Worth the Sony Tax? Sizing Up the VAIO W Series Netbook

Sony didn't want anyone to call the Sony VAIO P a netbook because of its unique design (and $899 starting price) but we did anyway because of the specs inside. Now the company has introduced a proper netbook in the 10.1-inch W Series. At $499, this machine is certainly stylish, and the high-def display helps it stand out, but its tough to justify the high cost when Sony doesn't include a six-cell battery. In the netbook market, a $100 premium is a lot to ask for the Sony brand. Here's what you get for half a grand.

Premium Design

The P Series may be able to fit in your jacket pocket, but the 10.5 x 7.1 x 1.3 inch W Series will find a home in your shoulder bag. Sony is positioning this system towards a younger demographic, especially for toting around the house as a couch surfing companion. Staying true to Sony's aesthetic reputation, the 2.6-pound VAIO W Series looks chic and is available in three colors: berry pink, sugar white and cocoa brown. It has a plastic that's soft to the touch. Under the hood is an 86-percent size island style keyboard and a large touchpad. We haven't yet seen the W Series in person, but it looks awfully similar to the Toshiba NB205.

High-Def Display

When glossing over the specs one thing sticks out - the 10.1-inch 1366 x 768, LED-backlit display. Rather than the typical 1024 x 600 resolution of most 10-inchers, Sony opted for a higher resolution because it offers 58 percent more viewing area. When we questioned the small size text and icons, VAIO product manger Kevin Sather told us that this screen's resolution is "a great differentiator." He also said that Sony will bundle the VAIO W software for zooming in.

Standard Specs, Wimpy Battery

The Sony W Series is outfitted with the latest 1.66-GHz Intel Atom N280 processor (but the last-generation chipset), 1 GB of RAM, an 160GB hard drive, and Windows XP Home. The netbook will come standard with a three-cell battery that Sony expects to last about 3 hours on a charge. A six-cell battery will be offered in September for anywhere between $89 and $129. That's a lot to ask for a system that already costs at least $100 more than the competition.

Unique Software

Other than software for adjusting font size, Sony is also throwing in its VAIO Media plus Multimedia Streaming software. If you own a PlayStation 3 or Sony DLNA enabled TV the W Series will let users wirelessly stream pictures, music, or video over a home network to those devices. In addition, you can make your larger home PC the receiver. Pretty neat, especially for those 60 percent of us not taking their netbooks out of the house.

Future Product Plans
Although Windows 7 is right around the corner from the VAIO W's August launch, Sony will continue to offer the netbook with Windows XP. "We will encourage people to upgrade to Windows 7 Starter if they want to, but that is what I will say about that for now," said Sather. Sony opted not to include an Instant On operating system on the W Series, like it did with its P Series. The P Series will continue to exist in Sony's product lineup. Subsided netbooks are on our mind, but Sony would not reveal plans of outfitting the W Series with mobile broadband.

Worth the $100 Premium?
Sony seems to have put together a nice-looking package in the VAIO W Series. But is it worth paying $100 over the cost of a netbook like the  Toshiba NB205, which sports a good looking design of its own and includes a long-lasting six-cell battery?

"We think the software, the screen resolution, and colors allow us to stick out," argued Sather. "Also, the design overall and build quality is what you would expect a VAIO to feel like. We didn't want to compete on price, and we wanted to maintain the VAIO identity and make sure we are rounding out our own lineup."

We think Sony should include a six-cell battery standard for the $499 price, but we'll withhold final judgment until we do our full review. Stay tuned.