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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2006-12-20

Batteries Not Included: A computer for your camera bag
By Zach Honig, University of Missouri

Photo by

Sony UX-180P
How many times have you found yourself wishing you had brought your computer along on an assignment, but left it back at the office to cut back on gear? There's a new breed of computer in town, and it comes with a belt clip.

Have you ever tried transmitting or basic editing on a PDA? Now you can tone and caption in Photoshop and transmit using your favorite FTP client or email service with a device not much larger than a PDA. Several companies including OQO (http://www.oqo.com/hardware/basics) and Sony (http://tinyurl.com/m9tcu) have released handheld computers capable of running Windows XP Professional and any software titles that don't require a dedicated graphics card. Both devices will be compatible with Windows Vista when it becomes available.

After researching models from both companies for several weeks, I decided to go with the Sony UX-180P, a much more powerful and feature rich machine. As with any computer, there are many reasons why you may feel you need the Sony UX, but plenty to keep you away. The UX-180P is not as powerful as its full sized counterparts, and there's virtually no possibility of upgrading components, but for its size and weight, it's an extremely capable machine.

The Basics
The UX-180P is powered by a 1.2GHz Intel Core Solo processor, and if you're the type of computer buyer that only looks at numbers, it may seem like a step back in time. In order to keep things compact and prevent overheating, it's necessary to use a lower powered processor. The Core Solo processor certainly gets the job done. Photoshop is speedy and high definition video plays seamlessly in QuickTime.

More concerning is the inability to add additional RAM. Sony's UX-180P model ships with 512MB of RAM, and their newer (but more expensive) UX-280P model packs a full gig of RAM - neither is upgradeable. Both models lack dedicated graphics cards, so graphics memory is borrowed from system RAM.

You won't be storing your entire photo library on the UX, as the UX-180P and UX-280P ship with 30GB and 40GB respectively. As the machine does not ship with an optical drive, 6GB of precious hard drive space is set aside for the machine's restore partition. Both models include a built in USB 2.0 port, and the included docking station adds three more USB ports and a FireWire 400 port allowing you to connect external devices.

One feature that I'd like to see on the next UX is a compact flash and SD card reader. Sony provides a memory stick slot as they do on all their machines, but as the vast majority of photographers use CF and SD cards, the memory stick slot may not prove useful. External card readers can be connected using USB.

If your eyes aren't what they used to be, you may find the UX's 1024x600 4.5-inch LCD a bit difficult to read, but the incredibly high pixel density makes any image on screen look amazingly sharp. Because of the device's glossy screen, reflections may become distracting depending on ambient light. Text is readable, though you may have difficulty reading from the screen for extended periods of time. Sony includes magnification buttons on the right side of the unit allowing you to enlarge text for easier reading.

In addition to the magnification buttons, the device has a thumb-stick pointing device placed just above near the top right corner. To the left of the device's LCD are left and right mouse buttons, a button launching an on-screen menu, allowing you to control screen brightness and orientation, and an easy on/off button to control the device's wireless functionality. The main system power switch has an ingenious hold mode, so the device won't turn on and drain battery life in your bag.

Although equipped with a touch-screen, Sony includes Windows XP Professional so functionality is limited. The thumb stick makes it easy to control the mouse and type while holding the machine in two hands. You're not going to want to write a novel on the UX, but the backlit keyboard will suffice for short emails and photo captions.

One component that definitely has room for improvement is the battery. The included battery won't keep you going all day. If you anticipate needing more than 2.5 hours of battery life between charges, Sony sells an extended battery with twice the capacity of the included standard battery, but you'll pay an arm and a leg with the $300 price tag. The extended battery also adds weight and bulk to the formerly 1.2lb machine. To help conserve battery life, I've made a habit of placing the device in hibernate mode when not in use.

Like all notebook computers, the UX is capable of connecting to an external monitor (with a maximum resolution of 1600x1200), keyboard, and mouse using the included dock. My primary machine is an Apple PowerBook G4 with 30-inch Apple Cinema Display. Using a crossover Ethernet cable, I can connect the Sony UX to my PowerBook. Microsoft's free Remote Desktop Connection client for Mac OS X allows me to use the UX with my 30-inch display at full resolution (as you're not using the UX's graphics card). You can also mount the PowerBook's SuperDrive, allowing you to read DVDs for software installation.

Editing
I installed a complete set of photo editing software to use on my UX. Photo Mechanic and Adobe Photoshop CS2 function just as they would on a larger machine - although you may need to take out the reading glasses to see menu options and EXIF data. Though Photoshop is just as functional on the 4.5-inch screen, I'd always choose editing on a full sized computer over editing on the UX, if the situation allowed.

