What's hot: HD high resolution display, 802.11n, attractive design.
What's not: RAM is hard to upgrade, fan runs constantly though quietly.
Editor's update: the Sony Vaio W now ships with Windows 7
Reviewed August 24, 2009 by Lisa Gade, Editor
You know that netbooks are an established rage when Sony, purveyor of all things high-end and small, finally joins the fray of manufacturers willing to crank out small, underpowered notebooks with incredibly low profit margins. Next thing you know, Apple will jump in (we wish!). Sony's first true Netbook, the Vaio W, gets the Vaio brand and a big logo on the lid, and as we'd expect, they add a a few high end features to avoid sitting at the bottom of the netbook ladder. Clearly, Sony's stating that they're fully committed to the budget netbook market: the W is through and through a netbook with no other pretensions, unlike the marvelous and twice as expensive Sony Vaio P. And at $499 it fits the netbook price point. At the same time, they're letting us know that the Sony brand still stands for that something extra (no, we're not just talking about the price tag). If you want a $300 netbook, head straight over to the "A" section of your electronics emporium's netbook section, where Acer and Asus dominate the lowest price points.
Sony gets a bad rap on price-- some folks on Net forums are complaining about the $499 price tag while no one seems to bemoan HP's high prices (their netbooks run up to $650 and that price doesn't necessarily get you better specs but it might get you a nice color and lid pattern). Dell's Mini 10 starts out low, but if you upgrade the internals to nearly match the Vaio and add a nice color, the price is the same as Sony's. So what does Sony give you that many or no other netbook does?
1) A high resolution display running at 1366 x 768 vs. the standard netbook 1024 x 600. Goodbye chronic scrolling and frustration with wide web pages and Excel spreadsheets. The high res feature is available on the Dell Mini 10 as an option, but that makes you downgrade to the slower 1.33GHz Intel Atom Z520 with the Intel GMA500 (an integrated graphics chip that so far underperforms).
2) The new Atom N280 CPU. This CPU runs at 1.66GHz and it has a faster FSB than the Atom N270 found on most netbooks. It also uses less power. The N280 is available on the very good Toshiba NB205 netbook, the EeePC 1005HA-P and very few others and it adds about $50 to the price.
3) WiFi with draft-N. What's the big deal vs. 802.11g? N has significantly greater range and is much faster. The Vaio W will get a WiFi signal any place your full-sized 802.11n notebook does rather than dying 20 feet short. Another important factor is that your draft N router will lower ALL connections to b/g if just one little b/g device connects to your network. Do you want to be the person slowing down everyone's wireless connection at the home or office? You might not care but your gaming teenager and type A co-worker will.
4) Style and that Vaio logo. Vanity and practicality mingle here. Some folks just want to be seen with certain brands, while those using the netbook for business want to be seen with a tier 1 brand so they don't give the impression their company is hitting the bottom. I leave it to you to decide how important or unimportant this is.
Specs at a Glance
The Sony Vaio W runs on the 1.66GHz Intel Atom N280 with 1 gig of DDR2 RAM and Windows XP Home Edition. It has a VGA webcam, Bluetooth 2.1 +EDR with A2DP stereo support, WiFi 802.11b/g/n and a 1366 x 768 XBrite-Eco LED backlit gloss display. The netbook has 2 USB ports, VGA, 10/100 Ethernet, 3.5mm stereo headphone, 3.5mm mic, an SD card slot and a Memory Stick Pro Duo slot. It weighs 2.62 pounds with the standard 3 cell battery and measures 0.54 x 1.28 x 7.07 inches.
Design and Ergonomics
As you'd expect from a Sony Vaio, the W is one good-looking machine. Some folks expected even more-- perhaps Vaio P thinness and shiny piano finishes, but this thing has to be inexpensive so don't expect the world. The Vaio W is arguably the best looking netbook to date. Some of this comes down to preference-- do you love shiny finishes or understated design? The W looks gorgeous when closed. Its curved corners make it look smaller and chic (it's cheaper to make straight-edged products). The satin finish is attractive, doesn't show fingerprints, is grippy and looks classy. It's available in three colors: pearly white, pink and brown. The white is pearlescent and the brown is more like a plum brown metallic. All colors are the same price. We like that since Dell charges $40 for anything other than a black Mini 10 and HP charges $20 for a non-black Mini 110. Lenovo currently charges $10 extra for a pink IdeaPad S10-2 in their online store (white, gray and black don't get an upcharge). Interestingly, Lenovo charges more on their website, but we haven't yet seen the pink price inflate at retailers. Why would a manufacturer charge up to 10% additional for a color? Because there's nearly no profit margin on netbooks and few differentiators in terms of specs among brands. Look and color are something folks are willing to spend more on for their highly personal and portable electronics.
