Review: Sony VAIO P

Don’t you dare call the VAIO P a netbook! Why otherwise would Sony smart at the idea of me using the “N” word even though the P has a netbook’s 1.33-GHz Z520 Intel Atom processor (at the low end of the second-gen CPU list)? First off, the price: It starts at US$900 with a 60GB hard disk drive and gets up to as high as $1499 with a 128GB solid-state drive (our review unit packed a 64GB SSD; its configuration sells for $1199). Second, this machine runs Windows Vista Home Basic, instead of Windows XP or Linux, operating systems that are more common on netbooks.

Sony’s sales pitch claims that the VAIO P is a bite-sized lifestyle laptop. Yeah, but whose lifestyle? My first guess: Petite women with eagle-eye vision. No doubt, small it’s got down. Weighing 1.4 pounds and measuring 9.6 by 4.7 by 0.9-inches, this pint-size PC is closer in its dimensions to an overstuffed business envelope than to a conventional computer (for a little perspective, that’s about half the size of Acer’s Aspire One). It’ll slip into a coat pocket, but it obviously isn’t made for adult males like yours truly–I mean, it even comes with a matching leather purse. But that isn’t stopping my nerdy male friends from coveting this silky bit of tech.

Though it borders on unusably small, the device is built around a QWERTY keyboard that is 88 percent the size of a standard desktop keyboard. The cut-out keys (like those you see on Apple MacBooks) are small–about 0.5 inch wide–but reasonably spaced. This keyboard is way more manageable than those on some of the first-gen Eee PCs from Asus, but I still found my hands bound in a goony claw formation trying to type. You’re probably better off resorting to hunting and pecking your way through documents.

The keyboard also provides a couple of handy, customizable shortcut buttons (which I’ll get to in a minute). And one thing the VAIO P gets right is the touchpoint controls. The eraserhead camps intelligently amidst the keys, and firm mouse buttons rest below the spacebar. This has to be the best implementation of a pointing device yet on a netb…sorry, lifestyle machine.

Sony laptops typically have sweet screens, and the P’s backlit LED doesn’t disappoint. It’s impressively crisp and bright and sports a resolution of 1600 by 768 pixels (a 16:7 aspect ratio). Sony reps say that the screen will allow users to view two full Web pages side by side, but that’s assuming you don’t want to actually read said pages. (At the tap of a shortcut button, it slightly resizes and formats two browser windows so that they fit perfectly side by side on the screen.) Even with the DPI set to 120, though, I’m pretty sure I’d go blind in about a week trying to look at a couple of articles at once.

The VAIO P is attractive, but it isn’t really built for serious business. Sure, it packs all sorts of goodies beyond 2GB of RAM inside a slim, screwless case (say buh-bye to upgrades): 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Qualcomm’s Gobi chip set for wireless broadband, two USB ports, a headphone jack, a Webcam with a built-in mic, an SDHC Card slot, and a Memory Stick HG Duo card slot. Those specs beat the MacBook Air. I’m also giving an extra shout-out for the intelligently designed VGA/LAN adapter connection–it’s a dongle that actually attaches to the tiny power brick. But trying to run Windows Vista on this thing? That’s just crazy talk.

The P scored a measly 29 in WorldBench 6, largely because it’s running Windows Vista Basic. As bad as that may sound, some other netbooks like Dell’s Inspiron Mini 9, actually scored lower in WorldBench when running Windows XP. So the P isn’t a completely lost cause. I’m willing to bet that if this machine were outfitted with Windows XP instead, it would score somewhere in the range of 30-40 on the same test, along the lines of other netbooks that have passed through the PC World Test Center.

Here’s something else to ponder: Like a netbook, the P can play video recorded at 320-by-240-pixel resolution without a hitch. Once you start trying anything larger, such as 640 by 480 pixels, playback slows so much you get something more like a slide show than a video. On the bright side, the P has reasonable battery life: 3 hours, 22 minutes on the included four-cell battery. You could do much better, though: The HP Mini 2140, which costs $529 and performs roughly on a par with the VAIO P, lasts nearly 7 hours with its battery.

At least Sony has taken a cue from the HP Voodoo Envy 133 and from Asus’s laptops by incorporating a quick-launching (20-second startup) Linux shell. That handy little feature can save you time and juice if all you need is to do a little light Web browsing or watch video clips. The Instant Mode boots into a cross-media bar interface that should be familiar to anyone who has ever used a PlayStation 3. But its presentation is a little lackluster.

Inside Windows, you can always just boot up VAIO Media Plus. It operates with the same cross-media interface, though it’s just a hair more sluggish than the version with the light Linux shell. The Smart-Wi networking software quickly gets you onto Wi-Fi or wireless broadband networks. And, I must say, I’m pretty happy with the VAIO Control Center, which provides quick access to the most frequently tweaked features. Also on board: Microsoft Works and mercifully little bloatware.

So, is this thing a netbook? Sure, this seems like some spiritual descendant of Toshiba’s Libretto (raise your hand if you remember that classic). But no matter how much you protest, Sony, how can you not consider this a netbook-class computer? It’s roughly the size of a netbook and performs like a netbook. And that’s the problem in a nutshell. Considering the price, it’s got to do more than just be small. On the other hand, it sure looks sweet.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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