CES 2009 held few drool-worthy surprises for tech aficionados, but Sony’s svelte Vaio P definitely qualifies as one of them. The company’s answer to the booming netbook market manages to make its already-small competitors look like giant toys, with typical Sony style to seal the deal. It even offers a high-resolution screen and 3G modem built in. But as it turns out, the black magic Sony pulled to fit everything inside has some unintended consequences when it’s time to fire it up, making its real-life usability a far cry from what the outside would suggest.
Though Sony has made a point of avoiding any netbook analogies for its upmarket fashion notebook, there’s no denying the shared heart pumping at the core of both machines: Intel’s Atom processor. Most netbooks run variants running at 1.6GHz, but the chip buried in the Vaio P is actually even slower. In order to keep heat down and preserve battery life, all U.S. versions of the notebook clip along at only 1.33GHz. Interestingly, Sony does make a 1.86GHz model, but for now, it’s only available in Japan or through specialized importers, meaning you’ll pay nearly double for one.
Every version of the Vaio P gets 2GB of DDR2 RAM, but hard drive space depends on the configuration. The most basic (and inexpensive) models use a 60GB traditional drive, while 64GB and even 128GB solid-state drives are available further up the price chain. All models also include a webcam, Bluetooth with A2DP support, support for Verizon Wireless Mobile Broadband, Wi-Fi, and GPS.
We tested a red VGN-P588, which comes with a 64GB SSD, and at the time of publication, costs $1,200.
Form Factor and Build Quality
If ordinary laptops are close in size to textbooks, and netbooks are more akin to thick fashion magazines, the Vaio P is the leather folio that the check arrives in at a restaurant. Its form factor reaches such nano-sized proportions that the average bystander finds it hard to believe it’s even a real computer. Where netbooks draw oohs, and ahs, the Vaio P is more prone to eliciting disbelief and outright astonishment.
Folded shut, you can not only lift and flip around the 1.4-pound case with one hand, you can stuff it into a back pocket as if it were a toy. Tap out e-mails as you carry it around like you’re on a giant smartphone. Shuffle around in a backpack just to find it. It’s that small. (Specifically, it measures 0.78 inches thick, 9.65 inches long, and 4.72 inches wide.)
Fortunately, lack of size does not lend itself to lack of quality as it does in many conventional netbooks. The outside of case has been dressed in shiny plastic with a car-like metallic finish (available in black, white, red and green), and though areas of it will flex with enough pressure, the amount of sheer stuff packed inside gives it a dense feel that doesn’t immediately threaten to break. Our only disappointment was the left hinge on our model, which seemed to squeek whenever we opened and closed the lid.
After fawning over the Vaio P’s ultra-slick outside and fantasizing about pulling it out a suit jacket at opportune moments, our endearment for the Vaio P ended very shortly after we actually opened the lid and began to play around on it. Put simply, it sucks.
Our testing experience with netbooks has always been so encouraging for everyday activities like surfing that we have had to push the limit with things like games and HD video to find out what the potent little Atom couldn’t do. With the Vaio P, the challenge was just the opposite: finding a single ordinary task that this computer could do properly. Connect to Wi-Fi? Not without diving through Sony’s slow-loading and clumsy connections interface, which will prevent you from using Vista’s own perfectly usable one. (It also consumes 90MB of RAM.) Play YouTube? Barely, and don’t even think about high quality or full-screen. Play Flash games? Not at all.
The combination of an underclocked 1.33GHz processor and the resource hog that is Windows Vista on this device proves to be a fatal combination for any semblance of performance. A $400 Asus netbook running at 1.6GHz with Windows XP wiped the floor with the Vaio P in every performance test we could dream up. Where the Asus cut through a high-def WMV movie trailer like a champ, the Vaio P bogged down to an unwatchable stutter. Where the Asus played simple online flash games as smoothly as a desktop PC, the Vaio P couldn’t even seem to generate a single frame per second. It choked, sputtered, coughed and disappointed us utterly.
Even boot time suffers. While most netbooks consistently clock in around the 30 second mark, our Vaio P didn’t hit the Vista desktop until 1 minute and 5 seconds after turning it on. And because Vista has so much to load, it wasn’t able to actually do anything until over two minutes after boot. To us, this pretty much means that going into standby or hibernation is pretty much a necessity for carrying the computer on the go.
Like sitting down next to the prettiest girl at the bar and finding out she’s has the mind of a 12-year-old, the Vaio P is hard to tolerate once you get to know it, even if you can’t help but swoon over the outside.
That said, there are a few bright points.
The screen, for instance, has to have about the tightest dot pitch in the biz. Sony has managed to cram full 1600 x 768 resolution into a tiny rectangle just eight inches across, diagonally. As a result, text and graphics look incredibly smooth and detailed – if a little on the small side (the Windows Vista start menu, which is normally about the size of a nickel on many desktop monitors, shows up about the size of an eraser head on the Vaio P). It’s also LED-backlit, so it reaches full brightness instantly, and viewing angle isn’t bad for a screen this size.
