Isn’t the Steam Deck an amazing piece of hardware? Just look at it, hovering the front page of Steam in all its matte black glory, promising those with a lot of patience and money to play modern PC games absolutely anywhere they dare take it. Valve’s machine is a bold and beautiful thing: the current heyday of handheld PC gaming and the start of another generation in a long, random family tree. Its roots are the beefy Game Boys and laptops of the ’90s, but the Steam Deck’s closest (or at least quirkiest) ancestor is the Vaio UX, now sixteen years old but still surprisingly chic.
The elegance of Sony’s Vaios has always come at a cost—a cost so high that even in my dual-credit card phase I didn’t dare order Sony’s palm-sized PC. But did lust ever disappear? imagine owning a very small computerso beautiful it was used in one of Daniel Craig’s James Bond movies.
I’ve wanted one for years, so instead of buying some uncomfortably tight leather pants and/or a dangerously fast bike for my 40th birthday, I threw myself into a Vaio UX. To say it lived up to my own decade of hype is an understatement.
Measuring roughly the same size and thickness as the original Game Boy, these exceptional devices all feature a sliding touchscreen with a full keyboard underneath—takes what, frustratingly keyless 2022 technology. There is Bluetooth connectivity, wifi, memory card slot, front and rear cameras (complete with a shutter button beautifully positioned exactly where you’d expect to find it on a real camera) and handwriting recognition. Dedicated mouse buttons on the left side of the chassis are designed to be used alongside the handy mouse button on the right. It’s a truly self-sufficient, do-it-all PC from the glory days of Windows XP.
The Vaio UX series manages to look beautiful, whether resting on its elegant dock filled with additional ports, or held horizontally (standard use) or vertically (intended to make web pages easier to read). So perfectly designed is Sony’s long-discontinued hardware that I see echoes of its elegant form in last year’s GPD Win 3. They’re solidly built, brilliantly functional and effortlessly stylish – and they should be, considering Sony tended to sell them for an eye-watering $2,000 when they were new.
In case I haven’t already made it obvious: I’ve never wanted an amalgamation of metal and plastic as much as a Vaio UX. It was Sony’s forbidden technological fruit, as impossibly unattainable for someone like me as Aibo (the company’s robot dog series) or, more recently, the PlayStation 5. -line and hurriedly scrolled through the inevitable “Nobody needs it, it’s too expensive” comments in the writers’ summaries. I needed it. I knew in my bones that I needed this.
But what good is old technology in the age of Steam Decks and ultralight laptops? Why waste time on a machine whose single-core processor and integrated graphics chip from Intel have been brought together for the sake of “productivity on the go”? The Vaio UX was made to plug into a projector at a board meeting or be pulled out of a leather briefcase during the kind of private jet I imagine CEOs are always on, not gaming.
The beauty of PCs is that they can be whatever the person using them wants them to be, which in my case makes the Vaio UX the perfect time capsule gaming machine. No, he cannot perform Elden Ring, Halo Infinite or even Stardew Valley. What it can run – and run surprisingly well through the comforting sights and sounds of Windows XP Professional – are Baldur’s Gate, Wizardry 8 and Ys: The Oath in Felghana. The entirety of System Shock 2’s slightly awkward controls are here to contend with on a real physical keyboard.
I can even sit in the garden and play Age of Empires 2 or Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri using Vaio’s stylus until the battery runs out (which takes about two hours, depending on the game).
The UX’s hard drive space (generally hovering around the 30-40GB mark depending on the model) is woefully inadequate by modern standards – I know I’ve installed high resolution texture patches that would easily swallow this in one go . But when Vaio UX-era games sweetly warn about its “huge” 600MB install size, you soon realize there’s more than enough room for everything you could possibly want, with plenty of room left over for some DOS classics. also. I’m currently trying to save humanity from the alien threat in X-COM: UFO Defense – it’s not going well.
Once I’ve loaded my UX with Grim Fandango or any other late 90s classic I’ve spread around my house, the form factor really makes playing even the most familiar game feel new, as the owners of Os modern UX descendants know very well. There’s a bit of weirdness to the experience – none of these games are designed to be tableless experiences played on 4.5-inch screens, after all – but I’ll put up with that to breathe new life into old files. Plus, tweaking the system settings exactly to your liking is half the fun of a fresh install, right?
I view games on the Vaio UX the same way I choose to buy a vinyl album, even though millions of songs are just a quick scroll away online. The act of interacting with this niche PC hardware branch forever, bringing CDs to install, manually organizing my little games folder, and tweaking everything just the way I like it is a big part of the enjoyment of it all. Maybe even more than actually getting a game I played for the first time on a giant CRT monitor and a whitish tower running in the palm of my hand.
Vaio UXs are just Fun. It’s a pocket PC on which I can play a custom selection of all-time classics, a land where spam emails can never get to me and all those annoying system updates have been fixed permanently for nearly a decade now.
They’re so much fun that I think everyone should try this unlikely combination of take-anywhere PC games, whether you’re eager to play Sekiro on a field on the Steam Deck, have a burning desire to fill one of the GPD’s handhelds with emulators, or get misty-eyed as you think of all four Planescape: Torment’s CDs installed in a teenage Vaio. Handheld PC games may never really become popular, but if this constantly resurgent niche proves anything, it’s that making the effort to do things a little differently can bring old favorites new joys.