What's hot: Super small and light, fantastic looks, higher specs than Netbooks.
What's not: Improvements come at a cost and the Vaio P costs more than basic Netbooks. Fonts are tiny.
Editor's update 6/2010: Check out our second generation Sony Vaio P review.
Reviewed March 25, 2009 by Lisa Gade, Editor
The Three P's: Pretty, Petite and Pricey
Though I love Sony's ultralight notebook and micro PC offerings, I had my doubts when I heard about the Sony Vaio P Series, Sony's answer to the upscale netbook. After all, the point of Netbooks is that they're incredibly cheap at $300 to $600, and they're small. The Vaio P is certainly small-- it makes the ASUS Eee PC and Acer Aspire One look big and feel heavy. But at $900 for the base model, it's not nearly as cheap. Though by Sony standards, the P isn't expensive (their ultralight and micro PCs have averaged $1,500 to over $2,000). First impressions? It's really small, stunning looking and the display is out of this world. Perhaps that's worth the premium.
The challenge with netbooks is that lots of features are stripped to make them small and cheap. No Bluetooth, often no WAN/3G/EVDO, no 802.11n (only the slower 802.11b/g), low resolution displays, slow drives and little memory. For those who want ultraportability but need those high tech creature comforts, the Vaio P beckons, which is why Sony calls it a "Lifestyle PC" rather than a netbook. Of course, the marketing department can call a donkey a small horse; the product must live up to the hype, and with reservations, the Vaio P does. Features including an 8" 1600 x 768 pixel XBrite display, an Intel Atom 2nd generation Z520 CPU running at 1.33GHz (the Vaio P's only netbook-ish spec), 2 gigs of DDR2 RAM, Windows Vista, Verizon EVDO Rev. A, GPS, WiFi 802.11n, Gigabit Ethernet, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR and options for conventional and SSD drives (our model has a 64 gig SSD drive). No, there isn't room for an internal optical drive since a CD is a tiny bit wider than the Vaio P.
Netbooks feature cheap looks, plastics galore and a general budget look. Given their low price tags, that's understandable. They all sport similar form factors, looking much like the granddaddy Eee PC that started the trend, and have very similar specs. Prices have crept upward for more recent models because manufacturers have opted for adding features and prettier exteriors vs. price cutting since there's almost no profit margin on base models. Rather than play the no-margin game, Sony has stayed in the high end tier where they're more comfortable and made a "don't call it a netbook" that has looks to die for. The long but narrow design is unique, it's deliciously thin at 0.78" and the fit and finish are superb. At 1.4 lbs. and 4.7" x 9.65" it can fit in a roomy pocket. The US versions of the Vaio P are available in four colors: white, red, emerald green and black (the 128 gig SSD version is available only in black). The finish on each is high gloss, yet fingerprint-attraction is only moderate. Our gloss black model has subtle metallic flakes that you likely won't notice unless you look closely. The notebook is made of carbon fiber and plastic with a metal frame and it's very rigid.
A macro shot of the metallic flake in the black finish.
Capacious Keyboard and a Good TrackPoint
Sony designed the P around the keyboard. Doing a complete 180 from their Vaio UX series with its tiny thumb keyboard, the P's keyboard is 90% of the size of their Vaio TT 11" notebook and only HP's Mini-Note comes close. Both feature keyboards that run edge to edge with almost no bezel for maximal room (the Vaio's keyboard is 9.5" wide). If you're not accustomed to ultralight or netbook keyboards, you'll need some adjustment time but it shouldn't take long to touch type at fast speeds unless you have very large hands. Sony made relatively few concessions to make the keyboard compact: there are oversized enter, backspace and spacebar keys, and only the right shift key is reduced to regular rather than oversized status.
Sony Vaio P530 60 gig conventional drive
Sony Vaio P688 64 gig SSD Drive
The 82 key keyboard with 1.2mm stroke and 16.5mm pitch. It has discrete keys raised
above the surface similar to other high end Vaio notebooks and MacBook/MacBook Pro models.
