Early last year, Sony threw the netbook world for a loop when it released the original VAIO P series. With a truly unique and compelling 1.4-pound design and a high resolution 8.9-inch, 1600 x 768-pixel screen, the original P was a groundbreaking device, but its sluggish performance and short battery life made it difficult to justify the $999 starting price. Now Sony has added some noteworthy features, improved the performance, upped the storage, and dropped the price by $100, making it worth the look. However, is this niche device worth $899?
The VAIO P's unique form factor is, by far, its greatest asset. At 9.7 x 4.7 x 0.8 inches, the VAIO P is small enough to fit in a woman's purse or a man's long coat pocket. And at 1.4 pounds, it weighs half as much as a netbook, yet has a full-size keyboard that's fit for touch typists.
If you're familiar with the original P series, you'll notice that the most noticeable design difference is the color. While the original P had a classy metal keyboard and deck with tasteful lid colors such as Garnet Red and Onyx Black, the new P has a plastic keyboard and deck that matches its lid, and comes in loud neon shades like lime green and hot pink. Conservative white and black colors are also available.
Keyboard and Pointing Devices
For a netbook this tiny, the VAIO P provides a rather large 88-percent of full-size keyboard with plenty of spacing between its keys. The right Shift key is a little small, but the keyboard's real problem is its stiffness and complete lack of a palm rest. Despite these drawbacks, the generous key size and spacing allowed us to achieve our typical 80 word-per-minute rate in the Ten Thumbs Typing Tutor test, albeit with a slightly higher 2 percent error rate. Even though the VAIO P is small enough to hold and use while standing, its keyboard is too wide for thumb-only typing.
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The VAIO P offers two different pointing devices. A pointing stick sits in the middle of the keyboard and allows users to navigate without removing their fingers from the home row. We found the comfortable texture and impeccable accuracy of Sony's pointing stick similar to that of Lenovo's famous TrackPoints.
On the right screen bezel sits a tiny square touchpad perfect for navigating while you're holding the system in the air (for example, when you're standing). Left and right mouse buttons are located on the left side of the bezel. We found that, while the touchpad was less accurate than the pointing stick, it was more than adequate for launching programs, web browsing, or controlling videos.
Because it's so small, parts of the VAIO P do get warm during heavy use. After streaming a web video at full screen for 15 minutes, we measured the keyboard at 96 degrees Fahrenheit and the bottom at 97 degrees. The area below the spacebar clocked in at a cool 86 degrees. We consider temperatures above 95 degrees to be uncomfortable, so this was right on the border.
Display and Audio
Click to enlargeThe VAIO P's 8.9-inch, 1600 x 768-pixel glossy screen offers sharp and moderately colorful images at a relatively high resolution. We appreciated all of the screen real estate, but if you find the images too small, Sony has a resolution-switching key that sits below the right control key and toggles between 1600 x 768p and the easier-to-view 1280 x 600p. As with larger notebooks, colors dim significantly at viewing angles of more than 45 degrees to the left or right. Colors even become inverted when watching video at those angles.
Despite its relatively slow 1.6-GHz Intel Atom Z530 CPU, the VAIO P was able to handle video playback relatively well. When trying to watch a 720p downloaded WMV of a racecar from Microsoft's HD Showcase, the video played smoothly. A 1080p clip of The Discoverers was only a little jerky. When we streamed an episode of Fringe at full screen from Fox.com, we noticed some hitching, but it was farily watchable; so was a 720p trailer of The Expendables on YouTube.
Audio playback was not nearly as strong. Even at maximum volume, we could barely make out the words when streaming Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" from Napster.
One unique feature of the VAIO P is its ability to automatically change screen orientations based on chassis positioning. Like a smart phone, the notebook contains an accelerometer. Having the screen in portrait mode should make it easier to read eBooks, but considering that the screen won't flip around and fold flat, it's a less-than-optimal experience. That said, we were impressed with the accelerometer's ability to accurately detect when we had changed orientation. When in portrait mode the VAIO P offers a unique and powerful feature called Flicks that allows you to flip back and forth among web pages, images, or other content simply by tilting the notebook to the left or right.
Ports and Webcam
In addition to two USB ports and a headphone jack, the VAIO P has an adapter port to plug in an extender that provides VGA out and Ethernet ports. The front lip also contains dual memory card readers, one for Sony's Memory Stick and another for SD Cards.
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The VAIO P's webcam is one of the worst we've tested. Located on the right bezel, it either showed our face off-center or forced us to position ourselves on the right side of the notebook. In low-light, images were hard to view and, even under a strong light source, picture quality was poor. When conducting a Skype call from our living room, the image was extremely dark even though we were sitting directly under a lamp.
