Friday, February 27, 2009

Sony Vaio VGN-P15G (Intel Atom Z520 processor 1.33GHz, 2GB RAM)

Sony likes to keep its Vaio products aimed at mid- to high-end buyers — much like Apple does — and generally eschews the budget end of the market (although there are a handful of less expensive Vaios we've reviewed favourably).
When it comes to Intel Atom-powered systems, it's no different; Sony's entry into the very hot mini laptop category shares a lot with netbooks such as the
Dell Mini 9 or Asus Eee PC, but clearly goes out of its way to avoid being lumped in with them (Sony doesn't even call the P-series a netbook).
Even with a widescreen, 8-inch, 1600x768 resolution display and reasonably usable full keyboard, the AU$2,299 P-series Lifestyle PC fits into roughly the same footprint as a standard white business envelope, and is less than 20mm thick. That makes it both an impressive engineering feat as well as a system that will work best for a highly specific group of users. While it can be a useful travel PC for those most concerned with size and weight, casual users may be put off by the tiny trackpoint navigation and bloated Windows Vista operating system. That said, next to the new MacBook, we've rarely had a laptop with more gawkers dropping by our labs to eyeball it.
The P-series Lifestyle PC is one of the smallest laptops we've seen; it almost reminds us of a UMPC (such as Sony's own UX series), but with a traditional clamshell laptop design. Sony offers a variety of colours, including garnet red, emerald green, onyx black, crystal white and classic (matte) black, with matching accessories including a fitted leather case.
To fit a reasonably full-featured PC into a chassis this small, some sacrifices had to be made, and the lack of a standard touchpad (instead there's a ThinkPad-like pointing stick) keeps the P-series from being as useful as it could be. The pointing stick's sensitivity has to be jacked up to get across the widescreen easily, which makes fine control difficult.
The mouse buttons are relegated to tiny slivers at the front edge of the system. One can also optionally tap on the pointing stick for a left-click, although you'll invariably end up with a lot of false left-clicks that way. A middle mouse button for scrolling helps, as does an additional button to the right, which arranges your open windows side by side on the desktop. With the extra-wide 1600-pixel resolution, you can fit a couple of open browsers or document windows next to each other.
The Linux-powered, instant-on environment resembles the menu used on Sony's PSP and PlayStation 3 game consoles, and provides for a decent web-surfing experience while helping to save battery life — which is important, as the default battery is small.
We spent most of our time in Windows Vista, currently the only operating system option available. With Vista, the P-series' 2GB of RAM is practically a minimum requirement, and the OS felt sluggish and hung frequently, even with the graphics options set to Vista Basic. Windows XP is currently the best match for Atom processors, and we've also had some success experimenting with Windows 7. Sony, as is its custom, includes plenty of its proprietary media and networking software, which you can choose to use, ignore or even uninstall.
The 8-inch, widescreen, LED-backlit display offers a 1600x768 native resolution, which is the highest we've seen in an Atom-powered laptop. Because of this, text and icons are small, and some may find them hard to read. A zoom button helps a bit, but if you have trouble with small on-screen text, the P-series will drive you mad.
Sadly, unlike the US and UK no mobile broadband is included, and Australians miss out on the GPS feature as well.
Performance and battery life
It would be wise not to expect too much in terms of raw performance from this system. Taken as a netbook, it falls behind systems with Windows XP, such as HP's new Mini 2140, in our benchmark tests. When looked at as an ultraportable laptop, it performs even worse, although it's an unfair fight against more expensive 11-inch systems with Intel's ULV dual-core processors.
With those caveats in mind, we were able to successfully surf the web and work on documents, much the same as any Atom-powered laptop. Online video streaming and DVD file playback were likewise smooth, and our biggest productivity problems stemmed from waiting for Vista menus to open and struggling with the pointing stick. As much as Sony wants to stay away from the netbook tag, the guiding principle remains the same: if you manage your expectations appropriately, the P-series works great. Expect it to do the same things as your full-size computer, and you'll be disappointed.
The Sony Vaio P-series Lifestyle PC ran for three hours, eight minutes on our video playback battery drain test using the included battery. An optional large-capacity battery is available which sticks out from the bottom of the system but runs a little more than five hours.

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