To reduce the Vaio P's size, there's no wrist rest and no track pad. Instead, we have an Alps TrackPoint eraser stick, a la ThinkPads of old, and mouse buttons on the front edge. I'm not generally a fan of the TrackPoint, but the Vaio proved the exception. It's responsive, drifts relatively little (eraser stick pointers tend to drift when you release them as they recalibrate) and you can even tap the eraser stick it to effect a mouse click. Tapping force is just right-- you neither need to bear down on it fiercely or handle it gingerly lest it click at the wrong time. There are large left and right mouse buttons on the front edge and a small middle button that handles scrolling (hold it down and move the pointer to scroll). Since the P Series have two USB ports and Bluetooth, you can use USB and Bluetooth mice with the P as well.
The TrackPoint above the B key, and the mouse buttons on the front edge.
The two buttons to the right of the mouse buttons handle window arrangement and launching the XRoss Media Bar (Instant On) feature.
Video Review featuring Windows 7 beta
In our 8 minute video we take a tour of the Sony Vaio P model P588E, showing off the design, comparing it with other netbooks and UMPCs and demonstrating Windows 7 beta:
Performance and Horsepower
The Sony Vaio P Series runs on the second generation Intel Atom processor, and US models all have the 1.33GHz Z520 (the Z530 and Z540 running at 1.6 and 1.8GHz are available only on import models). This is the only netbookish spec on the Vaio P and it means the machine is fast enough to be a secondary PC, but not a primary one for most. Moral of the story: don't expect any current netbook or micro PC to do the heavy lifting of a full sized notebook. Why didn't Sony go with a ULV Core 2 Duo instead? That would have further increased the cost, required a larger casing and likely a fan. The second generation Atom requires incredibly little power and thus the Vaio gets by fine with a 2100 mAh battery and no fan. We'll take those over more speed any day in an ultra-mobile PC.
The Vaio P 1.33GHz with SSD is powerful enough to handle web browsing with multiple tabs, Outlook, MS Office and even light image editing with Photoshop. We loaded Photoshop CS3 and the Vaio's extra resolution made for much easier image editing compared to our Aspire One. We opened 5 RAW format files (9 megs each) and edited them with no problems or slow downs. If you open 20 large images at once, things do get sluggish. We also installed Dreamweaver CS3 which ran just fine (even template updates affecting a few hundred files worked fine), and again the Vaio's wide resolution was a pleasure compared to other netbooks (and even some standard notebooks).
Since the Atom is a very low power and low heat CPU, the Vaio has no fans. If you get the SSD version the P is silent-- no fan and no spinning hard drive. The notebook's bottom doesn't get terribly warm under normal business use. Extended video playback gets it warm but not burning hot. The CPU will throttle back if it gets too hot, but our unit hasn't throttled back when running on AC or battery power.
A tale of two P's: he Sony Vaio P588 on top of the 17" Gateway P7808u FX Edition notebook.
The machine has 2 gigs of DDR2 RAM, more than most netbooks. This isn't upgradable, so that's the max. There is no room for an optical drive, so you'll need to use an external DVD drive with the P to install software. The $899 base model ships with a 5400rpm 60 gig conventional hard drive with spinning platters (P530). The $1,199 model (P588E) has a 64 gig SSD (solid state drive) and the $1,499 model (P598E) has a 128 gig SSD. The conventional hard drive model has a G-Sensor that parks the heads to protect the drive during sudden movement (there are no moving parts in an SSD drive so this feature isn't needed on the SSD models). The machine has 2 USB 2.0 ports (one on each side), a 3.5mm stereo headphone jack, a proprietary port for the small dongle adapter that houses the gigabit Ethernet and VGA ports, an SD/MMC card slot supporting SDHC cards and a Memory Stick Duo slot.
The left front edge has the SD and Memory Stick Duo slots and the wireless on/off switch.
The right front edge has the power switch and HD activity, power and charging lights.
