I’ve had plenty of time to spend with Sony’s bite-sized Vaio P, and now it’s time to deliver a verdict on whether or not the 1.4-pound device really performs as advertised. Sony’s Vaio P managed to generate some buzz at CES, largely based around its minuscule footprint, 1.4-pound weight and ultra-wide LCD screen. Sony aggressively marketed this device as not being a netbook, but rather as a full-functioning laptop. They even went as far as to install Windows Vista Home Basic on the Vaio P despite an Atom processor, and gave it the 1600×768 resolution. This left two big questions to be answered: Is it suitable for real everyday use? And does it transcend the netbook category and enter the realm of media notebook?
If “everyday use” means some light multitasking focused around the internet, then you may be using the Vaio P with regularity. But assuming media notebook status entails watching HD Youtube vids while working in Photoshop, the answer to the second question is a definitive “no.” On the other hand, any way you slice and dice it, the Vaio P is a netbook. I came into to this review with modest expectations, and tested it as such. I didn’t beat the hell out of it by trying to install Adobe Premiere or play Crysis on the thing. But seeing as Sony was talking a big game, I tried to do more than browse pages, listen to music and check email. The review unit I tested had a 1.33 GHz Z520 Atom Processor, 2 GB RAM, 64 GB SSD and Intel integrated graphics designed for MIDs. So I decided I would try to run three to five apps at any one time, essentials like SlingPlayer, Pidgin, Skype, VLC, iTunes and Gimp. Meanwhile, I’d have Firefox open, running Google Docs, Flickr and Youtube. For the most part, this machine ran speedily, handling Pidgin and many-tabbed Firefox along with other apps. I wouldn’t consider the Vaio P as fast as a standard laptop in a similar scenario, but it definitely feels faster than most netbooks. Resident netbook expert Mark Wilson also noted that in the short time he spent playing with the Vaio P, it felt two or three times faster running Vista than other netbooks running Vista. I suppose it’s no huge shock, but trying to play most video on the Vaio P was pretty rough. It could handle anything in the resolution ballpark of 320×240 without failure, but 640×480 fullscreen video would lag and 1280×720 video (from vids created on my Kodak Zi6 and from YouTube) would freeze within a few frames. Locally stored, non-HD DivX movies either ran in slow-mo or lost every third frame. The moral of the story: If Sony is going to be adamant about their product not being a netbook, adequate video playback is a must. As far as battery life goes, if you’re web browsing over Wi-Fi while listening to music and messaging you should get 2-3 hours out of the battery. I kept the brightness at 3/4 and had the power management set to “Vaio Optimised,” and found the results to be acceptable, if average for these kinds of machines. Sony also includes a Linux-based instant-on interface that uses the PS3-like Xross Media Bar UI but its implementation is a mixed bag. The raw functionality and design of the software is decent, allowing you to access music, photos, movies, messaging software and a custom version of Firefox. But some of the visual design and nuanced functionality are lacking to the point where you’d rather just launch Vista. The fonts and backgrounds, specifically, make the instant-on XMB environment look cheap and dated. It’s also an issue in the web browser, which uses a totally different set of fonts that border on repulsive. (Sadly, the browser makes Gizmodo look particularly bad.) Also strange is that the Pidgin messaging app in this Linux UI lets you sign into Gchat or MSN Messenger, but not AIM. Maybe this is a remnant of Sony’s long-standing bad relationship with AOL and AIM. My final complaint with regard to the instant-on OS is that switching between keyboard and cursor-based navigation is done in a half-baked way that makes it all feel unfinished. Going from the XMB to the music player, for example, requires you to use the nub to control the play/pause/skip functionality, and that isn’t easy. If we can’t get keyboard control in these menus, then how about some dedicated media-playback buttons? It’s not like this machine is a testament to minimalism or anything. As for the hardware itself, it’s got the build quality you expect from a premium-priced Sony product. It never feels like it’s going to break or loosen up, and it’s clear some time and effort was put into the design. And for its size, it feels neither too heavy nor too light, and really lives up to its claims of portability. One gripe I do have, however, is with the keyboard and mouse layout. The key size and general spacing isn’t really the issue, as I’ve used much smaller and much worse before, but the lack of space between the space bar and the mouse buttons is really problematic. I typed this entire review on the Vaio P, and one problem I kept running into is that every time I went to hit the space bar, I accidentally tapped the mouse button. It’s so sensitive it would register a click without being fully pressed. So every 90 seconds or so, the cursor moved from where I’m typing to wherever my mouse pointer was and totally derailed whatever I was typing. Annoying. To those who are wary of the lack of trackpad, and the return of the old Thinkpad-style nub, truth is a trackpad is more effective, but the shrinkage achieved by its omission is worth it. Considering the sleek and slim measurements of the Vaio P, I have no problem plugging in a mouse if I need more precise control. As for my final verdict, the Vaio P is an undeniably attractive, fun, exciting gadget on design alone, but I’m not quite sure it lives up to its marketing hype or its $US900 starting price–ours as tested was actually $US1200. The Sony Vaio P works well as a machine for the living room or kitchen, and for style reasons fits well in those environments and is easily stashed. But it won’t replace your workhorse laptop, not even on a part time basis, due to graphical limitations, an inability to run resource-heavy apps and that damned issue with the keyboard and mouse. [Vaio P on Giz]