Walt Mossberg

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Personal Technology

Sony’s Vaio P Has Sportscar Looks Without the Power

Of the most famous computer makers, only two, Apple and Sony, primarily aim their products at consumers, instead of the generally conservative IT departments of big companies. So, it’s no surprise that these two tech giants often turn out especially stylish and daring hardware designs.

But Sony (SNE), unlike Apple (AAPL), isn’t especially skilled at software and doesn’t make its own operating system. This situation partly explains why Sony’s latest gorgeous, daring laptop, the shockingly tiny Vaio P, turns heads everywhere, but is pretty frustrating to use.

I love the look and feel and boldness of the design, but can’t recommend this sleek machine for most users because it is very slow and has poor battery life. Oh, and it sells for double or triple the price of other small laptops, commonly called netbooks.

The Vaio P is mainly undone because it comes with Vista Home Premium, the edition of Windows that is sluggish and a memory hog. Most competing small notebooks ship with the more nimble, but older, Windows XP. And the Vista problem is made worse by the processor inside the machine, which is an especially slow version of the Intel (INTC) Atom chip often used in netbooks.

While I was testing the Vaio P, which costs between $900 and $1,500, nearly everyone who saw it asked to try it. That’s because it doesn’t look like any other laptop I’ve seen. It’s long, narrow and very thin — with roughly the same footprint as one of those plastic folders waiters use to bring you the check at a restaurant. It can be tucked into the pocket of an overcoat or a pair of cargo pants, and comes in several handsome colors.

Sony's Vaio P 'lifestyle' computer
Sony’s Vaio P “lifestyle” computer

These unusual dimensions allow for only a small eight-inch screen, which is much wider than it is tall. But the Vaio P’s screen boasts very high resolution, so that it can display almost as much of a typical Web page or document as the more common 13.3-inch screens on larger laptops.

Sony also has done a great job with the keyboard on the Vaio P. Its keys are surprisingly large and well-spaced for such a tiny computer, with a wide space bar, and large “Enter” and “Backspace” keys. Instead of a touch pad, it uses a midkeyboard pointing stick.

And this little laptop is packed with nice features, including a built-in 3G cellular modem to supplement its Wi-Fi and free GPS for mapping. The P also comes standard with two gigabytes of memory. The $900 base model comes with a small 60-gigabyte hard disk; and the $1,200 midrange model has a 64-gigabyte solid state drive — which is more durable and uses less power. The top model, at $1,500, comes with a more reasonably sized 128-gigabyte solid state drive.

There are two USB ports, but the Ethernet and external video ports are relegated to a little module that snaps on to the power adapter. All models come with a quick-start system that brings up a stripped-down Web browser and media player without waiting for Windows to load. This is a boon, but it’s crudely designed.

Sony positions the Vaio P as a “lifestyle” computer, a companion to your main computer that’s almost as portable as a smart phone, but can do more. Unfortunately, once you actually start using it, that promise is dashed by its awful performance.

In my tests of the Vaio P, programs launched painfully slowly, delays were common and start-up and reboot times were glacial. I timed a reboot at nearly four minutes, and had to give up on an attempt to open 15 Web sites simultaneously in tabs in the usually speedy Firefox Web browser. Video playback was choppy.

There are some other problems that can’t be blamed on Vista. The speakers are worse than those on some cellphones. And the tiny mouse buttons are so close to the bottom edge of the keyboard that they are easy to hit accidentally. Also, I couldn’t get the GPS to work.

Using my tough battery test, in which I turn off all power-saving features, I got less than two hours, even on a solid-state model, suggesting a typical battery life of maybe 2.5 hours. Sony sells a double-sized battery, but it adds a bit of weight and bulk to the sleek box, and costs $129.

I also tested two experimental configurations of the Vaio P, which show that there’s hope for it in the future. One of these models had been tweaked by Sony to turn off many of Vista’s performance-sapping and power-hungry features. This box ran better, though still not great. Sony plans to offer a software download that will make these tweaks automatically.

Much better was a Vaio P with the forthcoming version of Windows, called Windows 7, installed. This version of Windows, likely to ship by this fall, made the Vaio P perform acceptably, despite its wimpy processor. Everything was much snappier, and reboot times were cut in half.

The Vaio P may be a beautiful device that’s just ahead of its time. Even if you can afford it, I’d advise waiting for the version with Windows 7.