Windows Vista and Windows 7 beta
The Vaio P models ship only with Windows Vista, unlike most netbooks that ship with the less demanding but very dated Windows XP or Linux. Technically the P ships with Linux as well, but this is used only for the Instant On portion. The base model with a 60 gig standard hard drive ships with Vista Home Basic and the SSD models ship with Vista Home Premium. Both models run smoothly enough to be called usable, though the conventional hard drive model lags at times under Vista's heavy demands. The SSD models, such as our P588E with the 64 gig SSD runs much more quickly and we highly recommend it if you can afford the additional $300 (you get Vista Premium for the money too). The SSD model gets much better benchmark numbers and offers more improvement than a faster CPU. While Vista runs fine though not fast (this is an ultraportable after all), Windows 7 beta totally rocks. We clean installed the publicly released Windows 7 beta 7000 release and the 7057 non-public release, and both ran as quickly as XP. Windows 7 has a much more modern UI and is more pleasant to use than XP, and shows a great deal of improvement not only in performance but user interface. Since the Vaio P, unlike many Sony ultra-portables, uses fairly standard hardware, driver support hasn't been a major headache with Windows 7 beta and most things worked after a clean install. This means that upgrading to Windows 7 (once it's released) shouldn't be a headache and will offer great improvements for the P's performance. For those of you who have a copy of Windows 7 beta or are willing to download it from torrent sites, you can get going right away. Though most hardware worked with a default installation, we installed most all of the drivers for Vista from Sony's Vaio P support web page. With these, the Fn keys for brightness and volume work and the EVDO modem works fine. Make sure to install Sony's SmartWi utility as this also installs the Verizon software and it allows you to turn the EVDO radio and GPS on and off. If you want to use the Verizon service, also install the Gobi driver and application from Sony's download site (Gobi is the radio chip for the Verizon modem). If you do an upgrade install of Windows 7 rather than a clean install, most all drivers will remain intact and you won't need to worry about driver downloads. However, we did find that a clean install ran faster than an upgrade install.
Multimedia and Display
This "Lifestyle PC" has the best display we've ever seen on a notebook. It's an LED backlit Xbrite-Eco display, the same line that Sony uses on other high end Vaio notebooks but somehow the P's is even brighter and more vivid that the Xbrite-Eco on my Vaio Z550 and the LED backlit MacBook Air display. At max brightness it's a retina-burning experience, and 4/9 brightness is plenty bright for indoor use. In a brightly lit room the 5 or 6 setting is nice and outdoors 9 makes for an outdoor viewable display. Xbrite displays are high gloss, so there's glare outdoors but the display remains very readable (just avoid angling it toward the sky). Indoors, colors are super-saturated and everything is very sharp. Photos look superb and text is razor sharp. That's a good thing, because 1600 x 768 on a little 8" display makes for tiny text. We increased Windows' font dpi setting to 120% to save our eyes and if your eyes aren't good, you might want to go up to 140%. At 150% Windows enlarges many UI elements which occasionally puts dialog box OK and cancel buttons off screen... not desirable. You can set a lower resolution for easy reading but you'll run into the same problem, so I'd suggest going with modest dpi increases and using either the built-in zoom buttons as needed or the zoom features in IE, Firefox, MS Office etcetera.
Video isn't a netbook's best friend, nor is it the Sony Vaio P's. Though it performs much better than the Fujitsu U820 which also uses an Atom processor and Intel's GMA 500 integrated graphics, it's still weak, especially for iTunes which offers no GMA 500 graphics hardware acceleration (the CPU handles video decoding). iTunes aside, Intel really needs to work on their video drivers since mediocre video playback plagues all machines we've tested that have the GMA 500-- there's simply no hardware video acceleration for non-HD video content. One way to greatly improve video playback is to download and install Cyberlink WinDVD. You need not purchase it, just download it and install it. It installs superior drivers and codecs that make much better use of the Intel GMA 500. This doesn't help iTunes, which uses its own drivers and codecs, but it helps most all other forms of video playback including direct from DVD, MPEG4, AVI and MPEG2. Our VGA videos encoded at 650kbps went from stuttery to smooth with Cyberlink's software installed.
For music playback and anything longer than a youtube video, you'll want to use a set of headphones or external speakers. The P's built-in speakers aren't very loud in Windows, and are somewhat louder in Instant On mode. The system uses Realtek HD audio and sound quality is excellent through headphones and over-the-ear A2DP stereo headsets like the Samsung SBH-500.
