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

The netbook

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Acer One netbook

The netbook, the smart phone, and the future of personal computing

 

The netbook is a new category of laptop computer that is really a refreshing of an old category. Starting with the ASUS eeePC introduced in 2007, several major laptop manufacturers have joined the fray, and the category has exploded. The current set of netbooks are a re-entry into what is a very old category centered around mobility. What the current set includes is connectivity. 

The first ultraportable of note was the Radioshack TRS-80 Model 100.

Radio Shack TRS 80 Model 100

Radio Shack TRS 80 Model 100

It was portable and had a full keyboard. It featured a wordprocessor and Microsoft Basic. The Atari Portfolio and the HP95LX brought computing into the coat pocket, and the culmination of this was the Psion Series 5 which was tiny but touch typable. I used it to write my consult notes during residency and maintained a database of frequent fliers. The hospital had HP printers with infrared ports allowing me to print out my notes wirelessly. 

 

 

Atari Portfolio

Atari Portfolio

Psion went on to create the Psion netbook and holds copyright over the name. It is a shame that they gave up the personal computer business after developing the most stable portable operating system (EPOC) and software set ever created. For example, their spreadsheet program, part of an Office compatible suite, took up 22k of memory. My Psion could run over twenty programs concurrently without crashing. EPOC became Symbian which powers Nokia and Sony-Ericksson phones. Having given up the business, they are now chasing the netbook ghost by filing cease and desist letters to websites and businesses that use the word netbook.

HP 200LX

HP 200LX

 

 

I used to own a Psion netbook and it was fantastic to type on with incredible keyboard feel. It was fast, and had instant on -booting up was instantaneous like a cell phone, not like a computer with the minute of bootup time typical for a Windows computer. The EPOC office suite was integrated and allowed cutting and pasting of graphs into documents that would update with changes in the data -this was rock stable and again, took up only a few hundred kilobytes (not megabytes) of memory.

Psion Series 5

Psion Series 5

With AA batteries, the Series 5 would run up to 40 hours. The netbook had a PC card slot for a WiFi card giving it wireless internet back in 1999.

 

 

I believe Microsoft killed the portable computer industry for about ten years with their Windows CE operating system. Microsoft powered clamshell computers were popular for a while but were difficult to use and crashed frequently. I owned a fairly advanced PocketPC clamshell, the NEC 790, but was frustrated by its instability, it’s tendency to freeze and crash, and worst of all lose data, but the full keyboard and instant on capability were enough of a plus to keep me interested for a while. 

 

The salient features of portability, keyboard for human hands, instant on, long battery life, full resolution landscape screen, and wireless internet with full capability -Flash, Quicktime, WMV and other multimedia features, are the killer features of the modern netbook. None of the currently available netbooks (Acer, HP, Dell, MSI, ASUS, and now Sony) fit the bill.

NEC Mobilpro 790

NEC Mobilpro 790

 

Psion netbook - the original

Psion netbook - the original

 

 

 

All are based on the Intel Atom processor. This is a low voltage processor that integrates graphics which translates into slow -how slow? About a hair faster than Centrino Mobile (laptops circa 2005) when running Windows XP. It definitely won’t be lighting up the specs compared to dual core laptops, but it is “good enough,” especially compared to how we used to access the internet via dialup. 

Most of the netbooks come with Windows XP. The whole netbook category along with resistence to upgrading from the coporate side has kept Windows XP alive despite the presence of Vista. A few of the netbooks are presented with a scaled down version of Vista. Having stayed away from Vista like the plague, I can’t say first hand if it’s good or bad, but the word from people using the first generation HP netbooks which ran Vista on the slower VIA processor is that it is slow. This goes against the concept of a fast-boot, efficient, fast running machine. 

 

Apple Newton eMate 300

Apple Newton eMate 300

Linux was offered on the first generation of netbooks, but as they became popular, Microsoft made Windows XP licenses available for these netbooks, essentially killing off Linux on netbooks. This is unfortunate, because Linux starts up quicker and runs more efficiently on netbooks. OpenOffice, an office suite that is available for free, runs very well on Linux. The only downside is there is no iTunes for Linux, but the bulk of the needs are met through open source and usually free software. The great thing about Linux is that the computer are customizing the operating system for their product. The new HP Mini 1000 just presented at CES with a highly customized interface. We are all use to this with the Macintosh, but also with cell phones. In fact, this is a bit of a return to the days of yore, when computer makers created the box and the software. 

 

What does this mean? The netbook is in evolution. It is somewhere between a laptop and a smartphone. The laptop offers the larger screen, USB ports, and a keyboard. The smartphone offers instant on, extreme portability, omnipresent connectivity, long battery life, and great integration between software and hardware. The netbook is slowly moving toward this end, becoming less a commodity, and more a finely honed tool. 

 

HP MiniNote 2133

HP MiniNote 2133

Do I recommend a netbook? Depends. They are easier to carry than a laptop and offer the ability to work anywhere. My Acer One netbook cost less than $400, and has a battery life of over 6 hours, has a 160gB hard drive, and has Wifi. It runs Windows XP which has its faults, but it runs iTunes, turning my netbook into a large screen iPod where I can watch movies and TV shows. With Skype, I can have video chats with family and friends wherever WiFi is available. What is really neat is cloud computing being embraced by Google, Apple, and others. It moves the work onto the browser, and makes it platform agnostic. The problem is the current generation of netbooks are still just small, slightly slower Windows laptops. 

 

The future is the next generation of netbooks which will feature more solid state memory, customized Linux operating systems, and 3G or WiMax high speed internet that is integrated. The solid state memory or SSD (solid state disks) have no moving parts, are fast, and more energy efficient getting you closer to instant on. The customized operating system means that your hardware is more tightly integrated with the software, much like a cellphone. The 3G or WiMax type high speed internet means you can go anywhere untethered from a WiFi network. You can buy netbooks that feature 20Gb SSD’s (solid state disks) with Linux, but these basically disappeared after some muscling in by Microsoft. Windows 7 promises a smaller footprint to be able to run on netbook-like gear, but it completely misses the point. You don’t buy a car from BMW and run it on an engine from GM. You want the software to run seamlessly with the hardware, and this is much more difficult under Windows.

Apple is still digesting this arena. The Newton eMate 300 was an effort by Apple to create an instant on clamshell laptop, but was quickly killed by Steve Jobs upon his return along with the Newton OS and the great Newton 2100. MacBook Air has some netbook features, but fails in it basic concept as another, albeit beautiful, laptop. Ideally, iPhone/iPod Touch would be the platform for it’s netbook, but I don’t see it going that way because of Steve Job’s aversion to buttons. No, this category will be populated by manufacturers looking to capitalize on Apple’s deafness and blindness to this category. BTW, this blog entry was written entirely on my netbook running OpenOffice and uploaded via the Google Chrome browser.