In the category of ‘mobile computing that never made it’ and ‘things the iPad utterly killed’, the UMPC is (was?) a term for very small PCs that can do everything your average laptop or desktop can, but in a small form factor. Since PC makers figured the small size and ‘cutting edge’ technologies they put in them (200+ DPI screens, fingerprint readers, 3G) demanded a premium, UMPCs were often a $1200+ market, which also explains why they never caught on.
Now that the smoke on the mobile computing battlefield has cleared, though, one can pick through the remnants and find a good deal on what is interesting technology. It’s easy to be discouraged by all the lemons and genuinely weird micro-PCs, but I’ve also found a little gem in there. And that bulky, funny looking gem is the Vaio UX.
The Vaio UX is the type of PC you would imagine you find in small, bustling gadget shops in Tokyo’s Akihabara district. At a glance, it doesn’t even resemble a PC — most UMPCs at least attempt to retain a laptop-like form factor or assume a ‘slate’ like shape — but it has all, if not more of its features. When it was first introduced, at the cost of over fifteen hundred dollars, it did raise a few eyebrows. Unfortunately for Sony, it didn’t create a new market.
Inside the one-pound UX is a 250+ DPI (‘Retina Display’, anyone?), 4.5″ touchscreen packing a resolution of 1024×600, as well as internals that are very similar to the first generation Macbook Air: a Intel Core Duo ULV (Ultra Low Voltage) processor with a single gigabyte of RAM and Intel GMA 950 graphics. More on that hardware semblance later on in this post. It also came with either EDGE wireless or a CompactFlash slot, a Memory Stick Duo slot, 802.11b/g wireless, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, a Fingerprint reader, one front and one back facing (!) camera and a tiny little SSD or HDD.
As a real PC, it even had one USB port and audio in/out ports on its sides, but once set down into its cradle, it has a total of four USB ports, a FireWire port, a VGA port (yes, powering another display) as well as Ethernet. Quite a lot for such a tiny device.
Of course, it had the typical pitfalls of PCs: the UX struggled to get over three hours of battery life on its stock battery. The $120 extended battery brought it up to eight hours, but such a premium was a lot to ask when you were paying almost two thousand bucks for a PC already. Its huge price, short battery life and thickness and bulk didn’t appeal to the mass market, and we all know that the iPad and netbooks took its intended niche by storm.
Despite all that, I picked up a European model with the catchy name VGN-UX1XN on eBay for a fraction of its original retail price and upgraded it with an extremely tiny 1.8″ 64 GB SSD. Why did I get it, you may ask?
The Vaio UX has a resistive touchscreen. You know, those old takes-effort-to-push-things screens without all the multi-touchy goodness we have grown accustomed to. What they do have going for them, though, is being sensitive to regular old stylus pens. And the Vaio UX comes with just that: in a little compartment on the back you find a little pen you can use to tap things on the screen and draw. I use Autodesk’s excellent SketchBook for Windows 7 to draw on it, and it’s quite good. Thanks to the external screen rotation key, I can even hold it like a little portrait drawing pad. A really bulky, slightly warm drawing pad.
Good Old Game Console:
My favorite games are still the 1990-2000 era strategy games and role playing games. In particular, the Infinity Engine games like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape Torment are titles I enjoy playing every year. They still offer new experiences to me and are immersive and emotional stories I can lose myself in. Thanks to community fix packs, mods and patches, I can play them at the UX’s native resolution, and the UX seems to be almost made for these games: they control great with the ‘thumbstick’ and mouse buttons, and with text-size patches reading the lengthy dialogues between characters is pleasant. I’ve put at least sixty hours into Baldur’s Gate 2 on the Vaio UX, and I’m all the way up to the final act of Shadows of Amn.
I made a video about gaming on it:
Thanks to Good Old Games, I will never have a shortage of excellent games to play on it: point-and-click adventure games like Grim Fandango and The Longest Journey are already in my queue.
The Smallest (real!) Mac:
Ah, yes, about that Macbook Air hardware resemblance. Since the chipsets are so similar in the UX and Macbook Air, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to install Mac OS X on it ( — I haven’t tried Lion, yet) and of course I had to do that. My 64GB SSD is split in half and at startup I can easily pick an OS to boot. OS X works quite well thanks to third-party touchscreen drivers. I installed an Atheros AirPort card in the UX so I even have full BlueTooth and Wi-Fi support. It’s not the best experience (the memory card slot doesn’t work, as does the fingerprint reader), but it is quite usable and fun to have a small Mac in your backpack. A Mac you can draw on.
I have been working on an interesting UI / UX proof of concept in the last few months that uses some of the ‘advanced’ hardware in the Vaio UX, and it’s been absolutely perfect for it. I can test Quartz Compositions under OS X, full interactive Flash and HTML5 / CSS3 mockups in full-screened Chrome on Windows, and even use hardware like the camera and fingerprint reader in them. I hope to show more of my work on it soon — probably at a conference or similar presentation.
The UX is one of the few UMPCs to have gathered a true cult following. A group of people dedicated to modding it have gone as far as to solder in new, faster dual-core CPUs, integrated full 3G HSPA wireless and more crazy upgrades.
If you have any questions regarding this fascinating little piece of PC history, let me know. It’s been a fun hobby to spend some hours on for me.