The Sony P's 1.3 megapixel webcam is surprisingly good and is on par with the webcam on larger Vaio notebooks like the TT and Z models. Better still, Skype is installed on the Instant On partition, complete with Skype video support. Video quality is very good and stable and sound is also good for both incoming and outgoing audio using the P's built-in mic and speakers.
Networking of all kinds and a GPS too
The Vaio P is as well connected as a full sized laptop with WiFi 802.11n, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, wired gigabit Ethernet (requires use of the included dongle adapter), GPS and Verizon EVDO Rev. A mobile broadband. For a very small PC where there's less room for antennas, the P has excellent WiFi and WAN reception. The P matched our full sized Sony Vaio Z550 for WiFi reception and had nearly as good download speeds and the Verizon EVDO reception was better than any AirCard, USB adapter or phone we've tested. We're in a weak Verizon service area and both signal strength and data speeds suffer as a result but the Vaio managed a good signal and fast download speeds.
This small adapter plugs into a proprietary port on the Vaio's right side and adds VGA and Ethernet ports.
Laptops with embedded WAN radios (EVDO, HSDPA 3G) are very convenient but you miss out on the subsidy you'd get when buying a phone or data card from a carrier. Sony and Verizon have worked out a better deal: you'll get a $200 rebate if you sign up for a 2 year contract with Verizon. Verizon offers two data plans: $39.99/month for 50 megs and $59.99/month for 5 gigs (formerly called the unlimited plan). Better yet for those who only occasionally travel and need high speed cellular data, Verizon offers a 24 hour day pass for $9.99 that requires no contract, just a credit card. The WAN modem uses the new Qualcomm Gobi chipset that supports both EVDO and HSDPA. Technically that means it should work with any carrier, but the P's modem is locked to Verizon and the SIM card slot is not installed. We can't blame Sony completely because a carrier must agree to support and work with an embedded modem and Verizon was the first to sign up for Gobi on the P. Sony says they're working to get additional carriers on board, but no promises. Obviously, since the SIM card slot isn't installed, 3G HSDPA seems unlikely.
The Gobi chip, like most EVDO and HSDPA modems, has an integrated GPS. The good news is that you do not need to use the Verizon service or connection to use the GPS. Just turn on the GPS using Sony's SmartWi wireless management utility. The first fix takes several minutes, but thereafter the GPS gets a signal in a minute or less, even indoors near a window. It's accurate and works well with the included full version of Microsoft Streets and Trips 2009. Thanks to the Vaio's outdoor viewable display, it makes for a good large screen car GPS (get a car charger for long trips). Unfortunately the Vaio's speaker is quiet and it's not easy to hear in the car.
Instant on makes a great deal of sense on an ultraportable computer whose usage pattern often mimics a high end PDA or smartphone's. The Vaio's instant on is Linux powered and the interface is Sony's Xross Media Bar (XMB) which looks pretty much like that of the PS3, PSP and Sony TVs. When the computer is off, simply press the XMB button to the right of the mouse buttons and wait approximately 12 seconds (see our video to watch XMB in action). As with other instant on computers, you get a photo viewer, image browser and video player that can view and play content on the hard drive or a storage card. That's nice but won't set the world on fire. What is cool are the Internet apps (which work over WiFi and wired Ethernet). There's the Linux version of the Firefox web browser complete with Flash support, Skype with video support (works great) and the Pidgin instant messaging client. Now that's handy for an impromptu web browsing section, or a quick IM session. While Skype sometimes requires fiddling on Windows, the Linux version in XMB is optimized and set up perfectly for the Vaio P and so it works without a hitch. Nice.
The Vaio P Series standard battery is a 2100 mAh 2 cell Lithium Ion battery-- a seemingly impossibly low capacity battery for even a tiny laptop. But the Intel Atom Z second generation CPUs use an amazingly small amount of power: 2 watts max. Compare that to the Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 used in the 13" Vaio Z550 with a max power consumption of 25 watts. The P588E with SSD manages 2.5 hours with WiFi on, power set to Vaio Optimized and brightness at 4/9 when web browsing and working with MS Office and Dreamweaver documents. Video playback time averaged 2.2 hours with the standard battery. Sony's spare and extended batteries used to cost an arm and a leg, but happily a spare standard battery sells for $89 and the extended battery for $119 (Sony will send you a 20% off accessories coupon via email when you register the machine, so you can get these for less). The extended battery doubles capacity and runtimes, and adds a small hump on the bottom rear, angling the notebook up in an ergonomic fashion.