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The VAIO P's performance was surprisingly solid for a notebook with the normally-pokey Intel 1.6-GHz Atom Z530 CPU. On PCMark Vantage, a benchmark that measures overall system prowess, the VAIO P scored a respectable 1,279, just above the category average of 1,224. On Geekbench, another synthetic test, the VAIO P scored 779, just a bit below the netbook category average of 877, but well below competitors with faster Atom N series CPUs like the MSI Wind U160 (954) and ASUS Eee PC 1001P (908).
The VAIO P's 128GB SSD was a bright spot, booting the system in a brisk 47 seconds, 15 seconds faster than the category average. The drive took only 3 minutes and 20 seconds to complete the LAPTOP Transfer Test (duplicating 4.97GB of mixed media files); that's a rate of 25.4 MBps, far better than the category average of 18 MBps and way ahead of competitors such as the ASUS Eee PC 1001P (17.5 MBps) and the Toshiba mini NB305 (20.6 MBps).
When it came to processor-intensive tasks such as encoding video, the VAIO P fell only a little short of its competitors. It took a reasonable 6 minutes and 34 seconds to transcode a 114MB MPEG-4 file to AVI format, which is 22 seconds slower than category average of 6 minutes and 12 seconds. But it's hard to complain too much considering the slower-than-average CPU.
As stated in the Display section of this review, the VAIO P does a very god job handling video, even high-def video. Unfortunately, our standard graphics benchmark, 3DMark06, doesn't run on Atom Z series processors and testing games like World of Warcraft was also out of the question. We tried our hand at using Google Earth, and though the program worked, it was a bit slower to zoom in, render images, and move around than faster netbooks.
Battery Life and Wireless
With its standard battery, the VAIO P lasted only 3 hours and 17 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi. That's actually a little better than the category average for netbooks with three-cell batteries. However, these days most netbooks come with six-cell batteries, and the category average for those with six-cell or larger batteries is 6 hours and 19 minutes. We haven't been able to test it yet, but Sony sells an extended battery for the P series that promises up to 7 hours of endurance and costs $129.
The VAIO P's Atheros 802.11n radio provided impressive transfer rates of 36.6 Mbps and 30.4 Mbps at distances of 15 and 50 feet from the router, respectively. That compares favorably to many mainstream netbooks, including the MSI Wind U160, which got 34.5 Mbps from 15 feet but only 10.8 Mbps from 50 feet.
The P series also comes with an embedded Qualcomm Gobi mobile broadband card that lets you access Verizon's 3G network (provided you sign up for a $39.99 or $59.99 monthly plan) and GPS service. Unfortunately, we were unable to test this functionality.
Click to enlargeIt took 1 hour and 58 minutes for the VAIO P's battery to reach 80 percent of capacity and a total of 3 hours and 18 minutes for it to completely charge. During that time, the system used an average of 11.6 watts. This gives the notebook a LAPTOP Green Efficiency rating of 11.7, which is better than the netbook category average of 15.7 (lower is better).
Because of its svelte form factor, the Vaio P carries a rather high starting price of $899. For that, users get our configuration: a 1.6-GHz processor, 2GB of RAM, Intel GMA graphics, Windows 7 Home Premium (32bit), and Bluetooth. The notebook is also available with a 2-GHz Atom Z550 CPU and a 256GB SSD, but only the base configuration is available on Sony.com.
Click to enlargeIf you don't want to wait 47 seconds for the VAIO P to boot into Windows, the notebook comes with a version of Splashtop's popular instant-on operating system. When the machine is powered off, just hit the Web button and the notebook boots directly into the instant-on environment, which consists of only the Firefox-based Splashtop web browser. In our tests, it took only 22 seconds after hitting the Web button for the VAIO P to boot into Splashtop and another 9 seconds--for a total of 31--to connect to our Wi-Fi network and load a web page.
Software and Warranty
In addition to trial versions of Norton Internet Security and Microsoft Office, the VAIO P comes with ArcSoft Webcam Companion for snapping pictures, an AccuWeather widget that displays the current temperature on the desktop, and Evernote note-taking software. Sony also includes its Picture Motion Browser software for managing your media files. VAIO Transfer helps you copy files from your old computer to the VAIO P, and VAIO Data Restore tool helps you restore lost files.
The VAIO P comes standard with a one-year limited warranty on parts and labor and 24/7 toll-free tech support. To see how Sony did in our Tech Support Showdown, click here.
Click to enlargeThe VAIO P offers a highly portable design and high-resolution screen, and new enhancements like its accelerometer and small trackpad make this mini laptop more versatile than its predecessor. But the $899 price tag ensures that this secondary notebook will attract only a niche crowd, and you don't even get a 6-cell battery for the base price. Some may prefer the Viliv N5, which has a smaller keyboard but is even lighter than the Sony while costing $250 less. Nevertheless, if you want a notebook with a premium design that can slip into a purse or a coat pocket, the VAIO P is worth a look.