The machine looks and feels durable, and Sony claims it's sturdy enough to be used by the entire family. This isn't a delicate looking ultra-thin Sony high end notebook. Fit and finish are excellent despite this being a budget segment product. The display lid is rigid and not prone to flex and the hard drive is securely mounted and well isolated.
Open up the clamshell and the Sony looks less unique. The display bezel is typical netbook wide and the Vaio W looks like a small laptop. There are a few design cues that set it apart: Sony's trademark isolated keyboard with discrete chicklet keys, a patterned trackpad and a stippled keyboard deck that looks kinda cool while providing hand traction and hiding fingerprints. The keyboard is identical to the Vaio P's. I mean identical: side-by-side with the Vaio P, it looks like the same exact part. While that keyboard seems incredibly large on the tiny 8" P, it's just average on the W. the P's keyboard deck is flat, so you get to enjoy every millimeter of key travel while the W's keyboard is sunk down just a bit (to avoid hitting the display), which reduces perceived key travel. The chicklet keyboard really helps reduce typing errors but the size of the keyboard (similar to the Lenovo S10-2 and Toshiba mini NB205) won't suit large-fingered folk. We wish Sony had gone with a full-width keyboard but we assume re-using the Vaio P's keyboard helps keep the price down. It's not horrid, it's just not as good as the HP Mini 2140.
On the right side, the Vaio netbook has 2 USB ports side-by-side, a 10/100 Ethernet jack and a Kensington lock slot. The left houses the VGA port, charger port and 3.5mm headphone and mic jacks. The world charger is very compact, though not quite as tiny as the Vaio P's PDA-sized charger. Both SD and Memory Stick Pro Duo slots live on the front edge with the wireless slider and power slider. There are charging status and hard disk access LED lights on the front edge and a power switch LED indicates when the unit is on (solid) or sleeping (blinking). Caps lock and num lock LEDs are just above the trackpad. By netbook standards, the trackpad is large and the two buttons are easy to operate (no single button rocker like Samsung and EeePC netbooks or finicky buttons like some Acer Aspire One models). It's a Synaptics touchpad so it supports scroll regions and acceleration scrolling but there are no multi-touch gestures.
The 3 cell battery is small so it doesn't stick out (nor does it last forever). Sony says an extended battery is in the works, but it's not available yet. The bottom has air vents and the fan grille is on the left side. The fan is nearly always on, though at least it's not terribly noisy.
How to Upgrade the Sony Vaio W RAM and hard drive
There's a single large removable door on the bottom that's secured with small phillips head screws. The 2.5mm SATA hard drive lives under the door and it's easy to swap the drive. We test the Vaio W with a Patriot Warp v2 128 SSD drive and it fit easily and worked great.
The drive bay door removed. The hard drive is under the metal plate.
RAM isn't what Sony terms user-upgradable since there's no access door for the SODIMM slot. Only those who are comfy with some minor geeky disassembly should tackle this. Fortunately, it's not terribly hard if you've dissembled computers, especially notebooks, before. You must remove the keyboard to access the single SODIMM RAM slot (you won't have to destroy any warranty stickers in the process). The machine takes standard DDR2 PC-6400 800MHz 200 pin notebook memory and it can use up to 2 gigs of RAM, which means you'll toss the installed 1 gig module and replace it with a 2 gig module.
Keyboard removed (you don't need to disconnect its ribbon cable) to expose the RAM slot.
There's absolutely no need to remove every screw from the bottom of the Vaio -- there are only 3 screws that secure the keyboard: two are under the battery (bronze colored with larger heads than the silver screws) and one more that's easy to miss. It's right next to the hard drive SATA connector.
Remove the battery and remove these two screws.
You will need to take off the hard drive access door on the bottom to get at that third screw. Once youv'e removed the screws gently pull the keyboard up toward the sky (holding the computer in standard operating position) and gently (very gently) push the green area under the computer. Be gentle because the keyboard's ribbon cable is between you and the underside of the keyboard in that green spot.
Here's the third screw that's easy to miss. That green area is the underside of the keyboard PCB with the ribbon cable over it.
One you've freed the keyboard, you can prop it up against the display and access the RAM slot. Pop out the old memory and put in your 2 gig module. This is provided as information to you the reader, do it at your own risk (we have to provide a disclaimer because if you're not experienced and careful you could possibly mess something up).
