A 'hip' PC -- literally!

January 26, '09; BANGALORE:

Straight from its worldwide unveiling at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show and a month ahead of its launch in India, Anand Parthasarathy tries out the world's lightest 8-inch notebook, the Sony Vaio 'P' Pocket Style PC:

Last year saw the launch of Intel's Atom, the processor that enabled dozens of PC makers to shrink the product to hand-held dimensions, drastically reduce power consumption and create a new product category of lean-mean browsing machines for the footloose and fancy free Internet-era user.

Trouble was, the product companies faced the same problems they have had to contend with over the 25-year life span of the Wintel (Windows and Intel) PC: how to differentiate their offerings from those of the competition: when features, configuration and performance were almost similar and left room for manoeuvre -- or innovation.

This is less of a problem, if you decide not to compete at the bottom of the pyramid -- the entry or budget level. Sony clearly thinks its customers will be willing to pay a little more for enhanced ease of use and smarter lifestyle positioning, with the latest edition in its Vaio PC range, that it unveiled in the first week of January at the Consumer Electronics Show at Las Vegas, US.

The Vaio P -- what Sony calls a Pocket Style PC to differentiate it from Netbooks, MiniNotes, UltraMobile PCs and other 'Atom-inside' machines currently in the market. The product will go on sale in India in mid January in two configurations, P 13 and P 15.

Test driving the Vaio P, I felt there were three distinct differentiators from most other Atom-based mini notebooks:

One: the comfortably full sized keyboard which one hasn't found so far in the 8 inch screen devices of this class;

Two: The incredible lightness -- just 594 grams with batteries (620 gms for P 13).
Three: The unusual form factor - the size of a business envelope approximately 12 cms by 24 cms and less than 2 cms thick.

The keyboard will be welcomed by users who are ' all thumbs' when it comes to operating shrunken qwerty keypads. The size and weight makes this something that can be easily carried in a man's jacket inside pocket, a jeans hip pocket or a ladies handbag. Yet this is nothing like the web-enabled smart phone, with their flip-open keyboards in look or feel.

Powered by Intel's Atom Z 530 (1.6 GHz, P 15) or Z 520 (1.33 GHz, P 13) depending on the model, the 2 GM DDR RAM and the storage (60 GB hard drive P 13 or 64 GB Flash, P 15) allow Sony to port two operating system, a Vista (Premium or Basic) for full Windows functionality as well as a Linux flavour for 'express' use with a 20 second fast boot, if you just want to browse the web. The 8 inch LCD TFT ( 1600 by 768) is clean and sharp and a built in basic camera (640 by 480) is adequate for Skype-type video calls. The wireless connectivity is WLAN 802.11 b/g/n, with standard bluetooth. The batteries promise 3 hours of typical usage.

The ultra wide display allows Sony to offer one useful feature: a button to switch from one display pane to two panes side-by-side, a neat idea if you want to work in one window, will keeping the browser open at the same time. Somewhat unusually the ethernet port as well as the VGP display adaptors are not integral with the machine, but available as a plug in to the AC power cord. On the other hand, the noise cancelling hardware for the head phones supplied, resides not on the phones but in the main console of the PC.

The Vaio P 13 costs Rs 49,990 while the P 15 is priced at Rs 64,990. The difference in performance because of the slightly faster processor, I think, would be imperceptible in most usage scenarios for a product of this class. And many might consider a hard drive ( which comes in the less pricey model) a better option than a solid state drive of almost similar capacity. So, I am not too sure how many customers would feel the need to pay an additional Rs 15,000 to get a marginally lighter machine and a slightly bigger flavour of Vista. Let's face it, many of us will upgrade to Windows 7 as soon as it becomes available late this year, so any preinstalled Vista is a temporary solution.

The Vaio range from Sony, has always been a premium product -- and the Vaio P is no exception. The clever design combo of a wide screen, a full keyboard and its feather weight will appeal to PC users who don't want to sacrifice full Windows PC functionality, just because they asked for a machine that is elegant, light and pocketable. If they can afford the asking price of the the Vaio P they will be buying, arguably, the most innovative of the Atom-based portables currently available.