Sony ( SNE) is an electronics behemoth after my own heart: confused, disorganized and wasteful, but ultimately reliable.

No matter what the market does, Sony sticks to its gadget-making guns and refuses to turn out schlock. High profits will follow high design, the company reasons. Bravo, Sony.

But for now, Sony's corporate ship is taking on water. Rivals Samsung, BenQ, Microsoft ( MSFT) and others are beating Sony at its own game: Their Blu-ray disc players or gaming units are shipping now, while Sony misses delivery date after delivery date.

The brand is taking a dinger, too. Branding consultancy Interbrand said Sony slipped out of the top 20 corporate brands worldwide in 2005, replaced by the once-lowly Samsung. Ouch.

But underneath the chaos, Sony's products are packed with clever design and unexpected functionality. Take the Vaio UX 180P, for instance.

Sony bills this thing as a micro PC, which it is ... I think.

At about the size of any ubiquitous corporate achievement award -- 6 x 4 inches and weighing in at a pound and a half -- the UX is hardly a fit-in-the-pocket personal data assistant.

The unit may be too big, but the screen is too small -- only 4 1/2 inches wide. The UX runs the real Windows XP operating system and all modern applications, but you'd hardly know it. This screen renders fonts that are, no kidding, the size of the nutritional information on the side of a One-A-Day vitamin package. Tiny doesn't even begin to cover it.

And then there is the mouse, a touch-sensitive pointer the size of a pencil eraser. Honestly, the pointer was as hard to control as any device I have ever handled. Pointing and clicking on first use was like driving drunk at the Indy 500.

And all this for a list price of $1,799? Someone would have to be crazy to buy one. The Vaio UX seems to be yet another wacked-out gadget from poor dowdy Sony. Corporate Tourette's syndrome has clearly been setting in hard in Tokyo.

But wait.

I still wasn't ready to give up. I fiddled and fussed. And I learned. The more time I spent with the UX, the more I sensed a greater design.

As clunky as the unit was as a PDA, the UX was surprisingly svelte if viewed as a modular laptop. The PC was lovely to hold and sturdily made -- burnished alloy and nice black plastic.

The sliding 4 1/2 inch screen looked better and better the more I used it. I downloaded Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang from CinemaNow to test the screen. (Get over it, Jobs. CinemaNow, not iTunes, is the place to get the best-looking content.)

Black, the usual bane of liquid-crystal imagery, was spectacular on the UX. Flesh tones were balanced. Off-angle viewing was excellent. I had to bring the UX outside in blistering daylight to get the thing to wash out. Impressive.

Software was also adapted nicely to the small screen.

There is an easy-to-use-once-you-figured-it-out zoom feature that enlarged applications to a maximum of three times the original size. It took some practice, but the zoom feature lived up to its name. Even my lovely but very nearsighted wife could read the magnified UX screen without her glasses. Impressive again.

Sony intelligently installed a universal serial bus adapter for peripherals. Kick in the add-on port expander/charger Sony makes for the UX, and the number of USB adapters goes to three.

There's even a monitor output. With some tinkering, I turned the UX into a full desktop, Inspector-Gadget style: A 17-inch monitor, an optical mouse, a full Kensington keyboard and flash drive. Impressive again.

And then there's the connectivity, which is where the UX really shined. Sony sells the computer with a mixed Ethernet and wireless networking package that can connect over hardwired broadband and fast wireless cellular data systems.

It can also connect using local WiFi networks or Bluetooth connections. The UX comes with a slick application that automatically searches, in real time, for the best connection between all choices.

Though cellular connectivity can be purchased through Cingular, Cingular doesn't sell the UX. So, you're free to connect as you please.

Cellular operators have a nasty habit of disabling communication features on integrated communications devices to protect their legacy products; being able to hook up the UX as I saw fit across any network was a terrific, terrific feature. Again, good work, Sony.

The Vaio UX 180P isn't for the faint of technical heart. You should have a minimum brown belt in gadget jujitsu, or at least the desire and time to achieve that status.

You should also have at least $3,000 set aside: The base unit is not enough to do what you want to do. You'll need the spare batteries, optical drives, global positioning modules -- most everything the company sells -- to make the UX really shine.

And you'll need patience; you'll be tested again and again. Configuring the unit is challenging. So are the controls. Be warned, the zoom mode can turn savage. Even I, a well-tested gadgetphile, bounced around like some virtual pinball trying to update Norton's antivirus definitions in 3X zoom mode.

Yes, using the UX can be frustrating and trying.

The Sony Vaio UX -- It's a Handful

But if you are looking to sit your techno backside down in the middle of a crowded Starbucks or staff meeting and lay the smackdown on the poor saps who overpaid for a MacBook or who didn't have the smarts or the cash to make the UX work, then by all means, get this Sony.

The Sony Vaio UX is like a camera system from Hasselblad -- each piece is custom designed for a particular task. Sony makes great pieces, but to make them work, you'll need to know what you're doing and how you want to do it. The Vaio UX only supplies the tools. You must supply the smarts.

Now that's a Sony.

Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.
Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.

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