Sony likes to aim its Vaio products towards higher-end buyers, and generally eschews the budget end of the market, although there are a handful of that we've reviewed favourably. When it comes to systems powered by Intel's Atom, it's no different.
Sony's entry into the burgeoning mini-laptop category -- the Vaio P-series Lifestyle PC -- shares much with netbooks such as the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 or those in the Asus Eee PC range, but clearly goes out of its way to avoid being lumped in with them -- Sony doesn't even call it a netbook.
The P-series comes in three configurations: the Vaio P19VN/Q (£1,370), Vaio P19WN/Q (£970) and Vaio P11Z (£850).
Editor's note: Since this review was published, Sony has informed us that the UK model uses a slightly different processor to the US model tested. See below in Features for details.
Even with a widescreen, 8-inch, 1,600x768-pixel display and reasonably usable full keyboard, the P-series is roughly the same size as a pocket diary, and is less than an inch thick. That makes it both an impressive engineering feat and a system that will work best for a highly specific group of users.
While it could 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, besides the new MacBook, we've rarely had a laptop receive more attention from onlookers at the CNET Labs.
The P-series is one of the smallest laptops we've seen -- it almost reminds us of a UMPC but with a traditional clamshell laptop design. Sony offers it in 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.
Some sacrifices had to be made to fit a reasonably fully featured PC into a chassis this small, and the lack of a standard touch pad (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 ramped up to get across the wide screen easily, which makes fine control difficult.
The mouse buttons are relegated to tiny slivers at the front edge of the system. You also have the option of tapping on the pointing stick for a left click, although you'll invariably end up with many 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, 1,600-pixel resolution, you can fit a couple of open browser or document windows next to each other.
The Linux-powered, instant-on environment resembles the menu used on Sony's PlayStation Portable 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, and using the included 3G mobile-broadband antenna or built-in GPS will run it down even more quickly.
The 8-inch, widescreen, LED-backlit display offers a 1,600x768-pixel -- the highest we've seen in an Atom-powered laptop. Because of this, text and icons are small, and some users may find them hard to read. A zoom button helps, but, if you have trouble with small on-screen text, the P-series will drive you mad.
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 . Sony, as is its custom, includes plenty of its proprietary media and networking software, which you can choose to use, ignore or uninstall.
Note: The model we tested had a 1.3GHz processor, whereas the model that will be on sale in the UK will have a more capable 1.6GHz chip. We haven't used this model, but we would expect it to cope better with Vista and generally be faster. This means the figures over the page for processor performance and battery life are inaccurate for the UK model.