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The first ultra-portable computer

Sony Vaio's U50 and U70 computers weigh little more than a pound, but are full-fledged Windows XP machines nontheless.
Sony Vaio's U50 and U70 computers weigh little more than a pound, but are full-fledged Windows XP machines

Some people love carrying their big laptops with them. I see them all the time on airplanes, their portable computers barely fitting on those little fold-down economy-class food trays. Some people (me included) favor small, thin laptops. They (the computers, not the people) usually have 12-inch screens and weigh less than three pounds.

New, even smaller laptops are hitting the market. The key word here is smaller.  Much smaller. Call them ultra-portables. I’ve told you about the OQO (coming soon, I’m promised). Then there’s the Vulcan FlipStart from one of Paul Allen’s companies. 

But first to hit the market are Sony Vaio’s U50 and U70 palmtop-sized computers. Some markets, anyway. Not technically this one. While the U-series computers have been released in a number of places, they're only available in the United States through specialized importers.

Such companies take devices not directly sold in this country, such as computers and PDAs made for the Japanese market, and translate nearly everything into English.  One such company, iCube, was kind enough to send me one of their U50s to play with.

These are real Windows XP computers, but they do look and sometimes feel like PDAs, particularly when it comes to size: At 6.6 by 4.3 by 1.0 inches, each weighs little more than a pound.

The U50 sports a 900 MHz Celeron processor along with 256MB of memory. The U70 has a Pentium M 1GHz chip with 512MB of RAM. Both come with a 20GHz hard drive and run Windows XP Pro. (Another company is importing the U50 with XP Home.)

The screen is a 5-inch TFT touch screen that produces an 800 by 600 pixel image. Wireless networking (802.11b/g) is built in, as are slots for Compact Flash and Sony's Memory Stick, a USB 2.0 port and a stereo headphone jack. There are four additional USB 2.0 ports, an iLink port, VGA out and 10/100Base-T networking available on a little dongle.

The U50 also comes with a docking station, a stylus and a stereo headset with control unit. The standard battery is said to last 2.5 hours. An optional enhanced battery could last 5.5 hours but adds extra weight to the tiny package.

Using the U50
Overall, Sony's ultra-portable is not as small and lightweight as the OQO computer which I’ve seen at recent tech shows. It won’t fit in your pocket. On the other hand (and yes, it is a two-handed device) when you hold it you know you have a precision piece of equipment in your hands. 

The U50 has controls that allow you to zoom in and magnify a portion of the screen if you’d like. There are also controls that allow you to change from landscape (horizontal) to portrait (vertical) views of the screen –- especially nice when you’re, say, reading a story on your favorite news site.

And let me tell you about that screen. It’s really terrific: crisp, clear and sharp indoors and outside, especially terrific for a touch-screen. Don’t forget, the U50 has no built-in keyboard (like the OQO) so a touch screen is absolutely necessary. You can, of course, attach a USB keyboard and/or mouse and input that way –- but I found the U50’s built-in handwriting recognition software did a terrific job of translating my scrawl into real words and sentences.  I liked using the built-in joystick-like pointing device and got used to looking for the left and right-click buttons. 

I would like to see the U50 come with a better stylus though. The "fin-type" thing that comes with the computer leaves a lot to be desired.

Overall, I really liked my time with the U50. It seemed to run everything I could throw at it and was actually a lot of fun to use. I didn’t test the U70 with the faster processor and more memory, but the Celeron in the 500 seemed fine for everything I wanted to do with it.

Despite my trepidation concerning Sony computers (every one I’ve tried has had major problems) I could see taking this device with me on the road –- then docking it at home to a real keyboard/mouse/monitor. It’s that good.

ICube is selling the U50 for $2,199 and the U70 for $2,699 and there’s a waiting list -– so if you’re interested, better get you name in soon. Personally, I’m going to wait a little longer to see what the competition comes up with.