The Core Solo processor runs both applications seamlessly. Because the screen size inhibits multitasking, the 512MB of RAM installed in the UX-180P has proved sufficient for JPEG images. If you can afford it, I would suggest spending an extra $200 and purchasing the higher model that ships with 1GB of RAM, as memory is not upgradeable with either model.

Transmitting
The UX is one of the most connected notebooks available today. Sony includes Bluetooth, 802.11g, Ethernet, and Cingular EDGE WAN (wide area network) access. One of the most convenient features of the UX, besides the impossibly small form factor, is the ability to connect to the Internet at moderate speeds wherever Cingular EDGE service is available. The EDGE network, though often moderately fast, can sometimes provide speeds closer to those you would achieve with a dial-up modem. The service is expensive with Cingular's pricing structure at $60 for Cingular subscribers with voice service and $80 for those without. The ability to surf the web and transmit images from almost anywhere may prove invaluable.

Earlier this month I visited the Minneapolis Star Tribune for a weekend as part of my summer internship search. Approximately five minutes after my arrival, I was sent out on a spot-news assignment with staff photographer Richard Sennott. We drove to the Minneapolis suburb of Ham Lake, where a school bus crashed into a traffic light injuring 18 students.

On the way to the accident scene, I was able to find the exact location of the accident using Google Maps and by visiting the web page of a local television affiliate. Shortly after departing the scene, I made a quick edit and selected an image to transmit back to the paper for use on the Web, sending it off in an email as Rick drove down the highway. Readers visiting StarTribune.com were presented with a breaking news image before we even returned to the office.

Star Tribune staffers each have notebook computers with Verizon Access wireless cards, though it's not always practical to carry a bulky machine along to every assignment. The Sony UX would ensure that every photographer has a completely wireless computer with them at all times. In this day and age, the ability to transmit images remotely is crucial.

Extras
The Sony UX comes with a few extra, though not necessarily useful, features. The device includes two cameras - a webcam mounted on the front of the unit and a 1.3 megapixel still camera on the rear behind the screen. Neither camera produces exceptional image quality with a level of quality comparable to what you would achieve with a camera phone.

Another feature I could probably live without is the fingerprint reader, which is often temperamental. The reader, mounted near the top left corner of the device, allows you to login to the machine, decrypt the hard drive, and retrieve saved passwords - when it works. You can also configure the fingerprint reader to function as a scroll wheel for use with the Web. The reader is completely functional after each restart. But despite my thorough troubleshooting, it often ceases to function after placing the device into hibernate mode. Luckily, you can still login to Windows using a traditional password, should the fingerprint reader fail.

Another feature that has proved useful several times is the Bluetooth GPS unit, which Sony sells separately for $150. The UX ships with Microsoft Streets & Trips 2006 Essential Edition. If you want turn-by-turn driving directions, a $40 software upgrade is required. The hardware/software combination is functional, but the GPS receiver leaves much room for improvement, as I haven't been able to receive a signal without a direct view of the sky. I've joked about mounting the GPS on the hood of my car, but you should be able to receive a signal from your dashboard.

This may sound trivial, but Sony also ships the device with a wrist strap. Because the device is so small, it could easily slip out of your hands, cracking the screen. The included wrist strap provides cheap insurance against clumsy owners. Also in the box is a soft case, complete with belt strap. Now not even I am geeky enough to walk around with this thing on my belt, but it you feel so inclined as to slide your fanny pack waist strap through the device's case, you have that option.

Bottom Line
There's certainly room for improvement, but as the first device to offer incredible functionality in such a small package, Sony hit the spot with their UX-180P. That said, if you're tight for cash, this might not be the best time to purchase. Computer manufacturers are constantly releasing faster, cheaper, and more capable machines, and the Sony UX-180P has been around since July.

I purchased my unit on eBay for $1200. I try to stay away from eBay whenever possible, but if you find a UX for a good price ($1200 is the lowest I've seen), and have a genuine need for such an incredible machine, you shouldn't pass this up. I'm partial to Macs. In fact, I haven't owned a PC in years - some may even say I loathe the Windows operating system, but given the opportunity to purchase the UX-180P all over again, I wouldn't think twice.


(Zach Honig is a self-proclaimed techno geek and is attending the University of Missouri. You can check out his work at: http://www.sportsshooter.com/zach and at his personal website: http://www.honigphoto.com)

Related Links:
Honig's member page
Honig's personal website

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