Display, Graphics and Video Playback
Yowsa, the XBrite-Eco display looks nice! As per usual for recent netbooks, it's an LED backlit display with a gloss finish, but what's very unusual is the resolution: 1366 x 768 pixels. That's the same resolution as the 13" Sony Vaio Z550 we reviewed and the same as that of the recently discontinued Vaio TT. The display is extremely bright; half brightness is plenty bright indoors and full brightness is painfully bright. It's very evenly backlit (the lowest priced netbooks tend to have uneven backlighting) and we saw no undue light leakage around the edges. Colors are vibrant and the viewing angle is better than average for a netbook and similar to a standard notebook. The display is sharp, making even small text clear. Unlike Sony's micro PCs like the Vaio P and UX series where the resolution is mind-bogglingly high and the display small, the Vaio W doesn't require the keenest of young eyed folk to gaze upon it. We tested it on spec-wearing 40-somethings and they were able to read the display with no discomfort. If your eyes are decent, you should have no problems. If they're slightly less than decent, you can increase the font size in Windows. If your eyes are terrible, look elsewhere.
Graphic performance is a hair better than average among 10 inch netbooks according to PCMark05 which is a surprise given the demands of the higher resolution. The Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics with up to 128 megs of shared memory isn't going to impress anyone but it's good enough to run Windows XP briskly and it can run Aero well under Windows 7. We had no problems running Photoshop CS3 even when working with images from a 12 megapixel point and shoot digital camera and doing things like applying filters, resizing the image and sharpening. Video playback for locally stored non-flash videos was acceptable, and the Vaio did particularly well with Windows Media format WMVs. DivX worked fine when we installed a good DivX player and MPEG4 H.264 files were OK. We tested standard def 480 and 720p content. 1080 is too much for this and any netbook we've reviewed. Flash video, though popular, is a challenge since it makes absolutely no use of the GPU. Everything is left to the single core Atom CPU, so expect it to do well with standard YouTube video, and to drop some frames when playing YouTube HD. Standard def Hulu videos play decently, even when set to full screen, but the HQ version of videos drop some frames. Alas, even with the upcoming NVidia Ion that combines a discrete Nvidia 9400 GPU with the Intel Atom CPU for netbooks, 1080 playback on netbooks won't be pleasant. And even then, unless Adobe adds graphics acceleration to their Flash Player software, the Ion won't have any advantage at all. But then again, few 10" netbooks other than the Vaio W and a built to order Dell Mini 10 with the even worse GMA 500 graphics with the slower Atom Z520 even have the resolution to display 1080 content.
CPU, Performance and Windows 7 Ultimate
The Sony Vaio W runs on the new Intel Atom N280 processor (Diamondville) and Intel's i945GSE chipset. The Atom is a single core, 32 bit Hyperthreading CPU based on a 45nm process. What does that mean? It's small and low power, can simulate two cores via Hyperthreading (but it's not that impressive) and can only run 32 bit editions of Windows. The N280 uses 2 watts of power max (crazy little) while the older N270 found in the majority of netbooks uses 2.5 watts (still crazy little but it does use slightly more power and generate a wee bit more heat). The real interesting thing isn't the 67MHz speed increase in the N280 vs. N270 but the new front side bus speed of 667MHz vs. 533MHz. Sounds great, right? As with all things Atom over the years, each new revision sounds better than it is. Performance is a little better but nothing miraculous. It makes just enough difference to ensure smooth playback of YouTube and Hulu videos where some N270 models drop more frames.
Running Windows XP Home Edition, standard on the Vaio W, we enjoyed relatively fast booting and good performance. Likewise MS Office 2007 and even Photoshop CS3 ran fine. No complaints here. The standard SATA II 5400RPM drive was very fast and extremely quiet. It ran quite cool at 32 degrees centigrade. The CPU averages 38 to 45 degrees centigrade which isn't as cool as the Lenovo S10-2 but it's well under the 90 degree max rating and cooler than we saw on the EeePC 1005HA. The bottom of the machine never gets hot, despite the bottom surface's warning stickers about the risks of burning flesh. The fan however runs all the time. Even when at idle. It's not vacuum cleaner-loud and the air coming out the left exhaust vent isn't a Sahara wind, but it pretty much never stops that 30db estimated whir. There's no BIOS setting for fan control, so if you want an absolutely silent netbook, this isn't it.
