, I was able to maintain a connection to the public WLAN in an Apple store in a shopping mall from several stores away.
The UX50 is the first Clié to feature Sony’s Handheld Engine processor, which features its proprietary Dynamic Voltage Frequency Management (DVFM) technology for maximizing battery life. I found the battery power to be adequate, but not stellar. Naturally, the more you use the WLAN connection, the shorter the battery life.
With regular Wi-Fi use, the battery lasted around five hours. With constant use, that dropped to about 2.5 hours. Both the WLAN and Bluetooth functions are disabled when the remaining battery power falls under 10 percent. If you really need more juice, Sony offers an add-on battery that it says extends the life of the device up to three times. Of course, you’ll have to plunk down an additional $119.99 for it.
As for software, the UX50 includes the standard Palm organizer applications, as well as Sony’s e-mail client, Clié Mail, and Web browser, NetFront. Applications for viewing and editing images are also pre-loaded on the device.
Overall, the UX50 is pretty close to PDA perfection. It’s well-designed and a joy to use. Its primary drawback, of course, is its hefty pricetag. Still, if you’re looking for a handheld computer with built-in wireless connectivity and you’ve got deep pockets, you won’t go wrong with the UX50.