Given the tiny dimensions of the keyboard on this subminiature notebook, we couldn’t help but be somewhat skeptical of its true utility for typing. But size it up, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Compared to the keyboard on a typical netbook, it shrinks by less than an inch in width. We didn’t care for the limp, chiclet-style keys, though, and the spacebar is far too close to the mouse keys. But in general, it gets the job done, and we can see it functioning as reporter’s sidearm in a pinch.
Unlike a normal notebook – even a netbook – this model has no palm rest or track pad due to its unusually thin profile, so you’re left with only a ThinkPad-style pointer stick in the middle of the keyboard for navigation. We wouldn’t call it ideal, but much like the keyboard, you can acclimate to it with time.
Ports and Connectors
As you might expect, Sony has trimmed the number of inputs and outputs on the limited edge real estate of this device to the bare minimum, but it should be adequate for what most people would need to accomplish. The battery consumes all of the back, meaning only the front and tiny 4-inch sides are open. The left has a power jack, USB port, and headphone jack, while the front has a power switch, an on/off switch for Wi-Fi, and two flash card slots: one for standard SD cards, and another for Sony’s own Memory Stick HG Duo cards. The right offers one more USB port, along with an odd proprietary connector that Sony has used to replace the VGA and Ethernet jacks. If you need them, you’ll need to plug an included adapter, about the size of a pack of gum, into the expansion port.
It seems quite obvious to us that Windows Vista was a poor choice of operating system to saddle this already strained notebook little with, but given Microsoft’s rigid restrictions on which systems are “netbooks” and can license Windows XP, we doubt Sony had any choice.
Fortunately, the company does offer an alternative built right in. Like a lot of recent netbooks, it includes a lightweight form of Linux as a quick boot option, allowing you to use the computer a mere 19 seconds after pressing power. The OS includes staple applications like a browser, Skype, and IM, along with access to photos, music and video. And Sony fans will be happy to see that it’s been styled after the familiar XrossMediaBar – even if the graphics do make it look a bit like a prototype version from 1999. It makes no substitute for a real OS, but in a pinch, it’s a quick way to bypass Vista’s tomfoolery and get to a browser.
One of the unforeseen downfalls of a notebook so utterly small turns out to be finding a spot to actually put the thing. While a regular notebook sits comfortably in the lap when you can’t find a table or other spot to set it down, the Vaio P is actually so tiny it becomes uncomfortable to use that way. You have to sit with knees together and the laptop bouncing around in your lap as you type. A hard surface obviously solves this issue, but popping it open in the car, train or just on a park bench can be a pain, and might actually make you miss the bulk of a real notebook. A screen that only bends back to 45 degrees from horizontal doesn’t help matters, either.
The box for the Vaio P contains the notebook itself, a tiny power adapter with a respectably long cord, and the aforementioned display/Ethernet adapter brick. For a notebook this small and pricy, with virtually no accessory aftermarket, it’s amazing Sony didn’t have the forethought to include a case for protection. Since it’s far too small for a conventional notebook case, and will probably end up in a backpack or purse, it seems like this would be an obvious addition. Even Asus includes them with all of its Eee netbooks.
Tiny batteries don’t lend themselves to impressive run times, so it should come as little surprise that this waif little computer gets about two hours of run time from a single charge, with realistic use settings like the screen at full brightness and Wi-Fi on. Sony has rated the laptop at four hours, but even with Wi-Fi off and power settings on “power saver,” we were only able to get up to about three. If it’s even possible to get four, we suspect it would have to be done with the Linux-based boot-up OS, which clearly taxes the processor a lot less than Linux.
We wanted dearly to love the Vaio P based on its lust-worthy form factor, which make all the other bland netbooks the market is awash in right now look like garbage. But after putting it through its paces, we just can’t possibly recommend it for anyone who hopes to do anything more than typing e-mail and surfing – both at a snail’s pace. Sony could be excused for charging three times as much as a netbook for this system if it delivered acceptable performance, or excused for releasing it with its existing level of performance at a reasonable price level. But paying a hefty price premium for a good-looking slab that won’t do anything just doesn’t fly. We have high hopes for the 1.86GHz variant that’s kicking around Japan, and even for a Windows 7 version in the future, but right now, this notebook simply doesn’t justify its price. Unless you value looks above all else, a $400 netbook makes an infinitely better purchase for basic productivity.
- Unbelievably small, light
- Sturdy chassis
- Ultra high-res screen
- Quick-boot OS
- Almost crippling performance
- Slow boot time and Windows startup time
- Brief battery life
- No included sleeve for protection
- Uncomfortable to use in lap
- Price does not reflect performance