Older games like Rise of Nations run fine on the Vaio W, and thankfully it meets the minimum resolution requirements of games like RON unlike most netbooks, so it will run and install.
We tested the Sony netbook with Windows 7 Ultimate 32 bit RC and we even tried a 128 gig SATA SSD drive. Good times. Windows 7 boots extremely fast and the SSD drive shaved even a few seconds more off boot times. Honestly, we didn't see a massive experiential improvement with the Patriot Warp V2 SSD drive (a fairly fast solid state drive), but it gives peace of mind with a small notebook that one tends to move around. Conventional hard drives are subject to possible damage if you wave the notebook around while it's accessing the hard disk while SSD drives have no moving parts and don't care.
Windows 7 ran extremely well on the Vaio W. It's nearly as fast as XP and a heck of a lot more fun and modern. Even with 1 gig of RAM, Windows 7 was frugal and used only half that. With Photoshop CS3 running and two 4 meg JPEGs loading, we still didn't max out the 1 gig. Unlike most Sony Vaio notebooks with their interesting custom hardware, the W uses very standard netbook hardware so we didn't have to hunt for a single driver. We did however lose the Fn keys that control brightness, sound etc. so we had to use software controls instead. Once Sony posts drivers for the W (even XP or Vista drivers should do), one could download the necessary drivers to get back the Fn key features. We also tested Office 10 technical preview on the Sony W, and it ran speedily.
The Sony W netbook ships with a 3 cell Lithium Ion battery (11.1v, 24 watts, 2100 mAh). Like most 3 cell netbooks, this is good for 3 hours of use on a charge with WiFi and Bluetooth on and the display set at middle brightness when working on MS Office documents, surfing the web and doing email. Streaming video will shorten battery life (especially Flash which makes heavy use of the CPU). We had no problem making it through a two hour movie when playing locally stored videos. We do hate Sony's battery prices. The standard battery sells for $89, and they haven't released the extended battery but we're already afraid to see the price. If Sony wants to compete in the netbook market, they're going to have to drop their battery prices considerably.
If you're looking for a netbook that does a little more and bridges the netbook to notebook experience, the Sony Vaio W is it. We think of it as a very poor man's Vaio TT (the 11 inch notebook market has been destroyed by netbooks and the TT is no more). The Vaio netbook looks more like a notebook in terms of styling, has a high resolution display that's great for web browsing, spreadsheets and video playback and it has fast 802.11n WiFi. With the Intel N280 CPU, this little guy is as fast as you can get in a netbook, for what that's worth. Bluetooth is on-board standard and the hard drive is fast and quiet.
Pro: Lovely design and styling, yet sturdy. Fantastic HD display that sets it apart from other netbooks. Relatively light at 2.6 pounds. We love the isolated keyboard, but big-handed fellas will wish for bigger keys. Very good trackpad and easy to operate mouse buttons. WiFi draft N is standard as is Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR (handy for Bluetooth mice, A2DP stereo headphones and using a 3G phone as a wireless modem for the notebook).
Con: Unless you're a hardware techie, you aren't upgrading this beyond 1 gig of RAM. These days netbooks come with high capacity batteries but the 3 cell is standard on the Vaio W. Fan, though not hugely loud, never stops running.
Display:1366 x 768 XBrite-Eco
LED backlit color LCD. Screen size diagonally: 10.1". Intel GMA950 integrated graphics with 64 megs dedicated memory and up to 192 megs additional shared memory.
Battery:3 cell Lithium
Ion rechargeable (removable). Compact world charger included.
Performance:Intel Atom N280 1.66GHz processor, 667MHZ FSB (Intel Diamondville 45nm CPU, single core, Hyperthreading, 32 bit). Intel i945GSE chipset. 1 gig DDR2 RAM (single channel). 160 gig SATA II, 5400RPM hard drive (ours was a Toshiba).
Size:10.54 x 1.28 x 7.07 inches. Weight: 2.62 pounds.
Camera:.3 megapixel Motion Eye VGA webcam with dual mics.
in stereo speakers, mics and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack plus 3.5mm mic jack. Intel HD audio (RealTek).
Atheros WiFi 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth 2.1 +EDR.
XP Home Edition. Intervideo WinDVD, MS Office 2007 trial, ArcSoft web camera software, Vaio Media Streaming Software, Vaio MusicBox and Vaio Movie Story. Norton Internet Security 2009 30 day trial.
SD (Secure Digital) slot supporting
SDHC and 1 Memory Stick Pro Duo slot.