We're thrilled that Sony has dropped the large-ish power bricks they used with the UX micro PCs and switched to a tiny world charger for the P series-- perfect for a tiny machine.
A very small power brick!
Bottom of the Vaio P: the battery is matte black.
After years in the ultraportable market, Sony has gotten it just about right: it's all about the keyboard and the display. The Vaio P series offers the best keyboard on an ultraportable or netbook, and enough screen resolution to do serious work with no side-to-side scrolling and room for toolbars and application palettes. In fact, the display's resolution is higher than most full sized notebooks up to 15 inches! Caveat: that means you'll need good eyes to read text. Its features target those who need more than a basic netbook: it adds WiFi draft n, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, EVDO, a GPS and large SSD drives (relative to the small flash drives on the Eee PC). Likewise its extreme good looks, thinness, small dimensions and high quality materials cater to the high end ultramobile market rather than the budget conscious. The only area where the Vaio P doesn't exceed the budget netbook competition is processor speed, but that does help to keep the price and power consumption down. Vista runs decently on the P, especially the SSD P, and Windows 7 really sings.
Pro: Small but not too small to use thanks to the large keyboard and high resolution display. Fantastic display: ultra-sharp, bright and vivid. Very good keyboard that beats other netbooks.
Con: High resolution is hard on the eyes, video playback performance isn't great (installing Cyberlink brings it up to decent but not great status), battery life so-so with standard battery.
Price: $899 with 60 gig hard drive, $1,199 with 64 gig SSD and $1,499 with 128 gig SSD
Display:8", 1600 x 768 pixel color XBrite-Eco LED backlit display. Intel GMA500 integrated graphics using up to 760 megs shared memory. VGA port via included dongle adapter, max external monitor resolution is 1600 x 1200.
Ion rechargeable, user replaceable. 2 cell, 2100 mAh. Extended 4 cell, 4200 mAh Lithium Ion battery available as an accessory. Very compact world charger included.
Atom Z520 1.33GHz processor (single core, 32 bit CPU) with 512kB L2 cache and 533MHz FSB. 2 gigs 533MHz DDR2 RAM. Import models are available with faster Atom CPUs. 3 US models are available with a 60 gig, 5400 rpm hard drive, 64 gig SSD or 128 gig SSD. SSD drives are ATA and made by Samsung.
x 4.72 x 0.78 inches. Weight: 1.4 pounds for SSD models, 1.5 pounds for hard drive model.
Ports:2 USB 2.0 ports, 3.5mm stereo headphone jack, VGA and wired Gigabit Ethernet via included dongle adapter that connects to the Vaio's Display/LAN port.
Camera:1.3MP web cam.
GPS:Integrated GPS (uses the WAN chip but does not require use of WAN/Verizon service).
in speaker, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack. Realtek HD audio. Supports A2DP Bluetooth stereo.
Atheros AR928X WiFi 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, Gigabit Ethernet (with included dongle adapter) and Qualcomm Gobi mobile broadband chip (locked to Verizon EVDO Rev. A service).
Vista Home Basic with conventional hard drive (base) model. Windows Vista Home Premium with SSD models (both 32 bit). Microsoft Works 9.0, Microsoft Streets and Trips 2009, 60 day trial of MS Office Home and Student 2007, Windows OneCare trial, WinDVD, Verizon VZAccess Manager software for WAN connection, Sony SmartWi (manages all wireless radios), ArcSoft Webcam Companion 2, Vaio Click to Disc, Vaio Movie Story and Vaio MusicBox.
SD/MMC slot and 1 Memory Stick Pro Duo slot.
In the Box:Vaio P, standard battery, compact world charger, dongle adapter with Ethernet and VGA ports, 2 spare TrackPoint nubs, printed material.