Meeting Your Heroes: The Sony VAIO UX (VGN-UX390N)
Flash back to 2006. This is long before everyone had an iPhone or Android device in their pocket. We were lucky to have a color LCD on our phones, let alone a nice capacitive touch-screen device that was powerful enough to things besides just take phone calls or send SMS messages. There were no “app stores,” phones were outfitted with 2-4 MB of RAM instead of 2-4 GB or more like they are today, and although we could browse the web with them, it was a stripped-down mostly text-only versions of web pages. Services like YouTube and Netflix on a device that was small enough to fit in your pocket was unheard of. For mobile audio and video, people typically carried around a device like an iPod or an Archos media player.
Sony saw a very niche hole in the market and decided to capitalize on it. Although it turns out the UX was the answer to a question nobody really asked, I absolutely lusted after one of these things when they first came out. As a gadget, the UX was damn cool, but with a price tag hovering around $2,000 for a base model with only 512MB of RAM and a 30GB 1.8″ hard disk, and a weak single-core 1.06 Ghz CPU, it was really hard to justify actually purchasing one. Still, I never really forgot about the device, and it has always been on my list of “I’ll have one of those someday” gadgets.
Fast forward to 2018, and I managed to find an extremely clean example of one of the highest end versions ever released on the US on eBay for a very reasonable price.
May I Introduce the Sony VAIO UX
The model I have is a VGN-UX390N. Most of the UX models released in the US featured a silver keyboard, but the two highest end models, the 390N and the 490N, received the blackout treatment, and I still think it looks great today. There are two main differences between the 390N and the 490N. While the 390N gets a single-core 1.33 Ghz CPU, the 490N gets a dual core 1.2 Ghz CPU. The 390N and 490N were the only two UX models released in the US to feature a solid state hard disk, and while the 390N was released with a 30GB SSD, the 490N got 40GB. The 390N and 490N are the two rarest models of VAIO UX out there today by far, with the slightly spec’d-down 380N being somewhat common. The 380N, 390N and 490N all shipped with Windows Vista Business, while the lesser models shipped with Windows XP Pro.
On the front of the UX there is a 4.5″ Sony XBRITE TFT LCD display at 1024×600 resolution, which slides up to reveal a keyboard. The display is driven by an Intel GMA 950 graphics processing unit with 256MB of shared video memory. Along the top of the display are a finger print reader and a 2 megapixel webcam, with another 2 megapixel webcam on the back of the LCD for taking photos. On the right side of the device there’s a textured nub which acts as a joystick for the mouse cursor, two buttons which use Sony software to zoom in on screen elements, a power/hold switch, and a built-in microphone. On the left side of the device there are two buttons which are used for left and right click, another button that can be held down in conjunction with the mouse nub to scroll, and a button to launch the Sony software dashboard, which controls various functions of the device. Finally, there’s a switch to turn the 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular radios on and off.
On the back of the device there is a removable battery, a flip-up antenna, and a stylus that can be used to interact with the touch screen display. The touch screen on the UX is not a capacitive touch screen like on modern devices, rather it’s the old membrane type, so some force is required when using the stylus. On the top of the device there’s a Memory Stick Duo slot, which was Sony’s proprietary flash media format of the day, along with a “Capture” button which acts as a shutter button when. using the rear camera. On the side of the device next to the mouse buttons there’s a full-sized USB type-A port. Finally, on the bottom of the device there’s a DC input jack, a dock connector, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a 3.5mm microphone jack.
There are a number of LED status indicators on the device. Above the power/hold switch there’s an LED that glows green when the device is powered on. On a small strip along the bottom of the LCD’s bezel there are several status indicator LEDs which include battery charging status / low battery warning status, disk access indicator, CAPS/number/scroll lock indicators, and LEDs to indicate communications status on each of the three radios – Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and cellular.
Docking the VAIO UX
I’m unable to locate information about if all or only some of the UX models shipped with docks, but I know for sure that the 380N, 390N, and 490N all included them in the box.
The dock is a nice companion to the UX and allows it to be easily used as a desktop PC. This feature is something that I would really like to see for cell phones some day. I know Samsung has tried it with DEX, and I actually switched from an iPhone to a Galaxy S8 when it was released for that feature alone. Unfortunately, Samsung’s implementation of the feature wasn’t that great, and I’ve since switched back. I do like the thought of only having a single device that can be used both on the go and while docked instead of having separate devices like a phone, a tablet, and a laptop. We’ll get there someday I’m sure, and in 2006, the VAIO UX was definitely the closest we had to realizing that dream. Since nobody has tried it since sans failed attempts by Microsoft (Windows Phone with Continuum) and Samsung (DEX), it could be argued that the UX’s implementation is still the most functional.
The dock features a nice semi-transparent plastic back with the iconic VAIO logo embossed in to it. There isn’t much on the front of the dock, save for a power status LED. Around the right side and on to the back of the dock there’s a composite video output port, a USB Type-A port, a Firewire 400 port, a VGA monitor output, two more USB Type-A ports, an Ethernet port, and a DC input jack. The same power adapter can be used with both the UX unit itself and the dock. When docked, the UX’s speaker is routed in to the dock to amplify sound, and there are cut-outs on the bottom of the front edge of the dock (which is angled) to direct the sound down at the desktop so it reflects back up toward the user. I thought this was a clever design choice.
When docked the LCD display can be in the upper or lower position, and it really looks great either way.
The thought of having one device that I could use to take all of my data with me wherever I go and still take home to dock and use as a full desktop still intrigues me in 2018. I would really love if Apple was able to run full-fat macOS on an iPhone along side IOS, so that when in “phone mode” IOS could be used like it is today, but full macOS could be used when the unit was docked along with a mouse, keyboard, and 4K display. It doesn’t seem like we’re that far away in terms of technological limitations, and I’m glad that Microsoft and Samsung tried it with Continuum and DEX respectively. I’ve had that want for a device since seeing the UX for the first time back in 2006, and I think Sony was very forward thinking with this product. The high price probably kept it out of the hands of a lot of people, but I think the idea behind its use case is solid and I’m surprised that it’s only been tried a couple of times since.
The UX is a cool device, and I’m glad that they haven’t reached collector status yet so I was able to actually find an affordable one. Some day, if we ever reach the point where we are able to run a single device for all of our computing and communications needs, I think people will look back to the UX and realize how forward-thinking it actually was. The UX is definitely a cool (and unfortunately forgotten) piece of computing history.