Sony VAIO P Series review

In a day of $300 netbooks and $500 tablets, it sure is mystifying to see Sony still pushing a secondary, $700+ Atom-powered device. That's right, Sony hasn't given up on its 8-inch VAIO P Series, and has updated the 1.3-pound mini-laptop with a slightly different design, a faster Atom Z560 processor, touchpad, and last but not least, an accelerometer that lets you tilt the machine to the navigate the web. It's got some pretty cool tricks, that's for sure, and considering that our main complaints about the first generation included performance and desktop navigation we're certainty taken with this next iteration. So, does a mild retooling and a smattering of new abilities make the VAIO P a better product, or better yet, worth a lofty $800? Hit that read more link to find out in our full review. %Gallery-92541%

Look and feel

Without a doubt, the VAIO P's long and thin form factor continues to be one of the most unique looking gadgets in the ether. And it still truly turns heads: when we left the P on our desk, more than a few bystanders came over to inquire about its origins. Sony has tweaked the aesthetic a bit, and thankfully removed the glossy lid; it's now available in a matte orange, neon green, hot pink, white and black. It's not difficult to see why we prefer the white and black options since the color appears on more than just the lid, but those into more vivacious scenes may disagree. As previously teased, when shut it looks like a paper clip -- the color loops from the lid onto the bottom, and then to the keyboard. Though it doesn't have that shiny or silvery look anymore, the P is still a looker, if that's what you're worried about.

It also remains incredibly light and well built; at 1.3-pounds, the .78-inch thin netbook can fit into a small bag or can be tucked into a suit jacket pocket, but let's be real, beyond the models in marketing images no one puts this thing in a jean pocket. Yet despite its portability, it's hard to use in certain situations: we continuously found it difficult to use on a lap or while lying down on a couch, primarily because a bona fide palm rest is nowhere to be found. Holding it up and navigating the desktop using the new touchpad on the screen bezel is actually comfortable if you have to access some info on the run, but it's hardly something you'd use long-term. The P still lacks in port selection -- it only has two USB jacks, a headphone socket, SD and MemoryStick slots, and an expansion port for attaching a VGA / Ethernet dongle that's sold separately for $60. Yeah, $60. Let's be real -- these are standard, expected ports, and Sony really should include this in the box for $800.

Keyboard and mouse options

Believe it: we typed this entire review on the VAIO P's small keyboard. We wouldn't exactly call it a pleasant experience, but given the space constraints, the chiclet layout was actually comfortable enough. Though the plastic keys are a bit clicky, they're fine for firing off short emails, and by the fourth or fifth paragraph of this review we were touch typing with very few typos.

The VAIO P still has a pointing stick smack in the middle of the keyboard, and long left and right mouse buttons below the keys, but an optical touchpad has been added to the right screen bezel and two small left- and right- click buttons to the left side. Dubbed the mobile nav grip by Sony, the idea is that you'd end up wrapping your hands around the screen to surf the web, and while that may seem awkward to have the keyboard hanging below, it was actually quite comfortable. We definitely defaulted to using the pointing stick or external mouse when working in clamshell mode on the laptop, but when we just wanted to quickly look something up, it was convenient to grab the touchpad and select a bookmark. Frankly, though, a full-on touchpanel would be far easier to use that what we're given here, and we'll be touching a bit more on this point in just a bit.

Screen and accelerometer

We still have major issues with the 8-inch, 1600 x 768-resolution display, and in short it's just incredibly squint-inducing. Sure, everything is super sharp, but it requires you to really stick your face into the screen to see -- not exactly the most natural way to use a laptop. For instance, when we loaded Engadget, we really had to hunch over while sitting at a desk to read the text -- and reading the comments... you may as well forget about it. While there's a zoom tool on the keyboard for this default resolution, we much preferred switching the it to 1280 x 600 by hitting the shortcut button beneath the keyboard. While you have to side scroll quite a bit with this screen setting, it's much easier on the eyes. Other than that, we wish Sony had swapped the glossy screen for a matte one -- it would have made it much easier to use outdoors. However, despite the nasty reflection, it does have decent vertical and horizontal viewing angles, and the ambient light sensor adjusts the brightness quite accurately.

The coolest addition to the VAIO P is the accelerometer. The screen automatically rotates -- albeit a bit slowly -- when you turn the device so you could read longer documents or books. We loaded up Kindle for PC, and we have to admit it morphs into a cute little e-reader -- if you don't mind having a keyboard on the left, of course. Yet again, we found ourselves wishing it had a touchscreen for turning pages. The VAIO P also takes advantage of the accelerometer with a new flick function; when you are in Internet Explorer, you can tilt the P to the left to go back and to the right to go forward. It's a fairly useful trick if you happen to be carrying the laptop somewhere or sitting on the couch with it, but it just doesn't work in enough programs. The function works in Adobe Acrobat and Windows Picture Viewer, but didn't work when we tried it in Firefox, Kindle for PC and Google Chrome, three apps where we needed it most. As you'd expect, the small speakers are quite tinny, but Sony does include a pretty nice set of earbuds in the box to compensate.

Performance, battery life and software

The second-generation VAIO P sure is faster than the first, but keep in mind that when we first tested the VAIO P at CES 2009 it came with Vista. With that said, our unit's 1.60GHz Z530 Intel Atom processor and 2GB of RAM kept up with our web browsing and writing in Microsoft Office 2010, but showed more lag than other netbooks when trying to move around within Windows 7 Home Premium; that'd probably explain the 2.3 Windows experience score. Sony will offer the P with a faster Z560 Atom processor for a few extra bucks. We do attribute a bit of the lag to the amount of crapware that comes on the system -- the 64GB SSD only had 30GB of space left when we booted it for the first time. Removing Accuweather's widget, Shutterfly Photo Books, ArcSoft Magic-i, Webcam Companion 3, and Evernote for VAIO helped speed things up and make some space on the drive, but that's a chore no man or woman should have to endure under any circumstance. We should also mention that you can boot the Splashtop instant-on OS by hitting the Web shortcut key, but honestly, you probably never will. The Assist Key launches VAIO Care, which is actually a nice utility for tweaking settings.

On the graphics front, while the GMA 500 scored an embarrassingly low score on 3DMark06, it does support Flash 10.1 for playing back high-def Flash video. When we pulled up a 720p YouTube vid of Justin Bieber on The Late Show it played rather smoothly with only a few pauses here and there -- obviously that's something an Intel Atom N450 powered netbook cannot do. A local 1080p video couldn't manage to play without looking like a total slideshow.

Battery life is still where the P Series falls extremely short of other netbooks. Because of its small dimensions it only has a four-cell, 19Wh battery, which in our daily use didn't last longer than three hours on a charge. On our video rundown, which loops the same standard def video at 65 percent brightness, it mustered just 2 hours and 15 minutes, which is low by pretty much any laptop standard. Sony will still offer the higher capacity battery on its site for $129, but yet again you won't find one in the box.


Can you get an $800 laptop with five times the performance of the P Series, or a $399 netbook with better ergonomics and endurance? Of course, but the VAIO P is -- and will probably always be, unless it drops severely in price -- a niche device meant for those that have the cash to burn on an overpriced, albeit striking little laptop. But regardless of it not being a gadget for the masses, we'd still like to see it gain a touchscreen and more than four hours of battery life. Ultimately we feel the same way we did when we concluded the first VAIO P review: "There's some cool stuff happening here. $800 worth of cool things? That's your call."