The Attraction of Tiny Computers: Review of the Last Generation Vaio P Series Mini-Laptop

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The Attraction of Tiny Computers

If you look at sites like dynamism.com, you will see a hidden world of tiny computers that come primarily from Japan and South Korea. At one time, most personal digital assistants came in the clam shell form factor like the Psion Series 5 and Sharp Zaurus, and it was their combination of portability and reasonable touch typability that kept me a fan all of these years. It’s just that Americans don’t like tiny cars, televisions, and definitely not tiny computers, and they fell off the market here. Thankfully, they are still popular in other parts of the world and super portable, even pocketable computers with full keyboards are available.

The Sony Vaio P is an example of one of these tiny computers that never really caught on –the US public just doesn’t get it. One review complained it didn’t fit well in any particular category –neither smartphone, tablet, netbook or laptop, but I beg to differ. These are computers perfectly suited to me and many other like minded mostly Asian guys based on the current source of these computers.

The Vaio P is definitely a looker –Sony has always emphasized form over function and this one which I picked up second hand from a colleague reflects that attitude in spades. It is the last one made, and it has a 128gB solid state drive (SSD) which in normal computers greatly speeds up function. The top cover is a faux alligator textured plastic with silver lettering making the device look like an expensive lady’s clutch purse –I know, I know, but I picked it up at less than half price. The keys are small but perfectly functional for touch typing. The pointing nubbin in the center of the keyboard, a prime feature of Thinkpads, works okay but the silvery plastic cap has fallen off revealing the rubber eraser head underneath which I’m okay with. There is also an optical mouse on the screen with right and left buttons to the left of the screen which would work okay if I was thumb typing, but with the width of this device, is basically useless.

The screen is incredibly detailed and pixel dense, but at the cost of really tiny lettering which I’m okay with but most US users are not. Windows 7 looks great on this machine. Boot up is meh –the boot up times are not consistent with an SSD, making me think that Sony either cheaped out on some component or just never fixed the drivers. On my Macbook Air running Windows 7, it boots up under 15 seconds, but on this machine, cold boot is over 20 seconds and not much faster than prior experiences I had with netbooks. The battery life is apparently miserable at 2-3 hours –this is again Sony going for looks over function. An extended battery is available but hard to find on line as every Vaio P purchaser has grabbed one and Sony no longer offers it.

The computer is crawling with crapware –not all of it put on by my colleague. Manufacturers do it to make money, but at the expense of degrading their product. It’s as if you buy a car and stuck in the glove compartment are trials and subscription offers, occupying the back seat are boxes of trial gadgets for “improving” your car. Don’t get me started on the stickers –I got rid of them first thing as they uglify what is otherwise a very spiffy piece of kit. That is why I love Apple products –they’re made with the loving care of a bespoke tailored suit, a hand made golf club, or premium furniture –even the insides, if you have access to it, are pretty. The only problem is that Apple does not make a super tiny, pocketable laptop. Even with the garish black gator skin top cover doesn’t bother me too much because I’m not a Starbucks goer.

Why do I even need this thing? Windows 7 on the move. The Macbook Air doesn’t fit in my white coat pocket, but this will. It also has a SD card slot which is handy for processing and sending pictures. I’m already shopping for the 4cell extended battery –seems like the original Sony batteries are off market and I’ll have to settle for a Shenzen special off eBay –the last one I got for a Dell hackintosh I used to have didn’t fit until I drilled some holes into it but worked great afterwords. The seller admitted it was a problem but you get what you pay for.

Tons of Buttons

Addendum 11-23-11: The specs on this point to it being one of the last Vaio P series made -it has an Atom Z540 processor going at 1.87GHz, 2GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. It comes loaded with Windows 7 Home Premium. Having used it now for two days, I think the complaint of poor battery life with the stock battery applies with heavy multimedia and internet usage -stuff I would normally do on the iPad. With the Wifi and Bluetooth turned off via a handy switch on the side, the battery goes about 4 hours. I have an extended 4 cell battery on order from China -always an iffy proposition, but should work. The cool thing I discovered about the device is a fast-boot browser only mode that launches a minibrowser without booting into Windows -I’m assuming its a Linux variant. It has a Chrome OS feel without any of the widgets -I haven’t run it purely in this mode and can’t tell you if battery life is any better, but the browser works for checking email, reading casual news. It could work to access Google Docs for composition, and has a link to Evernote (note to self -Evernote will be available feature on every wired device on the planet in ten years). This quick launch mode has its own hardware button along with a recovery mode which also has its own button, and a third mode which I haven’t figured out yet. I did remove a bunch of programs during my de-crapware-ification and may have eliminated this feature, but I’m not missing it. It’s so anti-Apple, this abundance of hardware buttons, but the geek in me likes it very much.

I got Outlook running with my work Exchange account without a hitch, and all my other accounts work okay. I’m getting over the faux gator skin cover on top slowly, although I am lurking on eBay to find a broken series P laptop to replace it. Flat black or white would be fine. People put these up for sale occasionally for parts. The pointing stick was never a favorite of mine going all the way back to their introduction in the mid nineties on the IBM Thinkpads. The optical mouse is atrocious, and I’ve dug up a mini-sized two button USB mouse to use with the device. The tiny screen is not for everyone -a lot of people will get frustrated and will get eyestrain from it. The fact that Sony

My Computer has (fake) Alligator Skin!

packed it with pixels on a very bright screen makes it readable for me even when the letters are the size of sesame seeds (a Korean idiom). I’m still puzzled why the device seems sluggish even with the SSD which is capacious while empty. There are two slots in the front, one for an SD card which can be placed flush, and another for Sony’s failed Memory Stick format.

I have heard on the internet that this device will run Linux well, but I would like to keep that bottled up for now. More intriguing is the new ability of Virtual Box to run Mac OS X Snow Leopard. That would be great! Will update.

I don’t think we’ll ever see the utility of a Psion series 5mx, but very few people ever agreed that it was a good thing to be able to touch type on a pocketable device. The only people who seem to agree are Japanese salarymen, the odd English physician, and occasionally people in South America.  I’ve included a list of very small clamshell computers which have gone extinct this year. I don’t think we’ll ever see them again.

Computer OS Cost
Viliv N5 Windows XP/7 600-700 new
UMID MBook Windows XP/7 600-700 new
Sharp Netwalker Linux Ubuntu 600-700 new
Sony Vaio P Series Windows XP/7 300-900 used
NEC 900 Windows CE 100-300 used
Psion netbook EPOC32 100-300 used
Psion 5mx EPOC32 50-300 used

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